Five key points five games into the Tennessee football season

Michael Patrick/News Sentinel
Tennessee Vols running back Rajion Neal (20) breaks away from Georgia defensive lineman Kwame Geathers (99) during the second half of their 51-44 loss to the Bulldogs last Saturday in Athens, Ga.

Photo by Michael Patrick, copyright © 2012

Michael Patrick/News Sentinel Tennessee Vols running back Rajion Neal (20) breaks away from Georgia defensive lineman Kwame Geathers (99) during the second half of their 51-44 loss to the Bulldogs last Saturday in Athens, Ga.

When Tennessee's game Saturday at Mississippi State is over — and it might not be finished until 1 a.m. next Sunday — the season will be at its midpoint.

The Vols will either be celebrating their first win over a ranked opponent since 2008 or staring at an 0-3 start in SEC play with games against Alabama and South Carolina looming.

So it's not a stretch to say that the late-night showdown between the Vols (3-2, 0-2 SEC) and No. 20 Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0) on Saturday (TV: ESPN2, 9 p.m.) carries enormous importance for both teams.

MSU is off to its best start since 1999, and the crowd is likely to be revved up after a full day of pre-gaming. Tennessee's season could be approaching a crucial intersection in the middle of a brutal four-game stretch that began with a loss at Georgia last week.

It may not be halftime of the 2012 season yet, but the off week does provide a chance to review what has gone right, what has gone wrong and where the Vols need to improve. Here are five keys to the second half of the season:

1. Keep the running game going.

Call the success of the ground game a surprise if you must, but coaches have been promising improvement since the spring. A resurgent offensive line combined with tough running from Rajion Neal has given the Vols some serious balance in an offense that lacked it all of last season. Neal entered the weekend leading the SEC in carries and second in rushing yards.

2. Find a way to cut down on the big plays.

Tennessee's defense is never going to put up league-leading statistics while burdened with an offense that runs at warp speed. But the Vols must do a better job of forcing opponents to work for everything they get. The defense seems to play its best in the red zone, but those opportunities don't come about when the other

team is scoring on 75-yard runs.

3. Win the turnover margin.

Tennessee cornerback Byron Moore has a knack for finding the football. He has four of the Vols' nine interceptions. UT had only nine all last season. It's a risk-reward game, and calling for more turnovers while demanding an elimination of big plays is somewhat counter-intuitive. But to win games against Alabama and South Carolina, the Vols will have to take advantage of every mistake made by the opponent — and there probably won't be many of them.

4. Find a kicker and try to stick with him.

Nothing frustrates football coaches more than struggling kickers, so give Derek Dooley credit for supporting his kickers publicly, even if he's pulling his hair out privately. Derrick Brodus looked like he might be the solution, but he missed an extra point and a short field goal last week against Georgia.

The Vols have missed four extra points — although the first one may not have been Michael Palardy's fault and none of the misses have directly impacted a game.

Palardy will get another shot Saturday. The Vols need him to hang onto the job.

5. Keep an eye on the big picture.

This might not be popular advice, because coaches and players prefer to rely on the one-game-at-a-time approach. But when you play Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama and South Carolina in consecutive games, that outlook can be bleak.

The reality is that this four-game stretch would be tough for any team, let alone a squad coming off a five-win season. If the Vols are able to weather this storm without losing focus, they have four winnable games to close the season.

Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.

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Comments » 123

Witch_Doctors writes:

Witch Doctor say too soon.
Bones never lie.

agohn writes:

in response to titletownz:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

usnavyvolfan__times_free_press_can_shove_it writes:

South Carolina games gonna really suck!

richvol writes:

Look at the picture of Neal carrying the ball at the top of the page...that's why he fumbled the ball so much in the past. Tuck the ball away dang it.

10seVol85_Part_Deux writes:

NC State 8 seconds away from beating #3 FSU. Any chance our resident troll a-holes will concede the fact that our beatdown over the Wolfpack WAS a quality win over a good team?

thevoice writes:

in response to usnavyvolfan__times_free_press_can_shove_it:

South Carolina games gonna really suck!

And next year's Oregon game. 35-7 mid 2nd.

born2ride writes:

5 Ways for UT to Improve

1. Score More Points

2. Give Up Less Points

3. Get a Kicker

4. FIRE Dooley

5. Bring in Bobby Petrino

BluezVol writes:

As underdogs, the VOLS have nothing to lose and should play like it. I'd love to see multiple safety/LB blitz packages; wildcat formations; on-side kicks; flee-flickers; end-arounds etc. We should be as unpredictable as a 14-year old girl who lost her cell phone.

tedstryker1980 writes:

in response to MOUNTAINofOKEMO:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Quit trying to make Okemo happen.

