On this week’s Rocky Topics, David Bradford and Ben McKee debate whether or not the win over Florida means Tennessee has all but guaranteed the program their first SEC East crown since 2007.
McKee: Close, but no cigar. While the win over Florida definitely put the Vols in the drivers seat, a tough road still lies ahead. Tennessee plays No. 25 Georgia on the road this Saturday, before traveling to College Station to face No. 9 Texas A&M next weekend. Two tough road tests before top-ranked Alabama comes to town isn’t an easy stretch to tackle. Florida on the other hand, who is likely Tennessee’s biggest challenger for the SEC East crown, doesn’t play as tough a schedule as the Vols do going forward. The Gators have three tough challenges remaining on the schedule. A home game against an LSU team who just fired their coach, a trip to Arkansas and the annual meeting with Georgia in Jacksonville don’t appear to be daunting tasks for Florida. The remaining schedule isn’t in favor of Tennessee.
Bradford: I understand you’re thinking logically in this situation, and I don’t want to sound like I’m overreacting, but the Vols have clinched the SEC East. I would bet my parents’ life savings on it. Georgia is a rival that shouldn’t be taken lightly, but they have a freshman quarterback with a first-year head coach, and their best player is hurt. Granted, Nick Chubb was hurt last season and the Bulldogs still managed to grab a 24-3 lead, but this Tennessee team is an enhanced version of last year’s team. Plus, Georgia has struggled in every game this season, most notably against Nicholls State and last weekend against Ole Miss. As for scheduling, the Gators’ schedule from this point forward isn’t as harsh as Tennessee’s, but when Luke Del Rio returns, has he done enough to prove he can lead his team in the SEC? Destroying UMass, Kentucky and North Texas doesn’t make this guy Lamar Jackson. Even if the Vols were to go 1-2 over the next three games with a loss to the Bulldogs, I’m not convinced Georgia or Florida are good enough to run the table.
McKee: I agree with you on Georgia. Overall, Tennessee is a much better team than the Bulldogs and should prove that this coming Saturday in Athens. It’s Florida that concerns me. While Tennessee tore the Gator defense apart in the second half, I still believe that the Florida defense is legit and one of the best in the country. There are several guys on that Gator defense that will have successful careers in the NFL. One big concern that remains for me about Tennessee is the injury situation on defense. Before the season started, Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said that his defense could not live without two guys − senior cornerback Cam Sutton and senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Well, Sutton is out for an “extended period of time” and Reeves-Maybin had to take himself out of the game against Florida. Along with those two, it’s still to be determined how much time sophomore linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. misses with an ankle injury. Those are three huge keys to the Vol defense that could miss significant time going forward. While linebackers Colton Jumper, Cortez McDowell and cornerback Baylen Buchanan stepped up against Florida, they have to continue to prove they can make plays against quality opponents.
Bradford: The injuries are a concern, but they’re more of a concern against opponents that provide matchup nightmares in those areas. The game against Texas A&M will expose Sutton’s absence because the Aggies have excellent wide receivers. But against opponents like Alabama, South Carolina and Kentucky, teams that don’t really present much of a passing threat, Sutton’s absence won’t be as detrimental. Jalen Reeves-Maybin needs to stay on the field. He’s the team’s most active linebacker and an invaluable leader. At the same time, Jumper and McDowell have both been impressive stepping in. One area of strength for Tennessee, especially in the front seven, is its depth. Would this defense be better with Kirkland and Reeves-Maybin? Of course, but in the second half against the Gators, Austin Appleby and that offense had no chance. That’s because the defensive line took the game over, something that unit is fully capable of accomplishing against any opponent. Aside from Texas A&M, the Vols don’t face an offense that is potent enough to warrant mass concern. The SEC East is over. The rest of the division should cancel their seasons.
Edited by Dalton King
Featured image by Alison McNabb, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics