Some of you who date back to the ancient times of the Tennessee blogosphere will recall the origins of my “Locks & Keys” weekly column on Rocky Top Talk where I give you five keys to the Vols winning their game of the week then give you five college football locks to lay all your money on.
You know, if you could gamble legally, that is.
“But Brad,” you may ask, “wouldn’t that mean it was Keys & Locks??”
Well, yes, but that doesn’t have nearly the same ring to it, does it?
The last L&K I can find that I wrote came way back in November of 2012, the year before Butch Jones took over for Derek Dooley. Back then, opportunity was nowhere, and that was, in retrospect, a perfect slogan for the Vols. Though a bunch of our fans are harrumphing their way through the past 18 months of the Jones era, just think of where we were then versus where we are now.
Back-to-back 9-4 seasons don’t feel quite so bad now, do they?
I left Rocky Top Talk after the ’12 season to join Bleacher Report, and I’m still there, having transitioned from Tennessee writer to SEC featured columnist to national college football columnist. I’ve expanded my knowledge to all realms of the college football world, feeling just as comfortable writing about the Pac-12 and its players as I do the SEC and ACC. But one thing always remains the same:
I still suck at picking games.
With that little intro [read by the little voice in my head that has morphed inexplicably into a Bob Kesling “To the Cheggarboards” tenor] out of the way, let’s get on with the keys.
If you still have nightmares of Tennessee getting gashed a season ago, and you wake up in cold sweats crying before sucking your thumb in a fetal position over in the corner of your bed, you’re not alone. That happens to me a lot, and the only thing I remember is an evil, laughing Bob Shoop throwing up the “VFL” hand sign before morphing into a Sal Sunseri-being that more resembles Fred Flintstone in my dreams.
Yes, last season was forgettable on the defensive side of the ball, especially the end of the year where teams like Missouri and Kentucky looked like Alabama running the ball against the decimated, porous Tennessee rush “defense.” If the Vols aren’t a whole lot more disciplined against Georgia Tech, they’ll get blown off the field.
I worry about them playing the edge and getting beat on the dive, drilling the quarterback and forgetting the pitch, rinse, repeat. That’s why you fear UT’s linebacker makeup, which is a mixture of talented-but-inexperienced and experienced-but-undynamic. It’s also why you should be concerned about the Vols trotting out four defensive ends that simply haven’t played a lot of football. If I’m Shoop, I play four quality tacklers in the secondary much of the game (Todd Kelly Jr., Nigel Warrior, Micah Abernathy, Rashaan Gaulden) and take my chances. The Vols have to fit the run gaps, have their defensive backs step up in the box and help and play smart, disciplined football.
Find the trench mix
With starting left tackle Drew Richmond suspended for this game, the Vols are even thinner on the exterior of the offensive line than they were during the preseason. Though UT has a lot of experience along the front, the group has been far from consistent this summer for first-year coach Walt Wells.
The Vols need to know what they’ve got heading into that game, and they need to play the best five, regardless of position. That’s likely to be seniors Jashon Robertson and Brett Kendrick, junior Jack Jones, sophomore Marcus Tatum sliding into Richmond’s spot, and freshman Trey Smith.
ESPN college football “analyst” David Pollack — who got owned more than once against the Vols in his Georgia career — called the Vols offensive line “the softest thing in college football” last year in a recent broadcast. If I’m Wells, that’s on the bulletin board, and it’s the last thing I let my linemen see before they trot onto the field. But the bottom line is UT has to prove it isn’t that on the field. The Vols need to get tough and mean, and the unit needs to be a strength. If the O-line plays well, UT will have a strong running game this year.
Let the depth of talent win the game
Paul Johnson boasted heading off the field after last year’s TaxSlayer Bowl win against Kentucky that his Yellow Jackets were 3-0 in the SEC East with Tennessee next. Indeed, Tech earned bragging rights against the division a season ago.
But this is a new year.
The Vols have superior talent this year to Johnson’s team, and there are waves of it, even if much of it is inexperienced. Shoop told the media on Thursday that he was going to play six or seven linebackers. That may seem like a lot, but those guys need to be ready, and they need to do the job. A year ago, Tech outlasted a lot of teams, wearing them down and finishing comeback wins a handful of times. The type of ball-control, run-always offense the Bees play can tire opponents.