FWBVol writes:

in response to born2ride:

5 Ways for UT to Improve

1. Score More Points

2. Give Up Less Points

3. Get a Kicker

4. FIRE Dooley

5. Bring in Bobby Petrino

Bobby Petrino is a cancer and a quitter. When he was head coach at Louisville he tried to stab Tommy Tuberville in the back and lobbied for the Auburn job. We all know how he left the Falcons during the season. And let's not forget the fiasco that spelled the end to his career at Arkansas.

Look at how his me attitude has hurt the players that counted on him. No, we don't need Bobby Petrino.

And we don't need to fire Derek Dooley. We didn't hit rock bottom overnight and it has taken time to get us back to being competitive and will take another year or so before we can start winning the big games.

I think we will still pull off an upset down the stretch, probably against Mississippi State next week, but this team isn't that far from getting there.

Give Sunseri's defense a chance to grow a little. If we change staffs now we will be on our third defensive coordinator in three years and the whole merry go round starts all over again.

IMO, it's better to be patient with Derek Dooley and give him the length of his contract rather than firing him and hoping we can get someone that can turn things around.

Even Alabama went through four head coaches (if you count Mike Price) between Gene Stallings and Nick Saban. LSU is one of the few programs in recent memories that replaced a championship coach in Saban with a coach that has won championships in Les Miles. I still think LSU wins in spite of Miles, not because of him.

Patience, our time will come again.

VolinCalif writes:

in response to usnavyvolfan__times_free_press_can_shove_it:

South Carolina games gonna really suck!

They looked really good tonight. Made Ga suck. Well I never go against Tenn. So I'll just pucker up and call it a Toss-up. I have said all year that SC is the team to beat in the East but Fl looked good today also.

bobe4544 writes:

Bring Spurrier home

tenndave writes:

Georgia was over rated. We proved that. SC looked good but don't panic yet. What I was impressed by was their defense speed and agressiveness but Georgia looked stunned and confused. Reminded me alot of Ark several years back when they came to Neyland and everything went wrong and they were down 31 in first quarter. We were not that good and they were not that bad. Same goes for SC. Win Miss. St. first then concentrate on BAMA. SC is too far down the road to worry. Ky is awful and yet gave Miss State a game. Time to silence those cowbells.

Vols_fan_27 writes:

This goes without saying, but next week's game will tell a lot about the direction this team is headed. There were positives to take out of the Georgia game along with plenty of negatives as well but having 2 weeks for guys to recover and 2 weeks to prepare for Miss. St. will tell if things are going in the right direction or not. My thoughts are that (hopefully) we finally get a win against a ranked opponent in the Dooley era and hopefully go 2-1 in the next 3 games. That is as long as everyone is still healthy after the Bama game.

snafu14u#241639 writes:

in response to MOUNTAINofOKEMO:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

It just doesn't work.........BonzaiVol has spoken.....well that doesn't work either

AllVol1 writes:

Focus on Miss St. That's all. We can take them down in a big way if our defense shows up. Otherwise, we will just have to outscore them, which I think we can do.

If our Defense puts the pieces together, we will drill them.

Just focus on Miss St. Go Vols!

Olddogsrule writes:

tenndave an volfan yer comments made me grin :) ...i like yer cogitations. if the VOLS take the first of the next three that'd be good, but I just would have to tell the old lady to call the gravediggers to prepare for me own selfs demise if our Volunteers added either Bammer or SC ... aktually i mite just blow up an no grave needed ... hate to miss rest of season tho

RollTideJoe writes:

in response to MOUNTAINofOKEMO:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

You are the bubba with your pathetic remark. We'll see about taking down Alabama

10seVol85_Part_Deux writes:

in response to tenndave:

Georgia was over rated. We proved that. SC looked good but don't panic yet. What I was impressed by was their defense speed and agressiveness but Georgia looked stunned and confused. Reminded me alot of Ark several years back when they came to Neyland and everything went wrong and they were down 31 in first quarter. We were not that good and they were not that bad. Same goes for SC. Win Miss. St. first then concentrate on BAMA. SC is too far down the road to worry. Ky is awful and yet gave Miss State a game. Time to silence those cowbells.

We went 8-4 and Arkansas went 6-6 in 2000. We were up on them 35-0 at the end of the first quarter, with a TD right before the end of the quarter. If I recall correctly, it was a long run by Travis "Cheese" Henry. We scored one TD on a fake FG too. Everything Fulmer tried worked ten times better than planned. It was Hogs to the slaughter. I remember joking, when the student pilot I was with at the game (I went cross-country just to go to it), said he couldn't believe we were up by 28 in the first quarter, that the quarter wasn't over yet. Haha! I had no idea we were going to score again.

