LSU heads up to Knoxville to take on a coachless Tennessee Volunteers as a heavy favorite, but let us not forget that this would mark just the 10th win all-time for the program against UT.
Tennessee and LSU don’t have a ton of history. Even with four straight wins in this matchup dating back to 2006, LSU has rarely been in a position to take advantage of strength against the Vols, at least over history.
And now, they have an interim coach — a defensive line assistant hoping to rejuvenate a downtrodden bunch that had suffered under the yoke of a doomed head coach.
Sounds a little familiar, right?
What To Watch For On Saturday
Honestly, the comparisons between LSU and Tennessee take me in a different direction than Brady Hoke taking over as Ed Orgeron did more than a year ago. Hoke isn’t auditioning for anything more than his next assistant spot with two games to go. The 2016 LSU team had top-10 talent and enough games to left to make something fun out of that season. The 2017 Vols are just playing out the string while a new athletic director tries to find his guy. With a loss in either of these final two games, Tennessee won’t even make it to bowl eligibility.
No, the synergy I see here is momentary. Tennessee reminds me very much of LSU circa 1999. I’ve often seen the analogy between Butch Jones and Gerry DiNardo: both took over historically proud programs at true nadirs, and both had success quickly. Both brought in talent and were able to turn things around, at least in comparison to their predecessors, but were ultimately doomed to fail in the grander scheme.
DiNardo was never getting LSU to where we wanted the program to go, but Nick Saban never gets it there without the foundation DiNardo laid. Players like Josh Reed, Bradie James, Ryan Clark, Domanick Davis, Rohan Davey, etc... were already in Baton Rouge. Similarly, it became clear that when Jones couldn’t get the Vols to Atlanta with a senior Joshua Dobbs, Alvin Kamara and Derek Barnett, he was probably never going to get them there. But he won more games than any Tennessee coach in years, and recruited well enough that his predecessor should at least have a solid core to build upon.
With time, DiNardo has been remembered more fondly in Baton Rouge. If Tennessee can build upon this era, maybe Jones will be as well. Although that seems unlikely if he does things like this. That might also put some of his buyout in jeopardy.
So you’re a bad team with an interim head coach? What now?
I wouldn’t expect too much of a turnaround here. Yes, Tennessee will almost certainly play looser, and with some emotion, especially if LSU diddles around here instead of striking quickly. This has been coming for some time, and the players are probably more relieved than anything. It’s a lot of pressure to feel like a coach’s job status is in your hands every week.
But this Tennessee team has been really bad, and I’m not sure their ceiling was all that high to begin with.
The Vols sit dead last in the SEC in scoring, yards per play and third-down conversion rate on offense and allow nearly 300 yards rushing per game on defense — also last in the conference. They rank 105th nationally in S&P+, 95th in offensive success rate and 110th in defensive success rate.
This is a bad team that is short on playmakers on both sides of the ball, cycling between two very ineffective quarterbacks behind an offensive line that ranks 115th in adjusted sack rate and last in the conference in tackles-for-loss allowed at 7.7 per game.
If there’s one thing that would probably make sense, it’s a heavy workload for tailback John Kelly, who has managed to impress even through the team’s rough spots. Kelly runs hard, and is the kind of player that others will feed off of if he gets going. If Tennessee is in a position to feed him, expect a lot of carries. Especially in the red zone, since that seems to be the complete opposite of what Jones wanted to do with Kelly.
B C-ing You
Defense is where the lack of talent is really evident for Tennessee. Coordinator Bob Shoop — whom many LSU fans wanted to hire a few years back — runs a 4-3 “over” front that, in the past, has relied on having a stud defensive end like Derek Barnett over on the weak side.
The “over” front parks that back side end on the opposite end of the defensive line, which loads to the strong side of the offense. Ideally, the end there is a disruptive force that can set the edge against the run and take advantage of a one-on-one pass-rushing situation. But if he isn’t the B/C gaps can be wide open in the running game, unless you have a truly special Will/Mike linebacker.
Tennessee has none of those things at the moment.
LSU’s play-calling should stick to the basics here, much like they did against Arkansas. They’ll use motion and the jet-sweep to displace the linebackers and safeties, but look for them to attack that weakside bubble with some pulling guards and other motion blockers like the F-backs and tight ends, similar to the way Canada attacked Ole Miss’ defense, which similarly used a big gap to isolate ends Breeland Speaks and Marquis Haynes.
Establish the run, create some favorable passing situations and just let Danny Etling manage things the way he has in most of LSU’s wins this season. Tennessee will have some emotion early, and if this game is tight at the half look for them to show more life than Arkansas did — for each other, not for their coaches — but the Tigers should be able to take care of business here.
As of press time, weather is looking pretty ugly. Not bitter cold, but pretty cold and wet — which for my money is the most miserable of weather. Between that, the interim coach thing and this being a road game, a fast start is going to be crucial for LSU in this game. Start hot, execute — particularly in the running game, and LSU should have a shot to break Tennessee’s will quickly in this. Take a Neyland crowd that will have some renewed energy after Jones’ departure out of the game, and get the Vols in “let’s just get this over with” mode.