How the Vols spent a rain delay
The Tennessee defense dipped its toe into the water against a spread attack to open the season.
Now the Vols (1-0) are diving into the deep end.
After struggling to keep its head above water against up-tempo, versatile offenses a year ago, UT handled one with relative ease in a lopsided win over the weekend against Montana. But the degree of difficulty is going up dramatically with Cincinnati (1-0) coming to Neyland Stadium on Saturday (TV: ESPN2, 3:30 p.m.), because while the Bearcats may run a similar scheme, they're operating it with much better personnel.
"Cincinnati runs a lot of the same plays, but they run it a little better than Montana does," defensive tackle Daniel Hood said Monday. "From watching film, it looks like they have a few better athletes and it's going to be a good matchup for us.
"I think last week is going to help us a lot. They run the offense about the same tempo that Montana did, so now we've got that game in and our body is conditioned to that. ... I don't know if we'll have to change too much defensively, because a lot of the elements of it are the same. It's just, they run it better."
That should come as no surprise given the talent disparity between even a respected member of the Football Championship Subdivision and a program that has been to a pair of Bowl Championship Series games over the past three years.
The Bearcats struggled a bit under new coach Butch Jones last season, but putting impressive numbers on the board wasn't really a problem for them. Cincinnati scored at least 29 points in half of its games last season, and it has six seniors back this fall for an offense that opened its slate by lighting up Austin Peay for 72 points over the weekend.
Like the Vols, the Bearcats should be facing much stiffer competition on Saturday as well. And while UT showed some clear improvement tackling in space, reading the keys critical to slowing down a spread offense and handling its assignments, a truer test of its progress defensively is looming.
"I feel like we improved from a year ago, but there are a lot of scary things that you see," Vols coach Derek Dooley said. "The better the team is, the more you get exposed. Sometimes things look good, but then you go, 'Uh-oh.' The other team is looking at it and going, 'Oh, wow, there's an opportunity there.'
"So, we're going to find out how we can really handle the spread this week, because these guys are really good. I mean, even last year with the (4-8) season that they had — first-year coach, lot of change, always difficult — they had Oklahoma beat. Scoring was not the issue. They score a lot of points. You put 72 up, I don't care who you're playing, that's a lot of points."
Aside from one blown coverage that produced a long Montana touchdown and another late drive that ended in the end zone against the backups, the Vols didn't allow many scoring chances in the season opener despite starting three true freshmen on defense and bringing another off the bench.
But the Grizzlies also aren't likely to draw many comparisons with the Bearcats beyond their style of play, which could force those young UT defenders and even the holdovers that struggled at times last season to grow up quickly.
"The hardest part about playing against this offense is you're sort of out-leveraged," safety Prentiss Waggner said. "They have a two-way go on you and the ball is always in the perimeter, so you have to play sound-technique ball, be on the same page. If one guy chooses one direction and you both get out-leveraged, there can be a big pop.
"I think we made a lot of significant improvement from last year ... but this week it's going to be that much more of a challenge given that Cincinnati has a few more athletes on the team."
Sink or swim, the Bearcats certainly seem to have enough talent to help the Vols figure out how much better they might actually be.