Saturday presents the biggest test of the season for the Bearcats. Last week Cincinnati put on a clinic on offense and defense. They led the nation in points with 72 and the defense was stout, forcing two sacks, two picks, and three fumbles. But that was Austin Peay, a team that plays on the FCS level, scored half as many points as their opponents in 2010, and finished off the season 2 – 9. Tennessee is basically at the other end of the spectrum when you’re talking about football programs. They have the history. They have the stadium. They have the facilities. They have the fanbase. They have what most other collegiate football programs want. This presents a golden opportunity for the Bearcats to prove on a national level that they can beat a marquee out of conference opponent. They nearly pulled it off last season against Oklahoma and get another chance in 2011. Brad over at Rocky Top Talk, an SB Nation blog site with Volunteer coverage busting out the seems, took some time to get you caught up on all things Tennessee:
Bearcats Nation: What in the heck is Rocky Top and where did it come from?
Brad: Rocky Top is a song written in 1967 by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant in the still-standing Gatlinburg Inn, not far from Knoxville. The Bryants were working on writing songs for Archie Campbell and Chet Atkins at the time and penned the song in 10 minutes. The bluegrass song did not become popular until the Pride of the Southland marching band played it first in 1972 before the Alabama game. Since then it has been covered by countless artists throughout the years and has become the unofficial fight song at UT.
Most folks outside of Tennessee fail to realize that Rocky Top is actually NOT UT’s official fight song. That is “Down the Field.” If we’re playing well on Saturday, you’ll hear Rocky Top. A lot. It’s played after scores, even sometimes crucial plays and before the game when we’re running through the T. You can find the lyrics to the song here, and it includes verses about moonshine, a murder cover-up and a gal who is half-bear-the-other-half-cat — all good things for a song, in my opinion.
A lot of opposing fans mistakenly believe that ‘Rocky Top’ is an actual place, when — at least by most accounts — it isn’t. According to the wiki page, some have suggested that the song refers to a “5,440-foot barren summit known as “Rocky Top”— located in the Great Smoky Mountains on the Tennessee North Carolina border ….Rocky Top is a subpeak of Thunderhead Mountain, which overlooks Cades Cove.” I think that’s a stretch, and it’s just a fictional place. However, “Rocky Top” has become synonymous with East Tennessee, Knoxville and Neyland Stadium. When you are at UT, you’re on Rocky Top.
BN: For Bearcats fans heading to the game, where do you recommend they go to take in the best of Knoxville?
Brad: Honestly, I’d spend most of gameday around the stadium and down on The Strip, which is an area of bars and restaurants around campus. Right outside of Neyland, you have to experience the Vol Navy, which is a bunch of boats that float down the Tennessee River and dock outside the game to party, tailgate, etc.You’ve got to witness the Vol Walk before the game, where our players, coaches and band march into the stadium. It’s truly one of the great traditions, and you’ll never see more orange in your life. If you’re making a weekend out of it, a must is Calhoun’s By the River, where you can eat great Ribs and Q. It’s really close to Neyland — walking distance — but you’d better get there early to get seats on gameday. There are a couple other restaurants I could give you, but they’re not really close to the stadium. I’d also suggest heading up to Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg after the game and taking a couple days in the beautiful Smoky Mountains. That’s something a lot of opponents’ fans do when they’re playing at UT. If you just want to stick around town and party, go to the Old City, which is the older part of downtown Knoxville. Barley’s brews its own beer and is an old favorite watering hole of mine.
Brad: That’s a good question, and I’m not sure we even know a complete answer yet because our personnel last year was so far down, we didn’t get a good picture of the marriage of Dooley’s offense with coordinator Jim Chaney’s. With Bray in there, it appears we’re somewhat hearkening back to Chaney’s roots that he ran at Purdue when he had Drew Brees and Kyle Orton. That is a classic spread [lots of three- and four-WR sets and heavy passing] but it has been modified by his time in the NFL — so I’d characterize it as a spread with pro-style elements. We’ve seen a lot of slants and short outs. Most UT fans want to see more running, and I think Dooley wants it, too, but we’ve not been very successful the past two seasons. If we’re successful running the ball against you, you’re in store for a loss. Our line sticks to a man blocking scheme fairly exclusively, and we tend to run power, ISO and stretch runs more than anything. Dooley likes throwing to the tight end, but our fullback had three catches against Montana and TE had none, so I like to think we’re getting pretty diverse in the passing game. Need to develop a third WR.
