With its most talented team in years gearing up for the Battle at Bristol, a geographic rivalry game that is expecting a record crowd after selling out 150,000 tickets, the present should be an exciting time for the Tennessee Volunteers.
Instead, it is a concerning one.
Tennessee trailed by double-digits at halftime of last week’s season opener against Appalachian State, and needed overtime to avoid an embarrassing upset. As a result, the Volunteers enter their historic meeting with Virginia Tech — a clash of premier Appalachian football programs separated by just a few hours of highway — facing some serious problems.
The play of wildly-hyped dual-threat quarterback Joshua Dobbs will be a primary area of focus.
Dobbs’ best moment of week one was his 67-yard touchdown connection to Josh Malone that tied the game at 13-13 with 10:30 remaining in the fourth quarter.
On this play, Dobbs showed the arm strength NFL scouts rave about, while also displaying improved precision down the field. The senior quarterback placed his throw in the perfect spot down the left sideline, just over the top of the Appalachian State defender and into the hands of an open receiver for his first touchdown pass of 2016.
Aside from this play, though, the preseason Heisman candidate did little to impress. Take away Dobbs’ 67-yard pass, and he was 15-of-28 for 125 yards and an interception. Poor decisions and inaccurate throws prevented the passing attack from ever getting into a rhythm, and the running game was not particularly imposing either. Running back Jalen Hurd compiled 110 yards and a touchdown on the ground, but averaged only 3.9 yards per carry. The Volunteers averaged three yards per carry as a team and big plays were nonexistent. A pair of 13-yard gains by Hurd and Dobbs were the longest runs of the day.
Tennessee must improve its offensive production against Virginia Tech.
The Virginia Tech defense has the potential to be dangerous, especially in the passing game. The Hokies have a somewhat thin, but talented secondary that was dominant in its season opener. In addition to forcing three interceptions, this unit held Liberty to only 70 yards on 9-of-27 passing last week — an average of just 2.6 yards per attempt.
Virginia Tech will face a much tougher test in Bristol, shifting from FCS to SEC competition, and only so much can be read into its performance against a Big South team that barely posted a winning record in 2015. However, considering how much better the Hokies’ defense looked — combined with Tennessee’s mediocre offensive showing against a non-Power Five opponent — fans in Knoxville have justified reason to be worried about their team’s ability to move the football.
The Volunteer defense has also left room for doubt as Saturday approaches.
The return of senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who missed the majority of last week’s contest after being ejected for targeting late in the first quarter, will definitely give Tennessee a boost. Reeves-Maybin is arguably the most dynamic linebacker in the SEC, and his presence was greatly missed following his exit.
It should not be ignored, though, that even with their star outside linebacker on the field, the Volunteers still allowed Appalachian State to gain 55 yards during its first two offensive possessions of the game — the second of which resulted in a touchdown. That’s not a panic-worthy start to the season, but it is concerning for a defense that boasts multiple NFL Draft prospects.
The defensive backfield, which includes All-American hopefuls Cam Sutton and Evan Berry, is not an issue. Yet, following last week’s underwhelming effort to stop the run — which left the Volunteers ranked 94th in the country with 4.3 yards allowed per carry — the front seven is a deserved target of criticism.
The Battle at Bristol presents a unique opportunity for Tennessee. It is a nationally televised game against an inferior opponent the Volunteers should dominate, reminding us why they entered the season with national championship aspirations. It is also a losable contest against an opponent with the tools to pull off an upset.
Without a considerable amount of improvement from last week, the latter could became a reality.