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Pregame Q&A With Rocky Top Talk

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 11 Pitt at Tennessee Photo by Kevin Langley/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Tennessee Volunteers. They exist, I’m fairly certain of that. They’re very orange, unless I need to consult my ophthalmologist.

But if I’m being honest I don’t know nearly enough about the Fightin’ Josh Heupels to get you ready for this afternoon’s kickoff. So we brought in a specialist. No, not in ophthalmology. In the Tennessee Volunteers.

Nick Carner is one of the editors at SB Nation’s excellent Tennessee site, Rocky Top Talk. He’s also a world champion hot pepper grower*, master chinchilla trainer**, and highly respected in the vintage toaster collector community***.

Nick agreed to answer a few questions about Tennessee’s explosive offense, their worn down defense, and how the Vols just might pull an upset here.

MD: I’m not sure there’s a player in America who has progressed more from week one until now than Hendon Hooker. Was it just having the reins handed to him full-time, or is there more at work here?

NC: Man, I wish I had an easy answer for you here, but I don’t. My best guess: it’s just a bunch of contributing factors. I think Heupel’s good with QBs, and I think Hooker’s skill set fits the scheme. But if that’s all it was, then why didn’t Hooker just win the job outright in spring practice? Especially considering that Hooker got to Tennessee a good 90-ish days before Milton.

Part of that, I think, is probably the Tennessee staff being enamored with Milton’s cannon-arm and size/speed combination, but that’s just me guessing.

Either way, like you mentioned, it’s been a process for Hooker getting here from where he was. The stat lines from his first couple games don’t look much different than his games now, but he was running a bit more loose with the football then and was missing some guys running wide-open down the field. Now, he’s more ball-security conscious on the ground and hitting guys consistently when they’re behind the DBs.

A bit further — he’s had help. Tennessee’s WRs have been fantastic. Per the Tennessee football Twitter account, the Vols are the only SEC team with at least five TDs from three different WRs. And when their healthy, Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small make an above-average RB duo, too.

Making a short story long here, but it’s just been a perfect storm of positive converging elements, which is something pretty foreign for the Vols of late.

MD: Tennessee played almost 100 defensive snaps last week against Kentucky. Is that wear and tear a concern for this week?

NC: I mean, it would be hard for that to not be a factor at this point in the season, right? I’m pretty sure I saw the UT 247 site say the defense played a combined 292 snaps in its last three games, and even though there was a week off in between, that’s, well, considerable. Unfortunately, the roster just doesn’t have the quality depth necessary to mitigate the really season-long time of possession discrepancy.

But looking back on the year, the Vols hung tough with Florida for a half, but you could just see the defense run out of juice later in the game. And while the defense got out-played for much of the Kentucky game, it came up big when needed with a late-game pick-6 and a few QB pressures/ sacks in the game’s last few drives. I feel like that signifies some progress.

Either way, the defense can’t spot Georgia 3.5 quarters and Tennessee still be in the game late.

MD: Speaking of wear and tear, how are the Vols from an injury standpoint? Are there any key contributors they’ll be missing in Neyland this Saturday?

NC: Heupel is pretty cagey when it comes to injury reports. RBs Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small got banged up against UK, with both having already missed multiple games this year - Evans with an ankle issue and Small with a shoulder problem. The OL has been touch and go all season, with the few extra, competent replacements all getting shuffled around to different positions. But the bye week helped there, as Tennessee got its starting five back for just the third time this year. Even better — that same five finished the game, too.

DL Elijah Simmons has missed some time this year, too, but I think he’s gonna be full-go on Saturday, and the rest of the defense is surprisingly healthy considering its workload.

MD: If Tennessee has the ball on the UGA 7 yard line with one play to win the game, who’s getting the ball and how?

NC: It’s probably an RPO giving Hooker a chance to make the play with his legs. Or maybe something like this in an attempt to utilize Tillman’s size.

MD: Fill in the blank: Tennessee pulls the huge upset here if _______.

NC: ...Georgia forgets how to play defense.

But really — I think if Tennessee’s offense can catch UGA slipping on a big play or two, the Vols can hang around for a bit. If the Vols’ defense comes up with a couple turnovers as well, then maybe it stays interesting.

MD: Because we must: What is your score prediction?

NC: 35-21 Bulldogs.

Thanks again to Nick for volunteering (rimshot!) to fill us in on Tennessee. Until later. . .

Go ‘Dawgs!!!

*I haven’t verified this.

**I can’t prove it, but you know you hear things.

***Oh sorry. That’s actually me.