Locks & Keys Week 3: A Miner Test Before Florida

That’s a little more like it, Vols.

After an embarrassing season-opening 40-14 loss at the hands of West Virginia, Tennessee played a much easier opponent in Week 2, overcoming a sluggish start to dominate visiting East Tennessee State, 59-3. The Vols again play a pushover this week with an early kickoff against UTEP. It would be nice to do the same thing, getting a last-week tuneup in time for the Florida Gators.

Let’s face it: This is a game where the Vols can look ahead and still win. As a matter of fact, they should go into this game with the feeling that this is a preparation game for next week’s massive early-season showdown against a Gators team that is very beatable.

Neither the Vols or Florida are going to challenge Georgia in the SEC East, but that doesn’t change the importance of next weekend’s night game one iota. The Vols need to get everything out of their system this weekend and gain a ton of confidence heading into SEC play. So, what’s it going to take to do that?

KEYS

Bypass the breakfast hangover

Morning games suck. It’s actually a good thing for me personally this week because I can just enjoy the Vols and then worry about all my other writing responsibilities later in the day, but players, coaches, fans, virtually everybody hates them.

The exciting thing for the Vols is next week’s Neyland Stadium showdown with Florida is a night game, which is awesome. But in order to get there, the Vols have to wake and rake this weekend against UTEP. Hey, at least it’s UTEP, amirite?

The Miners aren’t a good football team, but Tennessee made ETSU look OK a week ago by struggling to start the game. This came on the heels of Jarrett Guarantano nearly getting his teeth knocked out as West Virginia destroyed him on the season opener’s first play. The Vols have been sleepwalking out of the gates. That won’t get them beat this week, but it’s a nasty habit that will kill them as the season progresses. They need a hot start this weekend and to keep that momentum going.

Get the O-line online

This week, I ranked the Vols next-to-last in my SEC Week 2 power rankings on B/R. That doesn’t mean they can’t move up; I expect them to. But they’ve got to prove it to everybody. Right now, they’re still the same team that went 0-8 a year ago and still have tons of issues.

Perhaps the biggest struggle right now in what could be a fixable situation is the offensive line.

It hurts that transfer center Brandon Kennedy is out for the year after a freak accident in practice that led to a torn ACL. But between Ryan Johnson and Jerome Carvin, the Vols have players there who can fill the void if they play up to their potential.

The Vols’ most athletic offensive front includes Carvin, K’Rojhn Calbert, Trey Smith, Jahmir Johnson and Marcus Tatum. That doesn’t mean the Vols are ever going to go with that unit, but that’s what would give the Vols their biggest chance at success. But those guys have to own it, and they haven’t yet. Veterans like Johnson and Drew Richmond must play better, or they’ll get bypassed.

Coach Jeremy Pruitt has another week to mix and match, but the time has come for the first-team offensive line to materialize and start playing up to their ability. If they play like they have so far against Florida, UT is in bad shape.

Split reps

This may sound like an indictment of Guarantano, and it absolutely shouldn’t, but Keller Chryst needs to play and to throw more than three passes.

Look: I don’t think there’s any question Guarantano is the starter, and he’s earned it. Everybody “oohed” and “ahhed” over that deep ball Chryst threw last week against ETSU. Well, guess what? Guarantano completed two. Still, next weekend is going to be a different animal, and if JG starts to struggle, you need to know you can go to the Chryst well and good things could possibly follow.

I want Chryst to be loosened up entering the Florida game. There’s also the possibility that JG could get hit and hurt with all the early-season offensive line issues, and you want Chryst ready. He’s a veteran, and he looked poised an confident leading the offense.

Give him two quarters against the Miners, no questions asked. Give him 10 or 12 throws. The Vols need it for the immediate future.

Maintain the defensive edge

Last weekend was so much fun on defense. Yes, the Vols played a team they are much bigger, faster and stronger than. But they were all over the field doing big things on defense, making plays and piling on.

Marquill Osborne’s punt block and recovery for a touchdown got the ball rolling. Then you had Bryce Thompson’s interception and return for a near-touchdown that set up another one. Darrin Kirkland Jr. finally got the UT defense one with a pick six. It was the kind of plays you expect to make against ETSU, and it’s the kind of plays the Vols are going to have to make on that side of the ball if they’re going to win a game or two they aren’t supposed to this year.

