The Tennessee Volunteers will take a brief departure from SEC play to take on the UAB Blazers inside Neyland Stadium on Saturday night. The Vols are coming off a much-needed 41-21 victory last week against division foe South Carolina to improve their record to 3-5 on the season (2-3 in the SEC). Wide receiver Jauan Jennings, linebacker Daniel Bituli, and center Brandon Kennedy all earned SEC Player of the Week honors for their respective roles in the upset win over the Gamecocks. The win also gave new life to Tennessee's bowl aspirations, something that didn’t seem possible just a few weeks ago.
Fresh off a bye, the upset-minded Blazers will step away from Conference USA action to face their first Power 5 opponent of the season. Already bowl eligible, the defending C-USA champs will make their way to Knoxville riding a three-game win streak and sporting an impressive 6-1 record overall (3-1 in conference play). Their most recent victory came against Old Dominion by a score of 38-14. UAB’s only blemish on the season was against a Western Kentucky team coached by former Tennessee offensive coordinator Tyson Helton.
Tennessee is 4-0 all-time against UAB. However, the Blazers gave the Vols all they could handle in their last visit to Neyland Stadium in 2010, ultimately falling in double overtime by a score of 32-29.
UAB at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 2 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Tennessee -11.5
When UAB Has the Ball
Considering the collection of lackluster defenses that the Blazers have faced so far this season, their offense has been fairly unspectacular to this point, averaging 405.7 yards per game (No. 68 in the FBS) and 29.9 points per game (No. 62 in the FBS). And life will not get any easier for the UAB offense on Saturday night inside Neyland Stadium against a Tennessee defense that has come a long way since the beginning of the season.
While the run game was the strength of the UAB offense last season, that has not been the case so far in 2019 — it's averaging just 3.77 yards per rush. To make matters worse, junior running back Spencer Brown, who also happens to be UAB’s all-time leading rusher, is in danger of missing his third consecutive game with a leg injury. Backups Lucious Stanley and Jermaine Brown Jr. have filled in admirably in his absence. However, this group will certainly have its work cut out for it against a Tennessee run defense that has held three of the best rushing attacks in the SEC well below their season averages over the last three games (Mississippi State, Alabama and South Carolina).
Perhaps the biggest threat to the Tennessee defense will come in the form of a UAB passing attack that isn’t afraid to take chances. And strong-armed quarterback Tyler Johnston III certainly isn’t shy when it comes to testing opposing secondaries with the deep ball. The sophomore signal-caller has thrown 15 touchdown passes in seven games, while averaging 251.9 passing yards per contest. However, his gambling ways have also resulted in a Conference USA-leading 10 interceptions.
Johnston III is aided in his efforts by a trio of SEC-caliber receivers — Austin Watkins, Kendall Parham, and Myron Mitchell — who collectively average over 20 yards per reception and have 14 touchdown catches among them. The UAB passing game is further assisted by an offensive line that has allowed only five sacks on the year (second-fewest in the FBS). A Tennessee pass rush that has racked up 12 sacks over the last three weeks will provide the Blazer offensive line with its biggest test to date.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
Much to everyone’s surprise, a previously struggling Jarrett Guarantano, and an inexperienced J.T. Shrout combined their efforts at quarterback to carve up the South Carolina defense to the tune of a season-high 351 passing yards and three touchdowns for the Vols in relief of injured starter Brian Maurer last week.
While Maurer is set to return this week, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will get the starting nod against UAB. The performances of Guarantano and Shrout could keep them in the mix. And based on comments from Jeremy Pruitt earlier in the week, there’s a strong possibility that we will see all three quarterbacks play on Saturday night, with star wide receiver Jauan Jennings once again getting a few reps in the wildcat package. That said, Guarantano could be somewhat limited after breaking a bone in his non-throwing hand. That leaves an already complex Tennessee quarterback situation more convoluted than ever. But if last week was any indication, that may not be a bad thing for the Vols.
And regardless of who is taking the snaps, the QBs are going to have two of the best targets in the SEC at their disposal in Jennings and Marquez Callaway. Jennings (42 rec., 652 yards, 7 TDs) earned Co-SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors after racking up 174 receiving yards and two touchdowns on seven catches last week. Callaway, who averages an SEC-best 22 yards per catch, also had a field day against the Gamecocks with 167 all-purpose yards and two scores of his own.
The Vols could use a little more help from the run game this week. Despite improved blocking up front, Tennessee is still averaging just 3.84 yards per carry. That means running backs Ty Chandler (484 rushing yards, 2 TDs) and Tim Jordan (282 rushing yards, TD) need to bring their A-game on Saturday night.
Tennessee will be matched against a solid UAB defense that could present some serious challenges. The Blazers currently rank fifth nationally in total defense (248.6 yards per game), eighth in run defense (88.3 yards per game), seventh in pass defense (160.3 yards per game) and seventh in sacks (26). That being said, the legitimacy of those rankings could be called into question, considering they have yet to face a Power 5 opponent or an offense that currently ranks higher than 105th in the nation. Regardless, the Tennessee offense is in no position to overlook the UAB defense and may need to be in top-flight form to avoid a letdown.
Despite facing inferior competition, UAB is still a well-coached 6-1 football team that the Vols cannot afford to take lightly. So, it’s somewhat understandable why someone could view this as a trap game and have Tennessee on upset alert this week. But this is not the same Tennessee team that opened the season with an embarrassing loss to Georgia State. In fact, UAB probably couldn’t have picked a worse time to be facing an inspired Tennessee team, currently in the midst of playing its best football of the season, with two SEC wins over the last three weeks to show for it. The Vols will carry that momentum into Neyland Stadium on Saturday night to rally against the Blazers and draw one step closer to bowl eligibility.
Prediction: Tennessee 30, UAB 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.