Wiedmer: Vols realize SEC is best of big boys

Wiedmer: Vols realize SEC is best of big boys

September 13th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscolumns

UT's Mychal Rivera

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Before tight end Mychal Rivera transferred to junior college from Pac-12 member Oregon on his roundabout way to Tennessee, he often watched Southeastern Conference football games on television.

"I always knew the SEC was fast," Rivera said. "But the Pac-12's pretty fast, too. There are a lot of guys with track speed in that conference."

But since coming to the SEC a year ago, the junior's take on America's top conference has changed a bit.

"I still think the Pac-12 is as fast as the SEC," he said. "But every player in the SEC is at least 20 pounds bigger at his position and they all hit a lot harder. This is a man's league."

Or as UT coach Derek Dooley is so fond of calling it as the Vols prepare for Saturday's trip to No. 16 Florida: "big-boy ball."

His playing days at Virginia facing his father Vince's Georgia team aside, Dooley has only coached against big-boy ball, however. What's it like to play eight conference games a year against SEC schools? Is it impossible to describe or easy to explain? Are the players immediately aware of the athletic superiority of the league, or does it take time to appreciate?

"Oh, you know pretty quick," said Vols senior linebacker Austin Johnson. "Everything moves a little faster. Especially the bigger guys. Cincinnati actually surprised me with their speed at some spots. But everybody's big and fast in the SEC."

Cincinnati, of course, fell 45-23 to UT last Saturday to improve the Big Orange to 2-0 on the season for the first time since 2006.

And Dooley wasn't ignoring the mountains of good work done in that victory by his sophomore-heavy team. After all, it isn't every day that your quarterback (Tyler Bray) throws for four touchdowns and more than 400 yards, your running back (Tauren Poole) rushes for more than 100 yards, you have two receivers (Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers) with 10 catches and at least 100 receiving yards each and your defense twice stuffs the opponent on crucial fourth-and-1 plays.

But as he also told his team Sunday, "We took care of two opponents we should have taken care of [Montana and Cincinnati], and we did it the way Tennessee should take care of them. It's a good start. Now -- what's next?"

According to the senior Poole, what's next is a big change.

"If Florida's a 10 on the speed meter, Montana's a 5 and Cincinnati's a 6 or a 7," Poole said. "So it's going to be a little different in the Swamp. In the SEC, every team is physical and fast and Florida may be faster than anyone."

So how can the Vols win such a game?

"You have to do almost everything perfect on every play," Poole said. "When you go on the road in the SEC, especially at a place like Florida, there's little room for error. The little things get you beat in the SEC, so we have to execute every play."

Planning it and doing it are two different things, which might explain why Dooley said, "You can't simulate their speed, and that's what gets you. You get a little bit lazy, you have a breakdown in a technique or a fundamental and their athleticism exposes you."

But Rivera also said something that should give Volniacs a least a wee bit of hope.

"I mostly got popped in practice last year," he said. "But going up against those guys -- guys such as Jacques Smith -- was as hard as anybody I played against in a game all season. There's plenty of speed and big hitters on our team."

If he's right, UT just might be off to its first 3-0 start since 2004, which was also the last time the Vols beat the Gators.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.