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Checking In On Tennessee With Rocky Top Talk

In the frantic race to schedule 26 team-specific previews before the season began, we crossed a few wires and had to push a couple back. We’re making good this week with Rocky Top Talk and discussing Tennessee’s season in media res.

The Vols opened 2012 with an impressive 35-21 win over NC State in Atlanta, and followed it up by comfortably cruising past FCS opponent Georgia State in Week Two. This weekend is the third Saturday in September which means the Florida Gators are coming to Knoxville, this time with ESPN’s College Game Day crew in tow. 

2011 Record: 5-7

2011 Bowl: n/a

2012 Bowl Projections: (as of 9/12)

Q&A with Will Shelton Of Rocky top Talk

Has the hot start changed expectations for this season, or is this all just going according to plan?

I think a couple of outside factors have played with Tennessee’s expectations more than anything else to this point. Losing Da’Rick Rogers a week before the season started made an already unsure fanbase even more nervous. So when Cordarrelle Patterson went off in the Georgia Dome, it was an even bigger deal for this team. In a sense, this is all going according to plan only with Patterson instead of Rogers. I also think some of Week 1 struggles of other SEC East teams gave Tennessee fans an extra boost of confidence, because no one in our division looked better than the Vols that weekend. The real tone setter for the entire season will be Saturday.

Are we seeing Tyler Bray back in early-2011 form? What strides has he made as a passer now that he’s healthy again?

He’s been just as good as he was on the first two games last season. Considering his performance against Cincinnati last year made him the first Vol QB other than Peyton Manning to throw for more than 400 yards in a single game, it’s a very good sign that he’s back on that path. Tyler Bray isn’t just the big arm that can make all the throws; he was incredibly accurate at the start of last season and has done so again at the start of this season. After two games Bray is 12th nationally in completion percentage and 6th nationally in yards per attempt, a deadly combination. His decision making has been the biggest difference so far: in previous years Bray tried to make a couple of hero throws in the red zone that turned into interceptions. This year he hasn’t even come close to throwing a pick anywhere on the field, which is even more impressive considering he faced the vaunted NC State secondary in the opener. This kid is the real deal.

Which aspect of the Vols’ high-powered offense concerns you the most as they transition to playing SEC defenses?

Tennessee’s pass protection has been great so far but is also yet to be tested by a good defensive front, and that will change in a hurry in this league. But the main concern is still the run game, in large part because the Vols were so bad at it last year (116th nationally) it’s going to take Vol fans a while to believe in the ground game again. The numbers so far have been better; nothing to write home about, but in a pass-happy offense it may not have to be. Tennessee just needs to be good enough to be respected on the ground, but we’re still unsure if the Vols have what it takes to accomplish that.

Besides this weekend’s game against Florida, what’s the toughest game for the rest of the season: at Georgia (9/29), vs. Alabama (10/20) or at South Carolina (10/27)?

It’s Alabama, no question. The Vols played Georgia fairly even last season even without Justin Hunter, and if UT doesn’t turn the ball over they beat South Carolina each of the last two years. The East Division games will be more important, especially if Tennessee wins on Saturday, but Alabama is the best team in the country right now.

What are the best case and worst case scenarios for the postseason?

With a win on Saturday the Vols would have to be taken seriously as a threat to win the SEC East. If they do that and get to Atlanta in December, anything could happen. A realistic best case scenario would include the fact that both Alabama and LSU appear to be significantly better than Tennessee and would thus be the presumptive favorite should the Vols make it to Atlanta. That would make the Capital One Bowl a great best case scenario for a Tennessee team that won the SEC East. The worst case scenario is still failing to earn bowl eligibility; things are still so fragile around Knoxville and the SEC is tough enough for no one to simply assume that Derek Dooley will get to six wins just yet. Tennessee can take a huge step toward not just survival but success under Dooley by beating Florida on Saturday night.

Thank you to Will and the team at Rocky Top Talk for their help!

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