BN: How has Tyler Bray progressed this offseason? What can he improve on this season to avoid the sophomore slump?
Brad: Most of us were worried after he went 5-for-30 — not a misprint — in the spring game. But he was very, very sharp against Montana. I know it was Montana, but he made every single throw, and it looks like he has worked on his delivery and his rolling away from pressure this offseason. Bray finished 17-of-24 for almost 300 yards and three touchdowns, and he really should have had three more completions. He needs to really not focus on the home-run ball so often and be content to hit his two- or three-read a little more [which he did in the opener]. Bray likes the big play, and he’s fearless. He tends to force things at times. He has more talent than any quarterback we’ve had since Peyton Manning, and Bray just needs to play within himself and learn when to take shots and when to cut bait. If he does that, we’ll be fine. It’s essential that he has a tight end or slot receiver emerge that can lessen the load. Reminds a lot of our fans of Tony Pike, by the way. But he has a stronger arm.
BN: The Volunteers’ offensive line was young last season. How has that experience prepared them for 2011?
Brad: The line was the deepest and most exciting position heading into the season, and we were all excited about the potential. Coaches have quietly told people they think there are 8-10 NFL players over there with guys like Zach Fulton, Ja’Wuan James, James Stone, etc. But they were mediocre at best against a Montana team geared to stop the running game. We expected a big jump from those guys, and coaches praised them throughout the offseason, but they failed to finish blocks against the Grizz and were whipped too often at the point of attack. The talent is certainly there, but we still start four sophomores and a junior, so there will be some growing pains. This will be a big test against Cincy’s experienced front. The good news is most of them have been in the battles before, and everybody thinks they’ll continue to improve and be exceptional by the end of the year.
BN: Who is Tennessee’s biggest playmaker on offense at WR, TE, or RB?
Brad: Our two biggest playmakers — without question — are sophomore wide receivers Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter. Both have the potential to be elite, first-round talents, and both were incredible at route-running and YAC against Montana. If UT wins, it’ll be because Bray gets the ball in their hands plenty. Tight end Mychal Rivera was a good pass-catcher last season, but he was shut out against the Grizz. We probably only ran a variation of 10-12 plays, so I’m not too concerned about it. Rivera isn’t the greatest blocker, but he has a lot of success catching the ball normally. At running back, Poole is the senior and starter, but he’s one of those three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust guys. The playmaker back there is freshman Marlin Lane who had 74 all-purpose yards against Montana and touched the ball in the running game, passing game and on special teams. He was a top recruit in the country. Also, sophomore Rajion Neal has been banged up, but he’ll get the ball more against the Bearcats. He is the fastest player on the team, and we need to get him the ball in space.
BN: What can Cincinnati fans expect to see out of the Tennessee defense?
Brad: With the ouster of star Janzen Jackson a little more than a week ago, it changed the face of UT’s defense. Against Montana, we ran A LOT of nickel, and given the personnel and the horizontal passing attack that we’ll see from Zach Collaros out of the spread, I expect more of the same. When we’re in base, we’ve got two true freshman linebackers in Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson that are all over the field and a definite upgrade personnel-wise from last year. Though we didn’t have any sacks on Montana, I was impressed with the pass rush against a quick-pass team designed to not get hits on the quarterback. Between Maggitt, defensive end Jacques Smith and All-SEC defensive tackle Malik Jackson, the Vols should generate a pretty decent pass rush. We have been excited about Justin Wilcox’s scheme because he normally runs much more man than zone, and maybe we’ll begin to graduate more and more toward that as our young players get more comfortable. One worry is a couple of our defensive backs — Prentiss Waggner and Art Evans — aren’t the greatest tacklers. We’ve got to shore that up against a veteran Cincy receiving corps.
