Tennessee couldn’t ask for a better opponent to get back on track than who pops up on the schedule this week.
The Vols will host Charlotte after their heartbreaking 27-24 loss to South Carolina. The 49ers are 4-4 and 3-2 in Conference USA. No, Charlotte shouldn’t be a complete pushover like ETSU and UTEP were in September. However, the Vols would have to play well below their standard to be upset at home. Currently, UT is a an early 21-point favorite. Charlotte shouldn’t be a challenge for the Vols even considering their current state.
The 49ers are 10th in scoring and 7th in points allowed in Conference USA. That doesn’t present a particularly strong threat. That’s good. The Vols could use a win after a bumpy past week.
Losing offensive lineman Trey Smith just before Saturday’s game was an incredible blow after he practiced most of the week with the first team. Now, the Vols can explore some ways to help whoever takes Smith’s place at left tackle moving forward. A tight end or running back to help in pass blocking would be a good idea. There was a reason Smith was playing out of position at left tackle; the Vols simply didn’t have a better option. Smith, who is better suited to play guard, wasn’t the dominant force he had been previously. However, he did an admirable job and should be commended for how he played this season.
The most challenging foe that the Vols will face this week could be themselves. This is not a time to sulk, knowing that UT nearly upset South Carolina on Saturday. That game had better be long gone from the Vols’ memory banks. Remember, this is not a group of players that has handled challenges particularly well. No one can forget how everything came crashing down last season. The Vols fell to 4-8 despite having much more talent than that record would indicate.
This is a week to continue to develop UT’s passing game. Despite a ho-hum start to the season in terms of throwing the football, the Vols have become quite respectable. The Vols proved they could take advantage of the downfield passing game against Auburn. Then, Tennessee proved proficient by passing in the flats repeatedly against South Carolina. That will be tough for any defense to deal with, especially Charlotte.
The Vols are just 9th in the SEC in passing yards with 210 yards per game. That’s not something to brag about, but their efficiency is. UT ranks 4th in passing efficiency in the SEC with a 149 rating. The only three teams with a better rating are Alabama, Georgia and Ole Miss. Those are some pretty respectable passing offenses to be compared to.
The short passing game might prove to be UT’s bread and butter. Despite passing early and often, the Vols dominated South Carolina in time of possession by holding onto the ball for over 38 minutes. The Vols also were magnificent on third down. They converted 11-of-16 third downs against the Gamecocks. That will be key for the remainder of the season as UT’s defense is average at best and woefully thin as the Vols head down the final stretch.
Sure, it has taken some time for UT’s coaching staff to determine their offensive style, but that shouldn’t be a surprise. Remember the preseason chatter about an inexperienced quarterback (whoever it might be), a porous offensive line and a questionable group of receivers. Well, the preseason chatter was all correct. The Vols have answered with a tough quarterback who continues to improve, an offensive line that is still a concern and a group of receivers that are some of the best in the country. That’s progress.
I know this all sounds incredibly optimistic considering the Vols just lost to South Carolina, are 3-5 and 1-4 in the SEC and are still battling in November to become bowl eligible. However, think of the glass as half full in this year of transition. I never doubted UT’s defense would dramatically improve with time. I was told by far too many other coaches that Jeremy Pruitt would be able to handle that. However, I didn’t know much about UT’s offensive staff led by offensive coordinator Tyson Helton, who left Southern California to come to UT.
I never really knew what to think about the Helton hire. Was he the main force behind Southern California’s offense or was he just one of the guys? It was tough to know since Helton was a co-coordinator along with former Vols quarterback Tee Martin. It was also worth wondering if Helton had much say over his brother, Clay Helton, who was the head coach over Tyson.
We’ll never fully know how responsibilities were divided at Southern California. However, with what I’ve seen in a win at Auburn and a close loss to South Carolina is that the Vols have a offensive coaching staff that can maximize the players they have — and that’s no easy feat.
It’s reason to be hopeful about the future, be it this season or beyond.