Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, September 3, 2016 at 1:00 PM
Tennessee came into their Thursday Night opener with Appalachian State with big expectations. The Vols were ranked ninth in the country. They're a 4-5 favorite to win the SEC East and considered a credible challenger to Alabama or LSU out of the West for the conference title. And when you're considered legitimate for the SEC championship it means you're viable as a national championship team. But Tennessee looked like none of the above in needing overtime to escape Appalachian State 20-13 as a (-21.5) favorite.
Let's start by acknowledging that Appalachian State is a good team. The Mountaineers are more than just the novelty program that stunned Michigan in Ann Arbor almost ten years ago. In the ensuing decade, Appalachian State has moved to the FCS level and is coming off an 11-win season in the Sun Belt Conference last year. They're legit. They're also a team that the presumed elite of the SEC should be able to handle at home.
What has to be more concerning to Vols head coach Butch Jones and Tennessee's backers in Vegas is that they were beaten up front on defense. The Mountaineers rushed for 184 yards, compared to 127 for Tennessee. If the Volunteers are going to be outrushed by App State, what's going to happen on October 15 when Alabama comes to town. More important, what's going to happen when they play SEC East rivals Florida and Georgia in consecutive games starting three weeks from now?
The biggest improvement any team makes is between the first and second game. It's a time-honored truism in coaching and there's a lot to be said for it. There's no reason to use Thursday's struggles as a reason to rush to judgment against the Vols. What has happened however, is that interest in some immediate games coming up is heightened, as a prelude to the key SEC East games coming up at the end of this month.
Let's start with tonight's game between Georgia and North Carolina in Atlanta. The Bulldogs have arguably the most talented roster in the Eastern Division, but they also have potential problems at quarterback. New head coach Kirby Smart opted to go with the safe choice, of senior Greyson Lambert. But if the Dawgs don't get more production out of the passing game than they did last year, then highly touted freshman Jacob Eason is going to be in the lineup sooner rather than later. That's not an ideal situation in a division race whose biggest games are going to be early in the season.
Florida is going to be a tougher team to get a read on. They have a tuneup games against Massachusetts today and North Texas on September 17 sandwiched between a conference home game against Kentucky. On September 24, the Gators come to Knoxville.
Finally, we come to Tennessee's big game next week, the Battle In Bristol, when they play Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway. Will the Vols show the necessary improvement, particularly in defending the run? That's the big issue that's emerged in the first days of the SEC East race.
You can make a good argument that Tennessee will win this division. It's much tougher to justify investing in them at a 4-5 price, with Georgia sitting at 5-2 and Florida at 3-1.