BY JIM STEELE
There was a lot of good in Tennessee’s 56-0 victory over Tennessee Tech in Knoxville Saturday, ending a three-game homestand to open the college football season.
The Volunteers did what they were supposed to do against a 1-AA opponent: win by an insanely-lopsided score. They did that. Tennessee, even with 71 scholarship players and a depleted roster, still had superior talent.
There was, indeed, a lot of good associated with this victory, but some concerns as well. Let’s start with the good stuff. Eight different Vols scored touchdowns, including a score from an interception return. The fact that Tennessee forced a few turnovers was encouraging, even though it came against Tennessee Tech.
The Vols were able to get a lot of players into the game, which is something else that needed to happen. This team desperately needs to build depth and playing when the bullets are live and the popcorn is cooking is a way to do that. Some of the youngsters performed pretty well.
Quarterback Hendon Hooker wasn’t awful. He threw for 199 yards, completing 17 of 25 passes with three touchdowns, including a great scoring lob to JaVonta Payton in the back corner of the end zone. He also had a 45-yard TD completion to Velus Jones Jr., which was more yards-after-catch than a deep ball.
Tennessee was 4-5 on fourth down, including some risky conversions deep in its own territory. Special teams looked solid and you got the idea that this team started to make strides.
But there were concerns.
For starters, Tennessee still has a quarterback issue. Hooker was inconsistent, despite showing some good wheels. He also needs to work on ball security. For all those banging the drum for Harrison Bailey, I think we now see why he’s third in this quarterback mix. He was 3-7 for 16 yards. Yeah, he used his feet to get out of trouble a time or two, but he’s not a running threat. I maintain, as I have since the Bowling Green game, that Tennessee’s quarterback may not yet be on campus.
The offensive line got pushed around too much. This is unacceptable. The staff said before the season that the line had 10 players who could go. We’re now seeing that’s not the case. It is essential to have Cooper Mays ready at center. It seems the offense moved a lot better when he was in. Since then, the offense seems like it’s missing on one of its cylinders.
Tennessee cleaned up the penalties, but the hold on the opening kickoff stifled a TD drive.
While the Vols won handily, this team clearly is on an evolutionary path. They still need to work on consistency, both offensively and defensively. They had three good dress rehearsals for Florida. If pressed, I’m sure UT coach Josh Heupel would like another two games or so before heading to The Swamp, but that’s life in the SEC.
And in case those concerns weren’t enough sunshine for you today, consider that Florida rallied against No. 1 Alabama, only to fall 31-29 at home. If that doesn’t raise an eyebrow, nothing will. Also consider that Western Michigan, yes, the Broncos, upset host Pittsburgh 44-41 Saturday. That is a cause for worry, if Western Michigan serves as any kind of barometer.
Tennessee did what it needed to do Saturday in beating Tennessee Tech. It wasn’t a thing of beauty and it wasn’t perfect.
Perfect, unfortunately, is what Tennessee will have to be if it wants to have a chance in The Swamp on Saturday.
Editor’s note: Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox, which airs 4-6 p.m., Monday-Thursday on WRJB, 95.9 FM, Camden.