Dawgnation has been nursing a severe hangover for almost two weeks after being hammered at home by Alabama. We had countless players injured who have been trying to get well for this game coming up with Tennessee. Some will not make it back in time, but we will have most of the guys we started against Alabama except Danell Ellerbe, Tripp Chandler and Kris Durham. We will miss those guys - especially Ellerbe - but we have to play with what we've got.
Wednesday night I had a series of anxiety dreams. In one, I showed up to Athens with the wrong tickets. When the house is almost 6 hours away, that is an irremediable error. In the second dream, I was trying like hell to walk to the stadium and kept running into delays of various kinds and missed most of the first quarter. I am adamant about being in my seat at least 10 or 15 minutes before kickoff. This dream was extremely frustrating. Then, in the final dream, we were losing by a couple of points late in the fourth quarter and were driving for the winning score. I woke up before this dream concluded, so now, I must analyze these dreams in the context of my concerns about this game.
Needless to say, I am worried about this game. This game is pivotal. A loss would scuttle the season while a convincing win would restore much of the confidence and swagger we will need if we are going to make a run for the SEC title. I am almost always worried going into the Tennessee game and usually with good reason. Last year, I wasn't worried. In fact, I predicted a blowout - but had the teams backwards. Last year I was overconfident. This year, not in the least. Sure, UT has looked confused and inept on offense for most of the season. But, their defense has been reliable and they still have a stable of great athletes on offense. I have no doubt that they could pull their head out of their ass on Saturday, but I hope that Rennie Curran will be there to return that very same head to that very same ass. So what do we have to do to win?
Our offensive line will be the key to this game. If they can get the job done and make room for Knowshon to run, we will be able to execute our play-action passing game and move the ball consistently. We must run effectively if we want to dictate the outcome of this game. If Knowshon can eclipse the 100 yard barrier, we will win. If, as a team, we rush for over 200 yards, it will be a convincing win.
If we run the ball well, Stafford will be charged with merely managing the game, hitting a few passes on first down and protecting the football. He will not be asked to win the game. If we cannot run it, then Stafford will have to sling it all over the field like the second half against Alabama and hope that their offense continues to walk into walls.
On defense, we must plan to stop the run and take away the short passes. That is asking a lot for a team that just flat doesn't ever take away the short passes. Still, in this game, we must load up the line of scrimmage to stop the run and press the receivers at the line to take away the short game. Take those things away and challenge the new QB at UT to connect on the deep ball. At this point, I will pledge not to complain or get upset if UT connects on a couple of deep balls - IF - they have no success in the short passing game. We simply cannot let them dink and dunk us to death like they have the past two years. The key to our defensive gameplan is the front four. Those guys must get a push upfield against the UT o-line and tie up the linemen so our linebackers can make plays. Our front four must also provide more pressure on the passer than we have been seeing. If this occurs, we will disrupt their offense enough that they will not be able to use this as their get well game like they did last year.
I am comforted by two things: the off week and the fact that I am worried. I believe the off week was useful for our team to heal and to work on our problems and hopefully allow our offensive line to gel more than they have up until this point. I expect that our defensive coaches will have created an effective gameplan for what UT needs to do to win the game - rushing and short passing. On the second point, I am glad that I am worried. I am not taking UT lightly despite their underwhelming performances thus far this season. If I am not taking them lightly, I know that our coaches and players aren't taking them lightly. If we are prepared for a fight from the opening coin toss, we will be able to take that fight to the Volunteers early and often. Unlike my dreams, we need to show up ready, come out fast and keep our foot on the accelerator.
I would like to see our run:pass ratio around 40:25. That is a balance that works for our talents. I think we are capable of gaining close to 400 yards in this game if we execute. That means we cannot turn the ball over or kill ourselves with penalties. We should find our defense capable of holding UT under 20 points. I am confident that our offense is capable of scoring close to 30 points if we avoid turnovers and deadly penalties. But, I am worried that we won't play so flawlessly - hence the dreams. I hope my dreams were no harbinger of things to come, but if they were, I hope we get that late score that I missed by waking up. I will take any win, though we truly need to win in convincing fashion to start gathering the momentum we need for the toughest part of our schedule that remains.
When it is all said and done, I expect our Dawgs to win a game that will be closer than this final score:
Dawgs 27 - Vols 17.