Five questions

Five major questions surrounded the Tennessee football program entering this season. How would Erik Ainge respond to David Cutcliffe's coaching? Would the receivers become playmakers? Would the offensive line improve? Could the defense withstand losing six of its front seven starters? Would the special teams be special?

Three games into this season, we are beginning to find answers. The results are incomplete and the reviews mixed. But let's tackle each of those concerns.

1. Ainge has responded quite well to Cutcliffe. Ainge has completed 65.8 percent of his passes for an SEC-best 807 yards and seven touchdowns. His pass efficiency rating of 170.7 ranks eighth in the nation and second in the SEC.

His fundamentals are sounder, his passing more accurate, his decision making improved. He did throw an awkward pass out of his end zone against Florida. And he had a key interception against Air Force when he stared down a receiver. But he's much better now than ever.

I do have a couple of concerns. Against Florida on a late third-and-16, he had a receiver wide open underneath, but threw incomplete to Robert Meachem in triple coverage. It makes me wonder if he's doing a good job with his progressions, if he sees the field as well as he needs to.

Against California and Air Force, was he sharp with his reads? Or did the receivers make his job easy by getting open quickly?

2. Tennessee's receivers have become playmakers. Robert Meachem is averaging 20.2 yards on 17 catches and leads the SEC in receiving yards per game. Jayson Swain is averaging 15.4 yards on 14 catches. Meachem and Swain have combined for six TDs – four more than their combined total last year.

Wideouts have been involved in 11 pass plays of at least 20 yards, a major improvement over last year.

3. UT's offensive line has not improved. It appeared to make progress in the opener against Cal, when the Vols rambled for 216 yards. That was a mirage. Rushing for less than 100 yards against an undersized Air Force front four and getting 16 yards on 19 running back carries against Florida is unacceptable.

UT's much maligned line a year ago rushed for 66 yards at Florida.

Is it personnel? In a word: Yes.

Only Arron Sears played at a winning level against Florida. UT's center and right tackle played poorly against Florida. The guards didn't do much, either. The line sorely misses Rob Smith, who bypassed his senior season to turn pro. Sears and Smith on the same side would rival any left side in the SEC.

One theory about the blockers is that under former line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens, who worked at Florida, the linemen became finesse blockers and lost their toughness -- and it takes more than a year to restore that physicality.

The other is that the linemen just aren't that good, and will continue to get overmatched by solid front fours, like Georgia and LSU.

The strength of Marshall's defense is stopping the run. The Thundering Herd held Kansas State to 99 yards and Hofstra to minus-5. If UT can't surpass 100 rushing yards against Marshall, the Vols offense is in trouble this season.

4. The defense has had trouble replacing the likes of Parys Haralson, Jason Hall, Jesse Mahelona and Omar Gaither.

The run defense was punctured for 281 yards and four touchdowns by the Air Force triple option. Florida, which rushed for 68 yards against Tennessee last year, had 121 as DeShawn Wynn surpassed 100 yards and backup quarterback Tim Tebow – who can bench press 225 pounds 28 times -- constantly converted on runs from the shotgun.

Last year, UT ranked No. 2 in the nation against the run (82.5 yards).

This year, UT ranks 87th in the nation against the run (155.3).

Tennessee's front four – without injured Justin Harrell – doesn't rank in the top five in the SEC while UT's linebackers, despite racking up tackles, haven't made enough plays at or near the line of scrimmage.

5. Special teams are again a disaster in certain areas. The kick return team is last in the NCAA at 12.9 yards per runback. The punt return team is 69th (7.0). The punt coverage team has holes.

The Vols have been fine in kick coverage. James Wilhoit has made 11 consecutive field goal attempts and 14 of his last 15. Britton Colquitt is averaging 44.4 yards per punt.

Thus, of the five questions entering this season, three appear to have a positive answers. Two do not.

That begs another question: Can the Vols overcome offensive line woes and special teams breakdowns to contend for the SEC East Division title?

We'll know after Oct. 7 – the day Tennessee plays at Georgia.


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