BN: If you were a Cincinnati coach, what position for the Vols on both sides of the ball would you exploit?
Brad: That’s kind of asking me to call out players, and I’m not very comfortable with that, but I’ll answer from a coach’s perspective. We’re all excited about true freshman cornerback Justin Coleman and his ability and memory-loss after negative plays. Kid has all the ability in the world. But he’s also a true freshman, so I’d hit him up when I could. Also, if he’s on the same side as free safety Waggner, you’re not going to have the best tacklers over there, so there is the possibility of making big gains. Also, while we’re better up the defensive middle, we aren’t big. Teams have found success in the past running straight ahead.
Offensively, we really have a ton of weapons. Against Montana, I thought our new left guard Alex Bullard [a transfer from Notre Dame] was exploited the whole game, which doesn’t bode well against a FCS team. But coaches really praised him all during the offseason. Still, stems and stunts seemed to confuse our offensive front at times, and I don’t think they’re 100 percent comfortable as a unit yet. Be careful there, though. Our offensive line coach is one of the best in the country, and he’ll probably set up a camp in their butts all week after a less-than-inspiring performance.
BN: Who’s the home run threat on kickoffs and punts?
Brad: Da’Rick Rogers has never taken a kick back to the house, but he has that potential on every play. He’s a former five-star who is a star in the making. On punts, we’re thankful we’ve found somebody who can just catch one out of every three punts after the muff-fest last year, but Lane has shown some wiggle in his couple of returns. An X factor is true freshman jitterbug Devrin Young who is fast, quick and small. He broke his collarbone in the preseason, and while nobody really expects him back until two weeks from now, if he plays, we’ll be just as eager to see what he can do as anybody else on the field. He’s a local product who was brought in to shore up special teams.
BN: How is the kicking/punting game for the Vols looking?
Brad: I’m probably less confident in our kickers than anybody on the team. Both K Michael Palardy and P Matt Darr were rated as the top players in the country at their respective positions by at least one recruiting service, but both have been inconsistent. Palardy is inconsistent in kickoffs, sometimes booting them to the 1 and sometimes to the 15. He hasn’t attempted a field goal yet this year but he was alright last season. He also was the better of the two punters on Saturday, averaging 40.5 ypp on his two kicks, getting the benefit of one good roll. Darr averaged 34 ypp on his two punts. Our coverage units are solid-to-spectacular, though. That’s really a strength.
BN: Who do you got in this game?
Brad: I was personally stunned to see the line at 4 1/2. Either the oddsmakers don’t think as much of Tennessee as I do or the Bearcats are a lot better than I expected. I know this is a different Cincinnati team than the four-win group last year, but I think Bray will pick apart zone coverage. I think we’ll be able to run the football. And I think we’ve got enough talent on defense to make some plays. The Bearcats are going to score some points, but in the end, I think we’ll take care of business and win this one something like 28-20 or 34-24, somewhere around 8-10 points. I’m looking forward to it, though. I’ve always liked and respected Cincinnati, and it’ll be a quality win if we do what’s expected.
First of all, hats off to Brad for answering my detailed questions so thoroughly. I think he gave us Bearcats fans a little taste of what we can expect on Saturday. As to his prediction of a Tennessee win, I’m inclined to agree with him. I’ve said all season that UC will go 4 – 1 in the out of conference schedule with the only loss being to these guys. I’ll release my 5 keys to the game tomorrow but the main thing to look for in this game is how Cincinnati’s experience in almost every facet of the game matches with the very talented but very young Volunteers team. Experience is an overlooked and undervalued trait for a football team but this is one of those big games that I haven’t seen the Bearcats win in quite a while. I’d be happy to be proven wrong but I think the Vols takes this one 28 – 24.