Tennessee Vols set to start season's key stretch

photo Tennessee's Jalen Hurd carries the ball in the game against Arkansas State.

KNOXVILLE - Tennessee better have made use of its first open date of the season.

The Volunteers won't get another one until November.

After winning two of three out-of-conference games to begin 2014, Tennessee opens SEC play on Saturday at No. 12 Georgia, which will start a stretch of games during which the Vols will play three top-15 teams on the road and host third-ranked Alabama and rival Florida.

The schedule is as daunting as its been in recent years, but with those challenging games come opportunities for the Vols to show tangible signs of progress in the program's second season under coach Butch Jones, who is 1-11 against ranked teams in his coaching career, with the win coming against South Carolina last season.

For Tennessee to make the most of a stretch that could define the season, here are five questions the Vols must answer.

1. Can Tennessee's offensive line keep quarterback Justin Worley upright?

While it's a positive that Worley repeatedly peeling himself from the turf and trying to lead Tennessee's comeback attempt in the 34-10 loss at Oklahoma showed that he's "one tough son of a gun," in the words of offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, the chances aren't great he makes it through the season unless the pass protection improves.

Through three games, Tennessee's allowed nine sacks after the veteran group that put four players on NFL rosters surrendered just 15 all of last season. A better comparison is perhaps the 2010 offensive line, also an inexperienced group, that also allowed nine in the season's first three games, including six to Florida.

After starting a different lineup in each game, Tennessee appears to have settled on a five it likes, so the Vols hope the unit will jell and true freshmen Jashon Robertson and Coleman Thomas will improve with more experience.

2. Will the Vols' defensive line continue to hold up?

A group that's played better than expected will face easily its biggest test in Athens on Saturday.

Oklahoma's massive offensive line was daunting for the Vols, but the Sooners don't have Todd Gurley (or Sony Michel, for that matter) toting the rock. Tennessee held Oklahoma to 146 rushing yards, but freshman Semaje Perine, who ran for 242 yards at West Virginia, got just nine carries against the Vols. Georgia is averaging 304 yards on the ground per game.

Against Oklahoma, Tennessee often stacked the box with up to eight defenders and used a variety of slants and twists on the defensive line, and it largely worked. With an undersized group, the Vols likely will have to rely on a similar blueprint for the power-run teams left on the schedule. Tennessee also must find more depth after using essentially six linemen so far.

3. Can Jalen Hurd become a game-breaker?

It took the five-star freshman nearly 10 quarters to break a long run, but he did it twice in the second half at Oklahoma. The Vols used a tight end as a lead blocker on both of Hurd's long runs, and up to those plays, his longest run was 12 yards. Through three games, Hurd has gotten 14 more carries than Marlin Lane, so he appears to be the favored back.

Though this Tennessee team may be best suited getting the ball outside to its options at receiver, the Vols can't become a one-dimensional offense, so Hurd must continue to be efficient and turn some of his 4-yard runs into longer gains.

4. Does Tennessee's secondary better limit big plays?

If the Vols have to continue to gear their defensive game plans toward stopping opponents from running the ball, Tennessee's secondary will have to manage being left in some one-on-one matchups. Against Oklahoma, the Vols allowed five passing plays of 20-plus yards, and eight missed tackles were a big reason why.

With veterans like Cam Sutton, Brian Randolph and Justin Coleman back there, the Vols should be able to rely on the back end of their defense.

5. How do the Vols find a special teams spark?

Aside from coming up with two takeaways thanks to bad punts and blocking a field goal late against Oklahoma, the Vols have been lethargic in the game's third phase, and that won't make Jones happy.

Tennessee needs better blocking and better returning from Devrin Young on kickoffs, and Sutton is still looking for his first true chance to return a punt. The Vols need better consistency from punter Matt Darr. Tennessee swung last season's Georgia game on a blocked punt, and it may need a similar play to pick off one of their ranked opponents.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.