The Vols don’t need to get caught up in playing the same 15-16 guys a ton of snaps. They need to utilize their talent and depth and let the recruiting battles Jones has won the past few years shine through.
You don’t want to put too much pressure on your first-time starting quarterback, whether it’s Quentin Dormady or Jarrett Guarantano by putting the game on their shoulders early. That wouldn’t be smart at all, especially with some capable running backs.
But the Vols do need to utilize their speed on the perimeter by taking some downfield shots. The Yellow Jackets were 68th in pass defense a season ago, and Tennessee has the weapons to take some downfield shots with strong-armed quarterbacks and some size and strength on the perimeter with guys like Marquez Callaway, Latrell Williams, Tyler Byrd and Joshua Palmer. If Tennessee can take the lid off the defense — something they failed to do consistently with Joshua Dobbs playing quarterback — the offense could expand considerably.
That’s something that needs to happen throughout the season, and it needs to start now.
Big John Studd
Everybody is excited about junior running back John Kelly.
As a matter of fact, the other night in the Gameday on Rocky Top podcast, Kelly was the player we were all most excited about in orange and white this year. In a year with not many certainties, everybody believes Kelly can be depended on. The Vols need to ride him all season and hope he stays healthy.
Think of what his body of work can be when extrapolated across a season’s worth of carries. It could be a big year if UT’s offensive line steps up. Then there are exciting players like freshmen Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan behind him. The Vols need to focus on the running game early this season and work their quarterbacks in slowly. If they can.
Now, it’s onto this week’s LOCKS! Get those wallets ready, boyz! They’ll be busting at the seams before too long! For the record two of my top picks of the week were on Thursday night, which were Ohio State over 56.5 and Central Florida -17. But, alas, they were off the board with the column running today.
- Colorado State +5 over Colorado: Maybe Georgia should have hired Mike Bobo instead of Kirby Smart. He looks like a prime candidate to come back to the SEC for a big job soon, as he’s taken over for Jim McElwain in Fort Collins and picked up right where he left off. Last week, the Rams railed Oregon State, and while the Buffaloes are a different animal than the Beavers, this is a CU team that must replace a lot from last year’s Pac-12 runner-up season. This will be two good coaches going at it, but I like the Rams to be 2-0 vs. the Pac-12 when it’s over.
- Wyoming +11.5 over Iowa: If you haven’t heard of Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, commit the name to memory. He’ll be one of the most elite passers in all of college football this season and a very high draft pick in next year’s NFL Draft. This weekend, he’ll be the guy hoping to lead the Cowboys to an upset bid of the Hawkeyes. They may not complete the deal, but they’ll keep it under the spread.
- LSU -13.5 over BYU: The Cougars didn’t excite anybody with a pedestrian 20-6 win over Portland State in Week Zero. Now, they’ve got to travel across the country to take on an upstart Bayou Bengals team in Death Valley? Ugh. That doesn’t bode well for Kalani Sitake’s team. The Fighting Coach Os Prevail. Big.
- Michigan -3.5 over Florida: This is the lock of the week. I don’t care how young the Wolverines are and how much talent they lost off last year’s team (11 players drafted in the NFL, in case you’re counting). Jim Harbaugh is recruiting at a high level, and Big Blue is about to be BIG again for a long time. The Wolverines will sputter some in the early season for sure, but this game won’t be one of those. The Gators have suspended 10 players, and that includes some of their few playmakers. Also, they’re starting redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks at quarterback. Michigan will win by two scores.
- Tennessee -3 over Georgia Tech: I guess I’ve got to pick this one, but I don’t really think it’s a lock. As a matter of fact, this is going to be the fourth-toughest game on UT’s schedule, in my opinion. But the Vols offense is going to surprise some people this year, and I like Shoop getting months to prepare for this scheme. Of course, I wish Darrin Kirkland was in the lineup, but you can’t have everything.
FINAL VOLS PREDICTION: Tennessee 34, Georgia Tech 24