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Vols head into key four-game gauntlet

Vols head into key four-game gauntlet
Vols head into key four-game gauntlet | Big Orange Report, Tennessee Volunteers football, Eric Ainge, Southeastern Conference Football
Four game gauntlet
Auburn’s pulsating, last play upset of the Florida Gators has Tennessee fans buzzing about the Volunteers being back in the hunt for the eastern division title in the topsy-turvy Southeastern Conference. However, in order to be in the race for first, a team must win conference games. So far, UT is 0-1 in league play. A four-game gauntlet in the month of October will give the Big Orange an opportunity to thrust themselves right back in the thick of the fight. Will they do it? Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure, one month from now everything will be in clear focus.
First up will be the Georgia Bulldogs in Knoxville, followed by road trips to a pair of western division squads, Mississippi State and Alabama. On Oct. 27, Phil Fulmer’s major antagonist — Steve Spurrier — will pay a visit to Knoxville along with his South Carolina Gamecocks.
The problems
If the Vols are indeed destined to inject themselves into a contending role, two things must change dramatically. First, a porous defense that ranks near the bottom of the SEC in almost every major statistical category must display dramatic and immediate improvement beginning with the Georgia contest.
Second, UT special teams need a turnaround of monumental proportions. When last we checked, the Tennessee punt coverage group was ranked 118th out of 118 Division I football teams. Unless these two areas of need are upgraded now, the offense under the guidance of senior all-star candidate Erik Ainge will be required to average about 45 points per contest for the rest of the season. This is possible, but not likely since there are dozens of things that can interrupt an offensive flow.
Championships are usually won by playing rugged, smart defense — two things thet Vols have yet to do this season.
Key match-ups
• Vol run defense vs. Georgia tailbacks — You just have to know that Georgia head coach Mark Richt believes that he can run the football against a Vol defense that has been gashed on the ground in each of the first four football games this season. The Dawgs go three-deep at the I-back position and each of their runners has speed and moves that threaten to break long gains each time they touch the ball.
The line of scrimmage is where UT’s defense must confront these folks, put Georgia into long down-and-distance situations and force Georgia into a one-dimensional throwing game. Richt, on the other hand, wants to run, run and run some more, thereby controlling the clock and keeping the ball away from Ainge and a potent Vol offense.
• Vol center and guards vs. Cade Weston — The 6-5, 320-pound Weston was a freshman All-American last season and is one of the top nose tackles in the country. Tennessee will want to run the ball too. In order to make that wish a reality, the Vols’ center and guards have got to control this young man-mountain stationed smack dab in the middle of the Bulldog defense.
Vladimir Richard and Jacques McClendon should be called on early in this contest. Both are probably better equipped to handle Weston than the starters — Chris Scott and Anthony Parker.
• Tennessee cornerbacks vs. Bailey and Massaquoi — Georgia’s veteran wideouts are about as good a pair of pass catchers as you will find on one SEC football team. Both have speed, size, good hands and run disciplined routes. We believe Georgia quarterback Matt Stafford will look for quick, isolation throws in order to pit his two best receivers one-on-one against Tennessee’s young corners.
Bulldog tight end Tripp Chandler (6-6, 255) might also present some problems for the UT secondary. It will be tough for a linebacker to cover the king-sized Georgia tight end.
Watch for this — Tennessee has had two weeks to prepare for this game. Ainge’s broken pinky finger should be healed. That tells us that we might expect to see the Volunteers try to hit a couple of deep balls early in this game. Lucas Taylor, who has been one of the team’s most pleasant surprises thus far, and little-used juco transfer Kenny O’Neal are the two most obvious candidates to be the targets on long bombs.
Of course, the Big Orange offensive line must sustain their blocks longer in order for these plays to have the required time to develop.
Secret weapon — It’s about time for senior free safety Jonathan Hefney to have a star-studded performance. Hefney has made some mistakes, some of which can be attributed to his attempts to cover for the cornerbacks, who have been victimized by the first four opponents. Hefney is also due for a big punt return, another area where he was better last season.
Pressure point — Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis is definitely under the microscope of the press and the restless Volunteer fans. His same old schemes aren’t working so it would be to his advantage to try something different in the Georgia game.
Key stats — Average gain on first down and third down conversions will be huge in this contest. Much like many of the Florida games, the team that runs the ball best usually wins this border war. Sacks and quarterback pressures should also have a big bearing on the eventual outcome.
Who will step up — Junior defensive end Robert Ayers had a pair of sacks in the Arkansas State game. He may be the pass rusher Chavis has been looking for over the course of the past two seasons.

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