Tennessee coach Derek Dooley shouldn’t have a hard time convincing backup quarterback Matt Simms and the rest of the Volunteers that they can beat LSU.
The Vols (0-2, 3-2) will be starting their first game this season without quarterback Tyler Bray (fractured thumb) when they kick off today’s home game against top-ranked LSU (3:30 p.m., CBS) as a 17-point underdog.
But Tennessee was a 161â„2-point underdog last year in Baton Rouge when Simms, who had yet to lose his starting role to Bray, would have led the Vols to an upset of the No. 12 Tigers if not for a surreal endgame that included the fortunate Tigers getting a second chance at a final play.
Granted, Simms’ numbers were hardly awe-inspiring — 12-of-23 passing for 121 yards and no touchdowns. But he didn’t throw any interceptions and gave Tennessee a chance to win.
“We understand that they are very capable no matter who they play at quarterback,” LSU coach Les Miles said.
Simms won’t be scared when he makes his first start of the season. In fact, some say he’s courageous to a fault. He stands in the pocket surveying the field, which helped lead to five sacks last year at LSU.
But the hard-nosed senior is certainly a better insurance plan than most college coaches have at quarterback. Simms was 113-of-195 passing (57.9 percent) for 1,460 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions in 2010 while going against the more difficult defenses before giving way to the more talented Bray.
“The good news is Matt has a lot of experience,” second-year Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “And when you’re about to go play the best team in the country we’d certainly rather our (number) two go in who has got some game experience and been around the block than a new one that’s gotta start out from scratch.”
Last year’s ugly win against Tennessee undoubtedly helped lead to Miles’ decision to replace offensive coordinator Gary Crowton with Steve Kragthorpe, who was subsequently relegated to quarterbacks coach in favor of Greg Studrawa after Kragthorpe was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease this summer.
LSU fans were eager for a quarterback change leading into the Tennessee game last year. Jordan Jefferson was struggling mightily to move the chains via the pass, and much of the LSU faithful wanted proven veteran backup Jarrett Lee.
Now, thanks in part to Jefferson’s late-August arrest, the roles have flip-flopped. Lee has completed 60 percent of his passes for 947 yards, eight TDs and one interception. Jefferson has played sparingly after missing the first four games, but he has rushed for a TD and passed for one.
Jefferson also ran for an 83-yard yard TD on LSU’s first play from scrimmage against Tennessee last year, but Lee eventually took over and completed 16 of 23 passes for 185 yards after Jefferson had gone 3 of 10 for 30 yards and two interceptions.
Miles suggests the more mobile Jefferson could take on an expanded role as the second half of the season unfolds, and while mindful of egos, doesn’t foresee Lee worrying about any potential platoon.
“There’s bits and pieces of gameplans that Jordan Jefferson is best for and … we may dial his number,” Miles said. “A guy that’s paid the tremendous price Jarrett Lee has to play, and play significant football for our football team — he doesn’t begrudge what would be maybe an advantage at a strategy just as long as we use him fully.”
Dooley has been impressed with the sustained focus of Lee during an on-again, off-again career.
“I know he was criticized earlier in his career and I think it’s a real tribute to his character the perseverance he showed and the work ethic he showed,” Dooley said. “And it’s paying off for him, because he’s playing great football right now.”
Lee’s complementary running game could be a luxury Simms might not have today. Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue have combined for 1,101 yards and 15 touchdowns on 215 carries for LSU.
The Vols have struggled to run the ball, and could be without a healthy Tauren Poole (hamstring). Poole hasn’t wowed opponents this season, but he did rush for 109 yards at LSU en route to a 1,000-yard season in 2010.
All offenses are meeting much resistance against LSU’s defense, which is in its third season under former UT defensive coordinator John Chavis. Defensive back Tyrann Mathieu appears to be as dynamic as any player in the country.
“That defense comes to the field with the want to make an impression, the want to be ambitious and the want to be recognized,” Miles said.
The Tigers should have an opportunity to impress well in excess of 100,000 fans today.
“I can tell you playing in Neyland Stadium is a joy and it is one of the great places to play in college football,” Miles said. “We look forward to it. … Our team seems to get really excited about the opportunity to play in great venues.”
Tennessee is experienced in adversity this season. Bray, who is out 4-6 weeks, was lost two weeks after leading receiver Justin Hunter went down with a season-ending knee injury.
“I think early on it was certainly a blow to the spirit anytime you lose a guy like we lost,” Dooley said. “But as the days go on you realize that there’s no sense in sticking your head down and feeling sorry for yourself. You have to dust off your pants, you’ve got to get up and you’ve got to start being solution-oriented. …
“Everybody’s gonna rally behind Matt and we’re gonna go out there and play the best we can.”