Breaking down the matchups with Cincinnati can get old quickly for Tennessee coach Derek Dooley.
The Volunteers (1-0) host the Bearcats (1-0) today at 3:30 p.m. (ESPN2). It’s the second game of the second season for Dooley and Cincinnati counterpart Butch Jones, who took over when Brian Kelly left for Notre Dame, but their depth charts are a contrast in experience.
UT and Cincinnati each routed FCS teams in their opener last week. The Vols made light work of Montana, 42-16, despite an inability to run block, and the Bearcats beat Austin Peay, 72-10.
“I looked at their starting 22, and I think 18 of them are upperclassmen — eleven seniors, seven juniors,” Dooley said. “I think they lost only one guy on defense in their top-11 production, so they’ve got everybody back. … We played 11 (12) freshmen. In fact, I think of our 24 starters, including kicker and punter, 17 are freshmen and sophomores, and then tack on the 11 true freshmen that we also played. We saw them make a lot of mistakes; we saw them play not as fast and as well as they’re capable of, because it’s new.”
Jones is worried about his Bearcats making mistakes because of encountering a loud, hostile environment in a road opener.
“Obviously, the first road game of the season and you go into an environment like Neyland Stadium with 25 new individuals traveling for the first time … mental conditioning will be at a premium come Saturday at 3:30,” Jones said. “Not very many people have won on the road in that stadium.”
Jones’ primary concern for his defense appears to be containing Tennessee’s sophomore trio of 6-foot-6 quarterback Tyler Bray, 6-foot-4 receiver Justin Hunter and 6-foot-3 receiver Da’Rick Rogers.
“He (Bray) has made plays with three defenders hanging around because of his release,” Jones said. “He’s able to get the ball off. … They’re a very, very talented football team with a lot of skilled players.”
Cincinnati went 4-8 last season, which was why it was picked fifth in the Big East preseason poll. But the Bearcats have an All-Big East quarterback in senior Zach Collaros, a dual threat who passed for 2,902 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last year. Isaiah Pead rushed for 1,029 yards and six TDs in 2010, and fellow senior D.J. Woods had 57 catches for 898 yards and eight TDs.
There are also multiple offensive linemen on national awards’ watch lists.
“We’re going to have to do a great job of tackling in space and we’re going to have to do a great job with assignment football,” Dooley said. “This is a very good football team coming in, and we’ll see where our team is. … Even last year with the season they had — first-year coach, lot of change, it’s always difficult — but they had Oklahoma beat. And scoring was not the issue; they score a lot of points. You put 72 (on the scoreboard) — I don’t care who you’re playing, that’s a lot of points. It’s going to be a hard one.”
One 4-8 season made the Bearcats an afterthought in the Big East, which Jones is using for fuel.
“It’s amazing how last year at Big East media day, you know, everyone wanted to talk to us … and then you go there this year and nobody really wants to talk to you,” Jones said.
Despite their veteran makeup, the Bearcats are a 61â„2-point underdog.
“I think this is going to be a big game for them,” Dooley said. “They had a tough season last year and this is probably an early monumental game in their eyes to keep their program at the level it’s been.”
Senior linebacker J.K. Schaffer anchors a veteran Cincinnati defense. Conversely, UT’s defense is a green gang. Dooley liked what he saw in the opener from true freshmen starting linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt.
“They had a real solid day, both of them. … I think they’re just going to get better and better,” Dooley said.
Notes: Bray was 17-of-24 passing for 294 yards and three touchdowns against Montanta. He’s averaging 306.5 yards passing per game in six career starts. … True freshman tailback Marlin Lane’s two-TD debut was UT’s first since Corey Larkins versus Syracuse in 2001. … The Vols have won four of five meetings in the series. The last game between the teams was a 40-0 UT victory in 1992.