Tennessee returns home after a rugged two-game road trip where the Vols crossed the country twice and lost in two of the most hostile environments in all of college football.
Awaiting them will be their second Sun Belt Conference opponent of the season in South Alabama, a team UT has never faced. The Vols are 8-0 all-time against current Sun Belt teams according to the official game notes, and they hammered Western Kentucky, 52-20 earlier this season.
After a dismal season last year, the upstart Jaguars stunned the Hilltoppers two weeks ago to move to 2-1. Meanwhile, the Vols followed a 59-14 thumping at Oregon with a 14-point loss to Florida.
This game marks a brief reprieve from nationally ranked opponents for the Vols, who'll follow this contest with games at home against Georgia and South Carolina before going on the road to Alabama.
Here's everything you need to know about the showdown with the Jags.
Date: Saturday, Sept. 28
Time: 12:21 p.m. ET
Place: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn.
TV: SEC TV
Radio: Vol Network, Sirius Premier Channel 112/XM Channel 199
Spread: Tennessee by 20 points, according to Vegas Insider
Keep Forcing Turnovers
Nobody is mistaking the Vols for being dominant defensively, but they are fun to watch. Through the first four games, John Jancek's unit leads the SEC and ranks third nationally with 12 takeaways.
The two senior starting outside linebackers—Dontavis Sapp and Brent Brewer—are playing at a high level and flying all over the field. Justin Coleman, Cameron Sutton and Devaun Swafford all have pick-sixes, and UT is creating a lot of opportunities for its offense. Tennessee is fifth nationally with 11.25 points per game off those turnovers.
The Jags haven't been great offensively this year, so UT needs to exploit that.
Feed the Pig
For a team desperately needing playmakers, sophomore slot receiver Alton "Pig" Howard's second-half emergence against Florida was refreshing.
He finished with four catches for 75 yards and a touchdown, and he appeared to be on the same page as quarterback Justin Worley. UT needs Pig to be more consistent in aspects like edge-blocking and route-running, and he has to continue to emerge as a weapon.
Marquez North still hasn't broken out yet. So, it looks like Howard is Tennessee's best hope for a threat.
Ride the Line
The offensive line has underachieved this year, but UT hasn't just lined up and pounded the ball either.
Butch Jones needs to implement more I-formation sets in his offense, line up and just run the ball between the tackles with Marlin Lane more. That's going to be a formula for winning in the SEC, and UT needs to practice it this week. Getting that rushing attack healthy will go a long way in developing the quarterbacks.
Pressure the Quarterbacks
USA has been a very opportunistic defense this season as well, and they have gotten to opponents' quarterbacks and forced turnovers much the way the Vols have.
The Jaguars had lots of success flustering Western Kentucky, which continued to struggle taking care of the ball. The physical defense is not something wasted on Tennessee coach Butch Jones, per UTSports.com:
Defensively—athletic, physical, very aggressive, bring a lot of pressure and play very good team defense. Very well-coached football team. With their discipline, with their fundamentals. Coach (Joey) Jones has done a great job.
No matter if Justin Worley or one of the true freshmen are on the field, UT's offensive line can't allow them to be flustered.
Weather the Storm
Tennessee has surged out of the locker room in each of its first four games, scoring a total of 52 first-quarter points this season. Afterwards, it's a different UT team.
The Vols have just 59 combined points over the final three quarters.
For a wide-eyed Jaguars team playing in front of 100,000 fans, they've got to stay focused and not get buried out of the gate. If they do, they probably don't have the offensive firepower to storm back.
Protect Their Own QBs
USA quarterback Ross Metheny has been effective this season (67.7 completion percentage, 595 yards, 4 TDs) when he's had time to throw.
The Vols haven't exactly struck fear in anybody's heart rushing the passer, but they are getting a better push up the middle. Now that freshman star defensive end Corey Vereen got his first action of the season, UT expects to be much better in getting to quarterbacks.
The Jaguars must account for Vereen and senior Marlon Walls.
The freshman defensive end from Winter Park, Fla. saw his first action of the season against Florida and was disruptive despite not showing up on the stat sheet.
He's coming back from tearing meniscus in his knee during preseason drills and this will be the first game in which he's really let loose. He was anointed as UT's top pass-rusher before getting hurt, and Butch Jones is eager to see what he can do in an expanded role. Said Jones, per UTSports.com:
Just having him back on the field gave us another edge presence. You could see the difference on the get off, he impacted the quarterback on a number of plays. We anticipate, obviously with his health, he'll play more plays this Saturday as he continues to progress.
