By Jimmy Hyams / @JimmyHyams
Five things we learned about Tennessee after 45-20 rout of South Carolina.
*The Vols are fast starters.
UT has outscored South Carolina and Missouri 56-3 in the first quarter. It has also outscored those two SEC foes 83-17 in the first half. It has outscored six opponents 101-13 in the first quarter.
That might be the widest first-quarter margin of any team in the NCAA this season.
Why the fast starts?
Scripting plays has helped. The scouting report has helped. The efficiency of quarterback Hendon Hooker has helped. And being ready to play has helped.
Coach Josh Heupel has complained at times that his team doesn’t prepare properly in the 48 hours before kickoff. He couldn’t have any complaints about the last two games.
*The Vols can overcome a plethora of injuries.
Against South Carolina, Tennessee was without three defensive backs (Theo Jackson, Christian Charles, Deneiko Slaughter) two running backs (Jabari Small, Jaylen Wright) two defensive linemen (Elijah Simmons, Latrell Bumphus), two offensive linemen (Cooper Mays, Kingston Harris) a linebacker (Juwan Mitchell) and a few others.
Yet, Brandon Turnage, the Alabama transfer, replaced Jackson at nickelback and led the team in tackles with 14. The Vols ran for 247 yards against South Carolina while having to use a fourth-team running back. And the patched-up defense held the Gamecocks to one touchdown in the first half.
Also, during the South Carolina game, running back Tiyan Evans and offensive linemen Dayne Davis and Jackson Lampley went down with injuries.
Heupel and his staff had done a remarkable job implementing the “next-man up theory,’’ especially when you consider that UT is down 44 players from the start of last season that could be on the roster: 38 in the transfer portal, two that took medical leaves and four that were let out of their National Letter of Intent.
Even with all that attrition, UT still has 78 on scholarship, although Heupel lists 71 because he does not count the seven super seniors who are, indeed, on scholarship.
*The Vols need Tiyan Evans to beat Ole Miss.
Ole Miss has the best quarterback in the SEC in Matt Corral. It is averaging over 45 points per game. It scored 52 against Arkansas.
The Rebels, a four-point favorite, might score close to 50 against Tennessee’s better-than-expected defense.
That means UT has to score a ton of points. But the Vols can’t do it without a healthy Evans, who has emerged as one of the SEC’s top five running backs. He is averaging 97.2 rush yards per game and has had three 100-yard games. He has power, speed, balance and vision.
Evans could have a field day against Ole Miss’ defense, which surrendered 51 points and 324 rush yards to Arkansas. And it’s evident that UT’s run game drops off quite a bit without Evans in the backfield.
Evans left the South Carolina game in the second half with an undisclosed injury. Heupel said Evans could have returned but wasn’t needed. He will be needed against Ole Miss.
*Tennessee must play a clean game.
In losses to Pitt and Florida, the Vols had double digit penalties and lost the turnover battle to Pitt, 3-0.
In the past two SEC games, the Vols had no turnovers and four combined penalties.
That is a winning formula as UT outscored Missouri and South Carolina 107-44.
*Tennessee must avoid sacks.
The Vols scored touchdowns on their first four possessions against the Gamecocks. Counting the Missouri game, UT scored on 14 of 15 possessions with 12 touchdowns. That is mind-blowing.
That streak ended abruptly in the second half against South Carolina as UT punted on its first four possessions. The first drive was stopped on third-and-1. The other three were thwarted due to sacks.
Hendon Hooker was sacked six times. That’s far too many.
Sacks are usually drive killers, and UT can’t afford sacks if it wants to keep pace with Ole Miss’ high-powered offense.
Along those lines, first-down production could be a key. In the first half against South Carolina, UT gained 180 yards on 21 first-down snaps with 11 gains of 5 or more yards. In the second half, UT got 38 yards on 11 first downs with just four plays of 5 or more yards.
First-down efficiency can keep you out of third-and-long, which can lead to sacks.