Paschall: Vols’ top strength right now facing Bama’s top concern

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee defensive tackle Omari Thomas wraps up Texas A&M quarterback Max Johnson during Saturday's 20-13 victory by the Volunteers inside Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee defensive tackle Omari Thomas wraps up Texas A&M quarterback Max Johnson during Saturday's 20-13 victory by the Volunteers inside Neyland Stadium.

The word “elite” was tossed about a bunch early Saturday evening in regards to Tennessee’s defense following the 20-13 downing of Texas A&M inside Neyland Stadium.

Holding the Aggies to 54 rushing yards and to 1.9 yards per carry qualified as elite, as did intercepting Max Johnson twice. Pro Football Focus even trotted out a stat Sunday stating that Johnson was pressured on 25 of his 39 dropbacks (64.1%) against the Volunteers and that Texas A&M had never experienced such a pressure rate since tracking that metric began in 2014.

Vols coach Josh Heupel reiterated that the standard is to play elite defense and rightly stated that the program has come a long way in two years, but then senior linebacker Aaron Beasley was asked whether opponents view Tennessee as being elite on that side of the ball. The question seemed relevant given that the Vols have surpassed 30 points once in three Southeastern Conference contests, yet the program continues to be recognized more for its frenetic pace offensively and the plethora of scoring that usually comes with it.

“I don’t know what they think of us, honestly,” Beasley said. “We really just focus on what we’ve got going, and we focus on the people we’ve got around us. We focus on the next game that we have.

“That’s what we worry about.”

Tennessee’s defense certainly has another statement opportunity this week when the No. 17 Vols visit No. 11 Alabama in a matchup that should come nowhere close to last October’s 52-49 outcome. The Vols rank 17th in the country in both total defense (303.0) and scoring defense (17.0), while the Crimson Tide rank 15th (291.6) and 12th (16.0).

The greatest strength for the Vols right now is their defensive pressure, ranking fourth nationally in both tackles for loss (8.67) and sacks (4.00) a game. Sophomore edge rusher James Pearce Jr. is one of nine players nationally averaging at least one sack per contest.

Alabama’s biggest weakness currently is stopping such pressure, with Jalen Milroe having been sacked five times during Saturday’s 24-21 outlasting of Arkansas after being sacked six times the week before at Texas A&M.

“We have to handle the pressure better,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said Saturday. “I mean, we have to be able to handle pressure and stunts better.”

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Moments after Milroe connected with Kobe Prentice for a 79-yard touchdown in the final minute of the first quarter, Will Reichard came in to connect on the extra point to give the Tide a 7-6 advantage. That was the 481st career point for the fifth-year senior, making him the SEC’s all-time scoring leader.

Former Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson tallied 480 career points from 2014-17, but Reichard has 486 entering this week’s game against the Vols to rank seventh in NCAA history.

“He has been as good a player at his position, even though he’s a specialist, as anybody that we’ve ever had here, and he’s an even better person,” Saban said. “He wanted to come back and try to improve his kickoffs so that he would have a better chance to be successful in the NFL, and I think this is one of the good things that name, image and likeness brings to players.

“A guy doesn’t have to be poor and not be able to earn money and be able to come back and do that as a college player as opposed to going to the draft, being a free agent possibly, not making the team and then you’re out. Will was smart enough to understand that could benefit him in his future.”

Reichard will face Tennessee having made 26 consecutive field goals.

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Top-ranked Georgia is 7-0 entering its open date for a fourth time in Kirby Smart’s eight seasons and for a third consecutive year.

The Bulldogs racked up 542 yards Saturday afternoon while holding Vanderbilt to 219, though the 37-20 final didn’t reflect that dominance.

“I’m glad it’s here,” Smart said. “We’ll try to get better. People don’t understand what a bye week really is. It’s an opportunity for a growth week for me. I don’t look at it as time off.

“We’ve got some players who need it, and we’re a dinged-up football team. We still have guys who are missing practice and missing time and then trying to go out there and play.”

One such player would be redshirt junior receiver and former North Murray High School standout Ladd McConkey, who had four catches against the Commodores for 58 yards.

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One of the more frustrating aspects to a season can be looking stronger before an open date compared to after it.

That is the case with Auburn, which fell just 27-20 to visiting Georgia on Sept. 30, had Oct. 7 off, and then got walloped 48-18 Saturday night by LSU in Baton Rouge. LSU had never scored that many points in the battle of the SEC West’s Tigers.

“Obviously it was a difficult night,” Auburn first-year coach Hugh Freeze said after falling to 3-3. “They beat us in every way that you could. We had no answers for them defensively, and offensively, we were not consistent enough to stay in a scoring match with them.

“This will test us. Football does that, but we didn’t have the same juice tonight. I don’t think we fought as hard, but that’s something I’ve got to own.”

Since firing Gus Malzahn during the coronavirus pandemic without first lining up a replacement, Auburn is 5-14 in SEC games. This season’s 0-3 start in league play is Auburn’s first since 2012.

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Kentucky’s 5-0 start is off the rails following the 51-13 drubbing at Georgia and Saturday night’s 38-21 home loss to Missouri.

The Wildcats have never been an upper-echelon SEC program from a talent standpoint, but 11th-year coach Mark Stoops has attained consistent success often by being the cleaner team. He is not seeing that now as his Wildcats enter their open date before hosting Tennessee on Oct. 28.

“The lack of discipline is really something that’s standing out and bothering me,” Stoops said. “We haven’t been perfect over the years by any stretch, but we’ve had more discipline than we have right now, and that’s something that’s inexcusable.

“We’ve got to take care of the football, and we’ve got to eliminate some penalties.”

Kentucky’s 68.4 penalty yards per game are on track to be the most in the Stoops era.

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Between their lopsided defeats at Utah and Kentucky, their tremendous showing against Tennessee and their lethargic effort against Charlotte, the Florida Gators have seemingly packed a decade’s worth of life lessons into their 5-2 start this season.

The latest experience was Saturday’s 41-39 win at South Carolina, a game the Gators trailed 37-27 with five minutes remaining.

“This group has done nothing but get closer,” Florida second-year coach Billy Napier said. “I think it’s almost galvanized the group. We came here looking to prove something.”

The Gamecocks fell to 2-4, their worst midyear mark in Shane Beamer’s three seasons.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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