On September 10th, the Vanderbilt Commodores created four turnovers on their way to defeating the Conneciticut Huskies by a score of 24-21 in Nashville. That same UConn squad went to Buffalo on September 24th and defeated the Bulls by a score of 17-3. Thus, it's easy to deduct Vandy>UConn>Buffalo.
While Vanderbilt is off to a 3-1 start under James Franklin, their talent level is not much better than it has been during the last two dreadful seasons on West End. So any team that is "less than" a team that Vanderbilt defeated (i.e. Buffalo) should not be a hard test for the University of Tennessee. With Buffalo making the trip down south to Knoxville this weekend, it doesn't figure to be a game where the outcome should ever be in doubt. UT should thump Buffalo; if it's a competitive game, you can use deductive reasoning to say the Vols will have trouble with Vanderbilt, yikes! (Obviously, this type of logic isn't foolproof. That's why they play the games.) I know all coaches will say they are focused on the next opponent, the next play, etc. However, I contend the Vols must use the upcoming four quarters vs. Buffalo to accomplish four key objectives.
1.) Establish a receiver to take the place of Justin Hunter and take the pressue off Da'Rick Rogers. -- As reported by ESPN's Edward Aschoff and other media outlets, Zach Rogers has been getting the reps at Hunter's vacated X position. DeAnthony Arnett is listed as the backup to Da'Rick and is the third receiver. The legend in shorts that is Matt Milton will hopefully figure somewhere into the mix, but for some reason or another, that has not been the case thus far.
It's impossible to replace a player the caliber of Justin Hunter and not have at least a slight drop off in production. Nevertheless, it's vital that Bray develops a repoire with Zach Rogers and DeAnthony Arnett. Hunter was Bray's security blanket; that role now falls to Da'Rick as the receiver Bray is most comfortable with. Four quarters of Zach Rogers and DeAnthony Arnett running routes vs. the Bulls' secondary should go a long way towards Bray establishing more gameday chemistry with the duo. This is a must heading into the upcoming gauntlet of a schedule that lies ahead of UT after the Buffalo game.
2.) Establish a consistent running game. -- It seems even when the Vols are struggling with running the football, they oftentimes break off a few big runs in the fourth quarter to make the numbers look better than reality. The offensive line needs to be in synch with Poole and Lane for the entire game vs. Buffalo in order for the ground game to have confidence heading into the meat of the schedule. The rushing attack was very meager vs. Florida, and the Vols' running struggles have been well documented on CBC and other blogs, media outlets, etc. If UT plans on getting to six or seven wins this year, the running game will have to be a big part of it. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that running the ball well takes pressure off Tyler Bray. With Hunter now out of the mix, lessening the pressure on Bray is an even higher priority. Let's hope the Vols smash the Bulls up front and churn out the tough yards in third and short situations when Buffalo expects UT to pound it.
3.) Get Michael Palardy and the entire special teams back on track. -- The Knox News Sentinel's Andrew Gribble reported the story of Michael Palardy calling his performance vs. the Gators "unacceptable". At least the young man is not in denial. The kicking game vs. Florida didn't exactly do the great General nor his Game Maxims justice. The much heralded Palardy missed a 37 yard field goal, had a punt blocked for a touchdown and failed to register a touchback the entire game.
The contest vs. Buffalo may not come down to a "do-or-die" field goal, but there are games looming large on UT's schedule that may very well come down to that. Also, he has to start getting more leg on kickoffs in order to start inducing a few touchbacks. There's not a better place for Palardy to start than the "Vandy>UConn>Buffalo game".
4.) Avoid injuries and build confidence. -- Avoiding injuries on the football field is a difficult feat for all teams. However, when your program is under a black cloud (a.k.a. Fulmer Curse), it's impossible. Over the past few years, the Vols have survived their fair share of attrition due to coaching changes, injuries, defections and all things bad luck. The depth chart is chocked full of young players at all positions. In order to survive the upcoming games vs. Georgia, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina, the Vols must come out of the Buffalo game in tact health wise.
As far as builiding confidence, UT should hopefully do so in all three phases of the game. As pointed out earlier, the running game needs to get on track, and the new roles for the wide receiver position will hopefully gel. Special teams wise, Palardy could use a solid game. Defensively, the Vols are taking on an opponent that could only muster three points at home vs. UConn. How will they do in front of an orange clad fan mob? It's a perfect opportunity for the defense to "get right".
In closing, I fully realize you can't take games for granted. However, other than playing the hapless Memphis Tigers, Buffalo appears to be about the closest thing to a guaranteed win on the schedule. With that being the case, the Vols have much work to do. Let's hope the Vols put on their hard hats, go to work and come out with some positive results in areas other than the scoreboard.