The Buccaneers couldn’t convert on third downs, and the UT defense consistently got off the field and didn’t give up big plays. Now, of course, ETSU is a far cry from Georgia, Alabama, Auburn or even Florida. But the Vols haven’t done that against ANYBODY.

Troubling still is the lack of a pass rush. Tennessee desperately has to manufacture ways to get to the quarterback. That’s especially important this week as they must find a spark before UF and Feleipe Franks come to town. The Gators signal-caller is erratic when pressured, and that’s something the Vols must find.

Ride the Bull

We all hope this week that Ty Chandler can get back into the game and get some important reps under his belt before the big game against Florida. After all, he’s UT’s starter who got his bell rung early in the West Virginia game never to return. Tim Jordan has done an excellent job spelling him, but the Vols need Chandler healthy by next week.

But this is the ideal situation this week to get Jeremy “Bull” Banks 20 carries. Last week against ETSU, he powered his way in for two goal-line touchdowns and was Tennessee’s most passionate, violent runner by far. It’s exciting to think about his future, especially after Pruitt — who rarely makes comparisons — said he reminds his coach of former Alabama great and NFL starter Eddie “Cowboy” Lacy.

Bull needs 20 carries this week. Let him carry the team on his shoulders for spans. Pruitt has praised him, calling him one of the team’s best leaders already. Let him lead.

Vols 49 UTEP 13

LOCKS

Last week was Jameis Winston Skrong. After a 4-3 opening weekend, the picks thrived last weekend, going 5-2 to kick it up a notch. We’re going for 7-0 this week!  My only two losses a week ago were picking Memphis to cover 4.5 over Navy (the Tigers lost outright) and Fresno State getting 2.5 against Minnesota. The cross-country trippers failed yet again. CURSES! When will I learn!

Meanwhile, Mississippi State rolled over Kansas State, easily eclipsing 9.5, Cincinnati handled Miami Ohio despite being 2.5-point dogs, Mizzou thumped Wyoming, easily covering the 17.5-point spread, and Maryland got it going late to surpass the 16.5-point advantage over Bowling Green.

That puts the ol’ early-season record at 9-5. That isn’t too bad. We’ll take it. We’re up money!

  1. Tennessee vs. UTEP over 48: There must be something I’m missing here. As my score above indicates, I think the Vols get to this number by themselves, and while UT looked better on defense a week ago, the Vols still aren’t a team you think are going to hold many teams off the scoreboard. This one flies over easily.
  2. Maryland -16.5 over Temple: I’m gonna keep riding the Turtles! Last weekend, they covered against Bowling Green. Meanwhile, Temple fell to 0-2 getting upset by Buffalo. This is two teams going in opposite directions. Maryland by 20-plus.
  3. Hawaii +6.5 over Army: I JUST talked about the dangers of taking a team that has to go across the country, and now I’m doing it again. Stupid, right? Nah. Hawaii’s run-and-shoot offense is fun, and Cole McDonald is one of the best college players you’ve got heard of this year. I think the Warriors have a great chance to move to 4-0. Take the points, even if the fact that it being an early game scaaaaaaaares me.
  4. Colorado State +20 over Florida: The Gators are going to win their final tune-up before heading to Knoxville to take on the Vols, but Mike Bobo’s Rams are fresh off an upset of Arkansas. They are a quality offensive team, and UF can’t score a ton of points, no matter how bad CSU’s defense is. I’d be stunned if the Gators won this game by three TDs.
  5. Alabama -21 over Ole Miss: Is Hugh Freeze still coaching the Rebels? Didn’t think so. Ol’ Hubert always did well against the Tide, but Shotgun Kelly ain’t walking through that door. Ole Miss can’t stop anybody on defense, and now Alabama brings its elite weaponry to town. I’m taking the Tide until they prove they won’t cover.
  6. Vanderbilt and Notre Dame under 52: As much as I think VU is going to cover the spread here, I liked the number better earlier in the week when it was Commodores +14. With that number creeping below two touchdowns, I’m leery on the road. But I’m not when it comes to the under. This is two hard-nosed teams, and I expect it to be low-scoring. I hate unders, but I’ll take this.
  7. Rutgers +2.5 over Kansas: I’m not a Jayhawks believer just because they went on the road to Central Michigan last week and got their first victory away from home since 2009. TWO THOUSAND AND NINE!!! They return to Lawrence this weekend to take on a Rutgers team that is thankful they got the Ohio State debacle out of the way. The Scarlet Knights roll on the road.

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