The talk of preseason camp has yet to break out through the first third of the season, and it's chiefly because he just hasn't gotten many significant opportunities.
The Vols know they've got to get the elite receiver more involved with the game plan, and this is the perfect time to do that. Thus far, North leads the team with 12 catches for 112 yards and also has a Nine-yard run. UT ran a reverse to him against Florida in an attempt to get him more touches.
They must do more of that moving forward. North needs to get in the end zone.
It's hard to be a player to watch if you don't get on the field, and there are no guarantees that Ferguson will this weekend.
But it's hard to see any scenario where the Vols don't play one of their two freshman signal-callers at some time in the game. At this point, Ferguson is more ready than Joshua Dobbs, and UT needs to get him some game reps with Nathan Peterman set to miss significant time after having surgery on his throwing hand.
If the game is close, that means the Vols are struggling. If it's a blowout, there will be garbage time. One of those freshmen needs to play in either scenario. Ferguson is the prediction here.
The 6'4", 240-pound tight end from Hueytown, Ala. has led the Jaguars in receiving yards in each of their past two games. Given the struggles Tennessee has experienced covering tight ends (or anybody underneath, for that matter), look for him to be targeted often throughout Saturday's game.
Saxton was a preseason All-SBC member, and he hasn't disappointed thus far, catching 12 passes for 185 yards.
He'll be matched up most of the day with middle linebacker A.J. Johnson who has struggled throughout his career in space. Look for USA coach Joey Jones to get him involved in the game plan early and often.
The 6'2", 280-pound defensive lineman registered 1.5 sacks against WKU and now has 2.5 for the season, putting him second in the Sun Belt Conference.
He's a disruptive force who can move around and play inside and out, and he'll try to pin his ears back and make a name for himself against UT's vaunted offensive line.
There's nothing flashy about Metheny, but he has put up good numbers in three games this year, completing 42 of 62 passes for 595 yards and four touchdowns to go along with just two interceptions.
He'll be going against a young but talented Tennessee secondary that has been all or nothing this year. There will be some coverage breakdowns—even though those are getting fewer and fewer—and Metheny has to exploit them for the Jags to have a chance.
If he falters, 6'5" Canadian junior Brandon Bridge led USA on three second-half touchdown drives to erase an 11-point deficit against WKU. He will play as well.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones told the media Monday that he needed to do a better job of reaching out to UT's student body to get them to attend games.
During the Vols' last game against WKU, large swaths of the student section were vacant.
I have to do a much better job as the head football coach of the University of Tennessee of getting our student body involved. We should sell out our student-body tickets every single home game. That is the expectation that we have, and it's up to me.
Justin Worley has been locked in a quarterback battle with Nathan Peterman, but he did not enjoy watching Peterman's excruciating start against Florida after losing the job to him last week.
According to GoVols247's Wes Rucker, Worley said, "I know exactly how he was feeling. I was feeling the same way my whole freshman year against those opponents. He’s got to keep his head up, and we’re definitely gonna be there to encourage him."
Former Alabama player Joey Jones leads a South Alabama team to Neyland and into the spotlight for one of the program's first times. He told Al.com's Tommy Hicks that it's great publicity for a growing program.
Being on a national stage for us, that name South Alabama being on the TV for three hours, it's great for us. It's something we're striving for. We want to be nationally known, and that's just one step in the process.
Certainly, we like having our name out there as a young program, first year in Division I playing on TV. That's exciting for us.
UT senior defensive end Marlon Walls on the play where he landed on UF quarterback Jeff Driskel's leg, breaking it and forcing him out for the season, per UTSports.com.
It was a play where I was trying to get to the quarterback and affect him any way I can, and unfortunately, I landed on his leg, and I didn't even notice it till he went down and he started screaming. I was out there just playing football, not intentionally trying to hurt nobody. I already reached out to him to let him know to get better.
Tennessee 38, South Alabama 13
South Alabama is not a bad football team, and there are some out there wondering aloud if this isn't an ideal trap scenario for the Vols with games against Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama looming.
This UT team isn't good enough to overlook any team, and after the Jaguars beat a Western Kentucky team that moved the ball effectively at times against the Vols, they aren't sneaking up on anybody.
Tennessee found some positive things offensively in the second half against Florida, and Alton Howard and Marquez North are getting better and better each week. If they begin to emerge as dependable targets for UT's quarterbacks, the Vols will continue to improve.
Justin Worley appears to have a grasp on the starting quarterback job again, and he'll have the best performance of his career this week. The Vols will wreak havoc up front, and this will be one of those games that isn't as close as many expect.
UT is going to get to 3-2 and welcome in the Georgia Bulldogs on a winning note.