Saturday’s matchup between the Tennessee Vols and Pittsburgh is massive, even if it may not feel like it because it’s only game number two of the 2021 season. Josh Heupel needs a 6-6 season and bowl game appearance like Nick Saban needs a step ladder to reach tall cabinets. And unfortunately for Heupel, a linchpin game in getting to that 6-6 mark is happening in week two. A win over Pitt would be a colossal boost to a team that badly needs good things to happen and it would take pressure off of tough SEC games later in the season that could be the difference between making a bowl game and sitting at home in December.
But even beyond those implications, this will be Heupel’s first game with the Big Orange facing off against a major opponent and that alone makes it significant. With that in mind, here’s four things I want to see from the Vols during this very important game…
Clearly competent coaching
Saturday will likely be the first time we see Heupel make decisions in a crunch with the game on the line. Since we suffered through the last 10 years of Butch, Dooley, and Pruitt who all couldn’t coach their way out of a paper bag, one of the biggest things I want to see from Heupel and his staff is just plain competence. I want them to look like they know what they’re doing. They can even ultimately lose the game but I simply want to know they did the best coaching job possible instead of losing because of moments where I stand in front of my TV and scream “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?! WHAT EVEN WAS THAT?!”
Athlete leadership is so huge in college sports. In my experience covering UT athletics, players almost always reacted better when accountability came from their peers instead of coaches. And this team badly needs athlete leaders. It seems like Alontae Taylor can be that guy for the defense but being a leader during an easy win over a MAC team is a lot easier than when your team needs a stop to win the game against an ACC opponent. Can guys step up and fill those leadership shoes that seem to have been empty since Jauan Jenning left? Perhaps we’ll see them arise on Saturday.
Having the offense help out the defense might end up being the most crucial element of Heupel’s game plans all season. With how quick his offense is, problems can pile up fast if things stall out. I’m very interested to see if Heupel can adjust on the fly and work around a series of stagnant drives and fatigue setting in for his defense. Will he be stubborn and stick to his signature offensive style or modify things to find a way to win?
This one almost goes without saying but we have to see more from Joe Milton, or some other quarterback, and we need to see it quickly. Last Thursday’s performance was plenty good enough to whip up on a pathetic Bowling Green team but it won’t cut it against Power 5 opponents. Josh Heupel is supposedly a quarterback whisperer, let’s see that in action.
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