Akron (1-2) at Tennessee (2-1)
7:30 p.m. tonight * Neyland Stadium in Knoxville * CSS/106.5 FM
Akron quarterback Dalton Williams is averaging more than 50 pass attempts per game for the pass-happy Zips this season, so Tennessee's secondary is expecting quite a workout from the visitors. The Vols will be in the first game without safety and leading tackler Brian Randolph (knee), and Justin Coleman replaces Marsalis Teague at cornerback as Tennessee looks for more speed. Akron is averaging more than 88 plays per game this season as well, which will test the Vols' ongoing communication issues on defense. "The one thing you know about any Bowden, and Terry especially," Vols coach Derek Dooley said of first-year Akron and former Auburn coach Terry Bowden, "is they know how to score a lot of points. It's going to be a whole different dynamic again on trying to stop these guys."
One to watch
Fair or not, Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray took plenty of criticism this week for his hand in the Vols' disappointing and dejecting second-half collapse against Florida. The accusations flew that the junior doesn't care, and he didn't help himself with the odd statement that he didn't watch film of the second half of the Florida loss because "that wasn't our team," an assertion both Dooley and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney disputed. Bray never has had trouble looking sharp and putting up numbers in these types of games. In a bounce-back for Tennessee's entire team, the Vols' quarterback might need it more than anyone.
In the end
Akron is better than Georgia State, but the Zips went 1-11 in each of the past two seasons and have lost 13 straight and 22 of their last 23 games against Bowl Subdivision competition. It's a good reset game for 35-point favorite Tennessee with the defining part of the schedule looming. However, where are the Vols mentally after such a draining loss? It's a more veteran group, and players have insisted this week they've moved on from Florida. Tonight, in front of a crowd that will be smaller in size and quieter in voice, Tennessee will have to prove it.
Tennessee 49, Akron 22
KNOXVILLE - In the midst of a heated football battle, Antonio Richardson's temperature might run the hottest.
Tennessee's starting left tackle showed it last week against Florida. The sophomore was flagged for an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty after an extra point for getting in the face of a Florida player. He had to be calmed down after he was penalized for lining up too far off the line.
Coach Derek Dooley chuckled when asked about relaxing the second-biggest Volunteer, and quarterback Tyler Bray smiled when asked if his in-the-face approach of settling the 6-foot-6, 332-pounder nicknamed "Tiny" was a sign of his courage.
There's no smiling or laughing, though, when Richardson answers questions about his role in providing leadership for his team.
"Right now that leadership role is bringing positive energy," he said. "After a loss like that where you go in and you're inspired to win and you lose, some guys, they tend to get down. Right now it's just trying to lift up guys' spirits and let them know it's a long season, we still have a chance to the [division], keep your heads up.
"I believe we're going to do some great things if we continue to work hard."
It's an easy start to work for Tennessee, which hosts the Mid-American Conference's Akron Zips tonight before embarking on the defining stretch of its season. In building a third-quarter lead against the Gators, the Vols proved they had the talent to compete, but the mental aspect of the collapse showed they're not there yet. Dooley emphatically reset his team's focus early in Tuesday's practice and reminded his players there's still plenty of chances left to win big games.
Tonight is not one of those, but it's imperative the Vols erase the Florida game from their minds and get the bad taste of the loss out of their mouths.
"You just can't think about it," receiver Justin Hunter said. "You just have to got to keep going on. You can't let one game turn into two.
"Nobody's still sulking. Everybody's still picking up everybody. It's good."
On an individual level for Richardson, it's another chance to continue improving. Outside of the mistakes, the Nashville native said he was "pretty pleased" with his play against Florida, specifically how he held his own against Lerentee McCray. It'll probably be easier for Richardson to manage his emotions, too, given the lowered magnitude of tonight's game.
"I guess there's a bunch of them around here, and I'm just not used to it," offensive line coach Sam Pittman joked. "The game was so big, and he had never played in one of them games. You just have to continue to talk to him and continue to say, 'Hey, this ain't about you, it's about our football team.'
"Tiny, he'll reason, but he's high-strung. That's part of why he's a good player. But he's a high-strung kid that you've got to consistently talk to on the sideline in games like that."
His size, athleticism and potential made Richardson one of the more hyped Vols during the preseason, but there have been some growing pains. He false-started before Tennessee's first play against North Carolina State and added another early jump against Florida, in addition to the other mistakes. Richardson understands, though, that it's part of the process.
"I know what's going to happen," he said. "I had some mental errors against Florida, had some against Georgia State, had some against North Carolina State. It's just part of developing.
"I knew that it was going to be a part of it, so I just come in here with the mindset that I'm going to continue to, no matter what, face adversity and move on."
Pittman said it's a good sign Richardson understands that improvement is needed.
"When you've got anybody or anything in life and he admits he's got work to do, he's going to get better," the position coach said. "I think it comes back to that room. I've got kids that are good players getting better.
"They've been beaten down enough to where they ain't going to get cocky. I just think that goes with who's in that room to help Tiny with, 'Hey, you've got to get better.' Even the best ones in our room, they're hard on themselves, and I think that's why we're getting a little better."
That desire goes a little bit further for Richardson, a player with natural leadership skills and the type of personality toward which teammates gravitate. As he continues to play more and face even better defensive linemen, he will improve as a tackle. He'll get better as a leader, too.
"He's such a great competitor," Dooley said. "You talk about emotionally invested in playing well and winning. He's learning how to keep his composure.
"I think that's just going to come with time. He's out there competing, blocking some great defensive linemen, and he's still young in his career. The more experience he gets, the more his leadership can impact us in a positive way."