Vols face final exam

The final exam is always the hardest, and that certainly projects to be the case when Tennessee's secondary faces its final regular-season test of 2010 today against Kentucky.

Vol defensive backs may be feeling a false sense of security after limiting Memphis, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt to 565 combined passing yards - 188.3 per game - the past three weekends. If so, their confidence should be tempered by the fact Memphis ranks 87th nationally in passing yards (186.3 per game), Ole Miss 88th (186.0) and Vandy 114th (148.7).

Conversely, the Wildcat team that invades Neyland Stadium for this afternoon's 12:21 kickoff features the most prolific aerial attack the Big Orange will face all season. Led by senior quarterback Mike Hartline, the Wildcats rank No. 20 nationally in passing offense, averaging 274.4 yards per game. They're efficient, too, having thrown 25 touchdown passes vs. just 8 interceptions.

The only team among Tennessee's first 11 foes with a similarly productive air attack is UAB, which ranks No. 26 nationally at 268.7 yards per game. The Blazers, you may recall, torched the Vols for 429 passing yards in Game 4. For what it's worth, the Vol secondary also was burned for 326 passing yards by an Alabama air attack that ranks 37th nationally and for 266 yards by a Georgia air attack rated No. 41 nationally.

Notice a trend? Every time the Vols face a team with a potent aerial attack, they surrender a ton of passing yards. That does not bode well against a Kentucky team that boasts the most potent passing attack of anyone on Tennessee's 2010 schedule.

"Kentucky is as explosive a team as we've seen," Vol head coach Derek Dooley said this week. "These guys are really good. They have the formula. They have a veteran quarterback, two receivers that can pierce you and they have an excellent running back. When you have all of those parts in place, you're going to be good. And they are good."

Certainly, the Wildcats are far better - especially through the air - than Memphis, Ole Miss and Vandy.

"The last three offenses we've played haven't been as explosive throwing the ball as some of the previous offenses," Dooley conceded. "Ole Miss and Vandy run it; that's their deal. So we can't sit there and not acknowledge that. The test is going to be this week because I don't believe anybody throws it much better than these guys. This will be your final."

On a positive note, Tennessee's defensive backs have improved since that horrendous Game 4 showing against UAB. They also have progressed a bit since the awful outings against Georgia in Game 6 and Bama in Game 7.

"They are just playing with more confidence," Vol defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "That comes with experience, but I think they are definitely playing with more confidence and playing more aggressive."

Dooley sees improvement in the Vol secondary, as well.

"Both of our safeties (Janzen Jackson, Brent Brewer) are really playing better every week," the head man said. "That's because of experience. Seven weeks ago Brent was struggling. He was a true freshman who hadn't played ball in five years. Each game he plays he gets better – more confident, more physical.

"Janzen is the same way. Janzen has phenomenal talent but he's getting experience in a new system. At corner Marsalis (Teague) is another one. Experience has helped ‘em all."

None of the Vol DBs has experienced a passing attack as challenging as Kentucky's however. Dooley readily concedes as much, noting:

"How much better have we gotten? Stay tuned."

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