Tennessee-Akron Preview: Reinflating the Big Orange Balloon
Nearly all of the air is out of the Big Orange Balloon.
It wasn’t simply that Tennessee lost to Florida at home last Saturday – the day that ESPN Gameday came to Knoxville to cover the hype that had reached levels not seen for a UT football game since the late ’90s / early ‘oos.
It was more about how that game was lost.
The Vols truly lost that game in every sense of the word.
Putting all of the air back in the Balloon is not as hopeless as is the metaphor of toothpaste that is out of the tube. The Balloon can be reinflated.
It won’t be easy, because it will take a win at Georgia next week and perhaps even more than that.
But this Saturday’s game will have very little effect on the air pressure within the Balloon.
Yes. The Vols could defeat the Zips by a score of 88-0, and such a win will rightfully be disregarded as unimportant. The only thing that remains important in what remains of Derek Dooley’s career as head coach of Tennessee will be victories over schools named Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Florida. All other wins will be considered mandatory. And that even includes a visit to Starkville next month along with Missouri at home in November, as irrational as that may be.
Consider this. It is very possible that Tennessee’s next three SEC games will be against undefeated opponents. Georgia, Mississippi State, and Alabama are all odds-on favorite to have nothing but wins on their tally sheet by the time the Vols come a’knocking. Two of those teams will likely be in the Top 5 if not higher. Throw in a very talented South Carolina squad and we are right back to where we have been for some time: the possibility of a winless October and the promise of going into the November final stretch with a losing record (it would be 3-5 this season if the Vols lose the four aformentioned games, assuming UT defeats Akron on Saturday).
And that’s the mood going into Saturday’s game against Akron. After the Zips, it is do or die.
That is what one late second-half collapse has done to the atmosphere of Tennessee Vols football.
Thus, the Akron game is one to be endured. A win will not be particularly enjoyable. A loss would be catastrophic.
The Zips come to Knoxville with a 1-2 record on the heels of two consecutive 1-11 seasons. Last week’s 66-6 win over Morgan State was Akron’s first victory since September 24 of last season when VMI was defeated 36-13. A loss in this season’s opener to UCF (56-14) combined with the following overtime loss to FIU (41-38) left Akron with only 2 wins in their last 26 games.
So last week’s rousing victory was a tonic that has Terry Bowden’s club actually feeling a bit peppy coming into SEC country.
As they should. The Zips set a string of MAC single-game records last week: yards passing (565), points scored (66), total offense (753 yards), and first downs (43).
It was all done with 97 offensive plays, fueled by their no-huddle offense. Senior QB Dalton Williams threw for 446 yards on a 37-for-48 day. TB Jawon Chisholm added 129 rushing yards.
Just the typical high-octane offense that is displayed weekly in the MAC, the conference that has given football fans some fun and wacky games over the last few years.
The Vols will approach this matchup in a similar way as they did against Georgia State two weeks ago — a tune up before a big game against a big conference rival. But this time, Tennessee has more injuries and performance issues to deal with.
For starters, Marsalis Teague will be replaced by Justin Coleman at cornerback. Teague put on a horrowshow Saturday against the Gators, featuring two missed tackles on two very long Florida TDs. So, it will be Coleman and Prentiss Waggner as the starting corners.
Then there is Vincent Dallas being named as a backup at one of the receiver spots, replacing Cody Blanc in that role. Also, Brendan Downs is now the backup to starting TE Mychal Rivera due to his fast recovery from a knee injury.
The significant change is Tennessee will not be featuring safety Brian Randolph, arguably the Vols’ best player in the secondary. Randolph’s ACL injury is of the season-ending variety. So watch for safety LaDarrell McNeil to get a lot of playing time on Saturday along with Brent Brewer and Byron Moore. Deion Bonner and Daniel Gray likely will feature prominantly at the corner as well.
Also, Rajion Neal has won his position as the lone No. 1 tailback based on his respectable performance last week when Neal had been bracketed with Marlin Lane and Devrin Young as a trio version of a number one running back.
So the main focus for Tennessee will be on the defense against a wide-open offense. The Vols’ offense should be effective both in the air and on the ground against an outmanned Zips defense.
But as good as it might get this Saturday, it won’t put much air back into the Big Orange Balloon. That remedial project will have to wait for a better opponent.
Tennessee 39 Akron 17