The Vols blew out an inferior opponent in FCS Division newcomer ETSU on Saturday. Tennessee’s 59-3 victory was one of its most lopsided in years. Coach Randy Sanders was sent back to Johnson City, fully clothed, with the hardest part of his non bowl division team’s season in the rear view mirror.
1. The big play – For the first time in fourteen years, Tennessee had 3+ passes for over 50 yards. True freshman Jeremy Banks and fellow tailback Tim Jordan looked positively explosive on multiple carries for big chunks of yardage. The Vol defense forced three turnovers, scoring on one, and coming up just short on another. Marquille Osborne even scooped and scored on a blocked punt. The ball was bouncing, or more accurately being tipped, Tennessee’s way Saturday, and the Vols capitalized.
2. Darrin Kirkland Jr. – If anyone had forgotten the impact that a healthy Darrin Kirkland Jr. can have on a game, he got quite the reminder during Saturday’s matchup. Kirkland looked like he was back in playing shape, flying all over the field like a man possessed. When he’s healthy, he is the best player on Tennessee’s defense. He capped the day off with an impressive interception returned for a touchdown.
3. Bryce Thompson – The true freshman corner impressed on Saturday, rarely being found out of position. He got burned deep early, but thankfully the ball was overthrown. Otherwise, he was excellent. He had a few effective pass break ups while staying tight in press man coverage. He looks like the kind of defensive back one would expect from a Pruitt defense. He made a nasty hit late in the game on ETSU back Jacob Saylors, and nearly returned an interception for a touchdown.
1. The hype – Five years ago, when Vol wide receiver Jauan Jennings committed to play for Tennessee, ETSU didn’t even have a football program. This team gives the 2012 Austin Peay team a run for its money in the contest for worst team to ever play in Neyland Stadium. Tennessee played a decent game against a terrible FCS opponent. This is the first time I can recall that we faced such an inferior opponent that Vegas didn’t even put out a line on the game. The Vols looked good, but it doesn’t mean much.
2. The o-line – Where to begin. Tennessee’s offensive line to this point has been hard to watch. It will not see a more undersized front seven all year, but proved unable to consistently block its opponents. Pass protection was slightly better than run blocking, but both were subpar against inferior competition. Tennessee will have to figure this one out quick if it hopes to beat Florida in two weeks.
3. The front seven – Tennessee’s starting defensive front seven is flush with coveted former four and five star recruits. Shy Tuttle, Alexis Johnson, Johnathan Kongbo, Darrell Taylor and Kyle Phillips all had their pick of elite programs out of high school. It’s hard to believe all of them were misevaluated. That being said, not one of them have demonstrated the ability to consistently stop the run, or pressure the quarterback. They have recorded a disturbing two sacks in two games. Coupled with Tennessee’s young and inexperienced secondary, this could prove disastrous down the stretch.
1. The running backs – Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan, Madre London, and Jeremy Banks have looked like studs so far this year. This position group was expected to be thin, and a potential Achilles Heel for Tennessee. Chandler was expected to be a work horse, and little was known about the others. Chandler suffered a concussion early against West Virginia, and has scarcely played. Jordan and now Banks have had breakout performances in his absence. They look good so far, but with a suspect offensive line, how will they fare against an SEC defense?
2. Jordan Murphy – Murphy had his first big game Saturday, with 3 catches for 75 yards and a touchdown. He shows flashes of serious ability and explosiveness. Watch him to become more of a factor as the season wanes on.
The bottom line
Saturday’s game was flashy and high scoring, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. Let me reiterate. Tennessee is still bad at football. If it wins six games this season, it will be a serious accomplishment. The scoreboard Saturday covered up some glaring concerns on both sides of the football. To have a chance against legitimate competition, Tennessee must improve quickly.