1939flyingwedge writes:

What's really sad is when tv announcers talk about who could change or effect the Southeastern confrence, Vols never even get a mention. Sure would be nice to be a respectable team again.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

It just goes to show you can't believe all the *&&^%$$ about player ratings and ...weeell Ga. was overrated and I too thought they had a chance this year to beat Bama. Who knows? The team to beat now seems to be S.CAR.! I thought we could beat them and Miss State. ALSO looked good yesterday. At least while I watched them. I confess I don't know if they won or not though they were in control when I was watching.

UT MUST win against Miss. St. now that S car.'s gaining some momentum. I think UT just has to believe that the game last night was just a freak for Ga. I'm one of those who never really thought Richt should be their HC.lol I have changed my mind but how should SC be that much better than them. It must be the "ole ball coach". He just knows how to get his guys to play. BUT He's also why I hate Florida so much. You have to admire the ole Tennessee raised guy. Look for the good side I guess.

*&%#@$% GBO

atnvol#283282 writes:

Well, after the polls shakeout today the SEC should still have 3 teams in the top 5....AL,SC, and FL. Looking like the power in the SEC may be shifting to the East division with LSU's loss yesterday. The thing that the 3 SEC powers have in common is each has a top 5 defense....our Vols are light years away in that regard. Defense must come first to build a winner.....we look soooo lost.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

in response to WaltGoVols:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

You waltie...may have just made your most ridiculous response ever. How does pounding a good team like NCSt. make Dooley a bad coach?
You could have used his many losses and maybe had some effect. But you can't fault a coach for most games he wins.

Dooley's got us to where we have one of the best offenses in the SEC. If you HAVE to talk trash then give Sunseri a hard time. Even though I think he'll turn it around as well.

But I thought ga. would beat the chicks in SC.
Dang I may have to go back to the bball page 'cause UT nor Ga. has a chance at the NC now.
Well Ga. might if UT beats SC.hehe haha Bwaaahaaahahaahaulp

Go UT

wigmeister writes:

in response to FWBVol:

Bobby Petrino is a cancer and a quitter. When he was head coach at Louisville he tried to stab Tommy Tuberville in the back and lobbied for the Auburn job. We all know how he left the Falcons during the season. And let's not forget the fiasco that spelled the end to his career at Arkansas.

Look at how his me attitude has hurt the players that counted on him. No, we don't need Bobby Petrino.

And we don't need to fire Derek Dooley. We didn't hit rock bottom overnight and it has taken time to get us back to being competitive and will take another year or so before we can start winning the big games.

I think we will still pull off an upset down the stretch, probably against Mississippi State next week, but this team isn't that far from getting there.

Give Sunseri's defense a chance to grow a little. If we change staffs now we will be on our third defensive coordinator in three years and the whole merry go round starts all over again.

IMO, it's better to be patient with Derek Dooley and give him the length of his contract rather than firing him and hoping we can get someone that can turn things around.

Even Alabama went through four head coaches (if you count Mike Price) between Gene Stallings and Nick Saban. LSU is one of the few programs in recent memories that replaced a championship coach in Saban with a coach that has won championships in Les Miles. I still think LSU wins in spite of Miles, not because of him.

Patience, our time will come again.

Excellent post!

JayTee writes:

in response to 10seVol85_Part_Deux:

NC State 8 seconds away from beating #3 FSU. Any chance our resident troll a-holes will concede the fact that our beatdown over the Wolfpack WAS a quality win over a good team?

No it shows FSU is highly over rated as usual and that pollsters don't know diddly squat about football.

If you think UT is close to being as good as a real number 3 team you are dreaming.

VolFanInTheBoro (Inactive) writes:

in response to titletownz:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

He's not testy, just like the rest of us tired of your trolling, KNS cubicle BS

PHAT_VOL writes:

WHY do people on this site respond to walt?

dannasman writes:

Steve Spurrier has certainly proved that a true leader and coach can win at any University! Gamecocks are for real and will be as long he is there!
VFL!

ElizabethtonvolnNC writes:

in response to WaltGoVols:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Geee Wally, your right we did hit rock bottom after Dooley came..after yet another coaching change and player attrition...

Dealing with Fulmers 37th ranked recruiting class and what was left of Kiffins "stud" recruits...get real.

