Meaty issue

Did Tennessee's 21-point victory over Arkansas State ease many concerns as the Vols head into the meat of the SEC schedule next month?

Answer: No.

That's not to say that the Vols' win over the Indians should be disregarded. ASU lost by just eight points to Texas and outgained the Longhorns by 57 yards. And UT was coming off a demoralizing loss at Florida.

Tennessee has suffered some post-Florida hangovers that led to one major upset (Mississippi State in 1994) and one near upset (Memphis in 1999). Overcoming the worst loss of the Phillip Fulmer Era wasn't easy.

As Fulmer said: ``It was important for the football team to get this win and bounce back.''

Tennessee did show some life in the running game as the offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage in the second half, with backups guards Vlad Richard and Jacques McClendon leading the way. But it WAS Arkansas State.

Tennessee got after the quarterback, recording four sacks and a handful of hurries. The Vols had just three sacks in the previous seven games. But it WAS Arkansas State.

Tennessee, last in the nation in punt coverage entering the game, held ASU to five yards on two returns. Britton Colquitt averaged 46.8 yards on four punts with a net of 45.5. But it WAS Arkansas State.

You had to like the play of LaMarcus Coker and Lucas Taylor.

Coker rushed for 101 yards on 15 carries – 6.7 yards per attempt – had 49 receiving yards and 67 more on kick returns for 217 all-purpose yards. Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said he'll try to find more ways to get the ball to Coker, who has separated himself from Arian Foster.

Taylor is turning in a terrific season. He's got three 100-yard receiving games in four outings. This season, he's got 24 catches for 382 yards, an average of 95.5 yards per game. The Vols have never had a receiver average 100 yards per game. Robert Meachem missed by 2 yards last year. And only four receivers have had 1,000-yard seasons. So Taylor is in some rarified company.

But the major test is yet to come. Can the Vols run the ball, pressure the quarterback, cover punts and get big plays from Coker and Taylor when the opponent is Georgia?

That remains to be seen.

Georgia scored a confidence-boosting 26-23 overtime victory at Alabama on Saturday night, running its road record to 23-3 under Mark Richt. The Bulldogs host Ole Miss this weekend before traveling to Neyland Stadium Oct. 6. Georgia hasn't lost to UT in Knoxville this decade.

Tennessee has an open date before hosting the Bulldogs.

Cutcliffe said the open date comes at a good time. He's ready for a break. The team is ready for a break.

During the break, Tennessee must improve in several areas. Jonathan Hefney has gone from one of the SEC's premier punt returners to a liability. He had minus-17 yards on four runbacks against Arkansas State and Fulmer threatened to take away his job.

While the secondary made two interceptions, it dropped three or four more.

Austin Rogers dropped at least three passes, giving him abut half a dozen this season.

Opponents have scored three defensive touchdowns – two on fumble recovery returns and one on an interception – while also returning two punts for scores.

You can get away with giving away a gift touchdown against Arkansas State. You can't against Cal or Florida. The Vols must be more protective of the football while on offense.

Tennessee has one other issue it must solve: First-down defense.

Cal gained 306 yards on first down plays. Florida gained 381. Arkansas State had 194 on 28 first downs. That is significant improvement; 17 of those plays resulted in 2 or fewer yards.

But ASU gained 173 yards on seven first-down plays, ripping off gains of 45, 44 and 30 yards. The Indians got 137 yards on four plays, an average of 34.3 per play.

That won't cut it against Georgia.

Tennessee's win over Arkansas State was encouraging. It was certainly better than being upset.

But it wasn't convincing enough to convince me the Vols are ready to beat Georgia.


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