The Tennessee Volunteers (4-6, 0-6 SEC) are set to host the LSU Tigers (7-3, 4-2 SEC) on Saturday night for the first time since 2011. And it has been quite the week on Rocky Top following a 50-17 loss to Missouri, the Vols’ fifth defeat in the last six games. The blowout loss also was a seventh straight setback in conference play dating back to last season. More importantly, it served as the final blow that would bring an end to the Butch Jones era at Tennessee.
The fifth-year head coach was fired on Sunday and immediately replaced by interim head coach Brady Hoke. As speculation continues to run wild (aka #Grumors) regarding potential candidates to replace Jones, Hoke will attempt to bring a renewed sense of optimism to the program. His agenda as interim coach is fairly straightforward - lead the Vols to their first SEC win of the year and avoid elimination from bowl eligibility. A tall order, indeed.
Ed Orgeron knows a thing or two about the rigors of trying to win as an interim head coach. He’s served in that role on two separate occasions, the latest of which leading to his current position as full-time head coach for the Tigers. And while things haven’t gone perfectly for LSU on Orgeron’s watch, the Tigers have won four of their last five contests. The most recent victim being Arkansas, whom the Tigers beat by 23 points last week. The good news is that Orgeron still has a promising shot at leading LSU to a New Year’s Six bowl game and its first 10-win season since 2013.
Tennessee leads the all-time series against LSU by a margin of 20-9-3. However, the Tigers have won each of the last four meetings, including a 38-7 victory over the Volunteers in their last trip to Knoxville in 2011.
LSU at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 18 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: LSU -15.5
Three Things to Watch
1. New-look Volunteers under Hoke?
The most intriguing aspect of Saturday night’s matchup will be any potential changes interim head coach Brady Hoke may bring to the table. Hoke has eluded to some “tweaks” being made, as well as some assistant coaches moving from the booth to the sidelines, most notably, offensive coordinator Larry Scott. But aside from those little nuggets, no one really has the first clue what Hoke may have in store. He closed practice to the media this week and is being very tight-lipped regarding any game plans, which is obviously by design to throw off LSU’s preparation.
The problem is that there may not be much that Hoke can “tweak” in a matter of a week. Tennessee was already struggling to execute a very limited playbook on offense. And the Vols’ horrible run defense may be beyond fixable. Regardless, there’s really nothing to lose by switching up as much as possible in a bid to throw off the Tigers. It’s not like Tennessee was performing well in its most recent configuration anyway. At a minimum, Hoke will probably employ a few wrinkles and have a couple of tricks up his sleeve. The question is, will the Tennessee players be able to make them work?
2. Derrius Guice and the LSU run game vs. Tennessee run defense
Thanks in part to injury, Guice hasn’t exactly matched his lofty preseason hype. But the 2016 first-team All-SEC selection has shown flashes of the player that everyone thought he would be heading into his junior campaign. That has been particularly true in recent weeks against two of the SEC’s weaker run defenses. Guice racked up 147 rushing yards last week against Arkansas (11th in the conference vs. the run), along with a season-high three touchdowns on the ground. Two weeks ago vs. Ole Miss (13th), he posted a season-high 276 yards and a score.
That obviously bodes well for a big performance against a Tennessee defense that ranks dead last in the SEC against the run, allowing 257 rushing yards per game. Only three teams in the nation have allowed more yards on the ground than the Vols this season. Last week, Missouri ran roughshod of Tennessee to the tune of 433 yards (8.2 ypc).
Guice may not be back to elite form, but he may look the part against a very generous Vols defense. Anything short of a monster outing for Guice, Darrel Williams, and any other Tiger that gets a carry would come as a surprise.
3. A beat-up Tennessee offense vs. physical, punishing LSU defense
The Vols’ struggles on offense this season were already well-documented, but another rash of injuries have really taken a toll down the stretch. The Tennessee offense featured as many as nine freshmen on the field at the same time during last week’s loss to Missouri, including four along the offensive line. This didn’t help true freshman quarterback Will McBride, who spent most of the night running for his life.
The question now is, how healthy will the Volunteers be on offense heading into a much tougher matchup against a top-flight LSU defense? It’s a difficult question to answer, as Brady Hoke has been just as tight-lipped about Tennessee’s injury situation this week as he has about his game plan.
A healthy offensive line, along with a healthy Jarrett Guarantano at quarterback, would certainly improve Tennessee’s chances on offense. However, it may not make much difference with respect to the end result. the Vols are ranked dead last in the SEC and near the bottom of the entire FBS at just 296.8 yards per game. LSU comes in 16th nationally in defense, giving up 317.1 yards per game. The Tigers have an elite secondary and the SEC’s second-ranked pass rush (31 sacks). It could be a long night for the Tennessee offense, regardless of who is on the field.
A renewed spirit under the leadership of Brady Hoke, combined with a raucous Neyland Stadium crowd, could go a long way in helping the Volunteers in their first game of the post-Butch Jones era. That is, for about one quarter, and that may be too generous.
Tennessee hasn’t beaten a team from the SEC West since 2010. And even in a world where anything is possible, Tennessee’s chances of upsetting a superior LSU team on Saturday night are slim to none. The Volunteers are outmatched on both sides of the football and far too injury-riddled to compete. LSU wins big on Rocky Top.
Prediction: LSU 38, Tennessee 10
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.