Vol70 writes:

in response to FWBVol:

Bobby Petrino is a cancer and a quitter. When he was head coach at Louisville he tried to stab Tommy Tuberville in the back and lobbied for the Auburn job. We all know how he left the Falcons during the season. And let's not forget the fiasco that spelled the end to his career at Arkansas.

Look at how his me attitude has hurt the players that counted on him. No, we don't need Bobby Petrino.

And we don't need to fire Derek Dooley. We didn't hit rock bottom overnight and it has taken time to get us back to being competitive and will take another year or so before we can start winning the big games.

I think we will still pull off an upset down the stretch, probably against Mississippi State next week, but this team isn't that far from getting there.

Give Sunseri's defense a chance to grow a little. If we change staffs now we will be on our third defensive coordinator in three years and the whole merry go round starts all over again.

IMO, it's better to be patient with Derek Dooley and give him the length of his contract rather than firing him and hoping we can get someone that can turn things around.

Even Alabama went through four head coaches (if you count Mike Price) between Gene Stallings and Nick Saban. LSU is one of the few programs in recent memories that replaced a championship coach in Saban with a coach that has won championships in Les Miles. I still think LSU wins in spite of Miles, not because of him.

Patience, our time will come again.

I couldn't agree more.

klrigsby#1377153 writes:

in response to born2ride:

5 Ways for UT to Improve

1. Score More Points

2. Give Up Less Points

3. Get a Kicker

4. FIRE Dooley

5. Bring in Bobby Petrino

Yuor kidding about #5 right ?

crappieking writes:

6. Fire Dooley and his incompetent coaching staff.

klrigsby#1377153 writes:

Your, Sorry Sunday morning coffee just kicking in.

Sir_Spanky writes:

in response to ElizabethtonvolnNC:

Geee Wally, your right we did hit rock bottom after Dooley came..after yet another coaching change and player attrition...

Dealing with Fulmers 37th ranked recruiting class and what was left of Kiffins "stud" recruits...get real.

Look, Wally81 is still dealing with his deep, to-the-bone, FHCPF man-crush. Just give him some space. Let him cry it out a little more. Time is a great healer. We're pulling for you, Wally! :-)

Vols_fan_27 writes:

I have to agree with the people on this site that say Petrino is NOT the answer. Why in the world do we want to hire someone else's garbage that they threw out. Petrino will coach again but I just don't think we need the baggage that is associated with him right now. I have said before, I am still not sold on Dooley but for the programs sake, hope he gets it done...GBO!

straightshooter writes:

After seening the beating UG took from SC, the SC game will likely be very ugly. I have big UG fans as neighbors. I warned them that UT putting up 44 points on them didn't show that many positives for UG even though they won the game.
If there is any chance Chavis could be lured away from LSU, UT should try. Not sure if he has an attitude about UT the way they parted ways at this point but you don't know unless you ask. The UT D is their biggest weakness. The biggest weakness on offense is QB inconsistency and decision making. That may or may not get better but Bray doesn't have but 1.5 more years max.

allvol8 writes:

in response to WaltGoVols:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Under Kiffen we got nailed by Ole Miss and VT

Vol70 writes:

in response to WaltGoVols:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I would have to disagree. While Coach Fulmer had the program regressing, Kiffin turned us into a laughing stock. He won 7 with what was left of Fulmer's guys that he didn't run off, brought in recruits with questionable character who mostly left or were kicked off the team thus leaving us with little talent and no depth, and then there was that little matter with the NCAA violations.
I'm not saying Coach Dooley is the answer, but Petrino is definitely not it.

BigOrangeFever76 (Inactive) writes:

in response to collegegrovebilly:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Yep corkyboy...you are a REAL Vol fan for sure. Real Vof fans believe the Vols will win every game. You are nothing but a "Jeffy Flowers Wannabe" troll. Talk about turds of a feather... Shouldn't you be putting on your Sunday dress so your mommy can walk you to church?

bigorangebolt writes:

Well, it was an exciting football Saturday! The old ball coach Spurrier has the Gamecocks riding high! TN needs to take note!
We are living in a fantasy, if you think Dooley can bring us to this level! I agree with born2ride! Everyone, get off of your moral high horse! Do you recall the bi ble verse, for we all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God! Go get Bobby Petrino, while he is available! He won't be available long! Go Big Orange!

straightshooter writes:

Petrino is a cheat and a quitter. His record speaks for itself. Call Chavis. UT has good athletes on D, just not well coached and disciplined. Dooley with strong assistant coaches can likely win big games IMO.

pcorange writes:

I am glad to see the SEC east relevant again. Now, if the Vols can just come to the table. Florida played like a top 5 team yesterday as did South Carolina. Will Muschamp has got Florida's D in pretty good shape. After watching several games this year, UF or USCe either one will give Alabama a game. I still think Bama is the class of the field, but they won't walk all over either of the aforementioned teams. That said, UGA looked pathetic. Their D is just as bad as ours.

pcorange writes:

in response to straightshooter:

Petrino is a cheat and a quitter. His record speaks for itself. Call Chavis. UT has good athletes on D, just not well coached and disciplined. Dooley with strong assistant coaches can likely win big games IMO.

I agree with your first sentence, and I wish Chavis would come back home, but he ain't. He said as much last year when UT offered him big money to return to the hill. His comment was something along the lines that loyalty means something to him and is a two way street. In other words, he got crapped over by UT and ain't coming back.

BigOrangeFever76 (Inactive) writes:

in response to collegegrovebilly:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Right now corkyboy...I am wishing on a star that you will go away. You have ZERO connection to UT. 99.9 percent of the other posters (fellow trolls excluded) on GVX think you are a nitwit and want you to go away. I am sure your mommy and daddy want you to go away...or at least move out of their house. But you have lived with them for 53 years so whats the hurry...right? Get lost corkyboy.

utbaby#215635 writes:

Each big game we talk about how this is a must win game. I think the MSU game is without question the biggest must win game of the season and will determine Dooley's future. Lose this game and we're looking at a 7-5 best case (assumes win at MZ and other teams we're supposed to beat) and is only marginal improvment over last year. This is not good enough for Dooley to secure a future at UT. This will also be Cheaney's biggest test. If he wants to prove he can coach an SEC offense, he must follow up the GA game and prove TN can play a physical/balanced offense that wears out a team and then can win the 4th Qtr. A finesse offense only works if you're Spurrier in the 90's. Look at how Spurrier has evolved his philosophy. That's the only way to be successful in the SEC. It's all on the line Saturday. Here's hoping they pass the test.

Razzle writes:

in response to bigorangebolt:

Well, it was an exciting football Saturday! The old ball coach Spurrier has the Gamecocks riding high! TN needs to take note!
We are living in a fantasy, if you think Dooley can bring us to this level! I agree with born2ride! Everyone, get off of your moral high horse! Do you recall the bi ble verse, for we all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God! Go get Bobby Petrino, while he is available! He won't be available long! Go Big Orange!

Yea exactly what Tenn. needs, a Sugar Daddy coach.

pcorange writes:

in response to utbaby#215635:

Each big game we talk about how this is a must win game. I think the MSU game is without question the biggest must win game of the season and will determine Dooley's future. Lose this game and we're looking at a 7-5 best case (assumes win at MZ and other teams we're supposed to beat) and is only marginal improvment over last year. This is not good enough for Dooley to secure a future at UT. This will also be Cheaney's biggest test. If he wants to prove he can coach an SEC offense, he must follow up the GA game and prove TN can play a physical/balanced offense that wears out a team and then can win the 4th Qtr. A finesse offense only works if you're Spurrier in the 90's. Look at how Spurrier has evolved his philosophy. That's the only way to be successful in the SEC. It's all on the line Saturday. Here's hoping they pass the test.

Good comment. I don't think Dooley will be forced out this year unless he loses the next three plus two of the three he is supposed to win. I had hopes that we could beat MSU and USCe until last night. It will take a different USCe team showing up against us then the one that showed up against UGA for us to have a realistic shot at them. We'll see. Dooley is safe for now, though. Like many others, I'm not sure he's the coach of the future, but I really like him and I wish he would turn it around. I was really down on him after the Florida game, but it looks like Florida is a lot better team than anybody thought at the time.

jobrando#216494 writes:

The VOLS will either be celebrating there first win over a ranked opponent since 2008 or Dooley and Company will be doing some early packing and the rest of the season is toast. Then three more years of this misery. This game decides Dooley's continuation in the SEC. If they cant even rise to the level of the Miss State's and Vandy then good riddance. It's been three years it should be rising. I'm one of those on the fence but a loss to State dumps me off.

Rock85 writes:

in response to BluezVol:

As underdogs, the VOLS have nothing to lose and should play like it. I'd love to see multiple safety/LB blitz packages; wildcat formations; on-side kicks; flee-flickers; end-arounds etc. We should be as unpredictable as a 14-year old girl who lost her cell phone.

Its easy to predict, Miss ST Loss, Bama Loss, South Carolina Loss.. New Coach ...

mdvol writes:

VOLS are going to drill MSU by at least 2 touchdowns. This team is healthy and motivated. 5 years of frustration is coming out in Starkville.

VOLS finish 8-4. Play in a New Year's Day bowl.

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