Will from SB Nation's Tennessee blog, Rocky Top Talk, was nice enough to answer a few of Vol-related questions to prepare us for this week's bowl game in Atlanta.
GC: This game's in Atlanta and Lane Kiffin takes Georgia recruiting very seriously. How will that effect how this team prepares for the game and how much importance Kiffin will place on it?
RTT: When the Vols played Georgia earlier this year, Kiffin reportedly told the players in the locker room that they would never lose to UGA during his administration, because he thinks it's the most important rivalry in terms of recruiting. The Vols have eleven players from the suburban Atlanta area, including Eric Berry and several key recruits from Kiffin's first class, and also have four commitments from the same area for the class of 2010. When the Vols have been at their best, it's because they've done exceptionally well recruiting Georgia and the Carolinas, so re-establishing that base is very important.
But I also think Kiffin is placing a lot of importance on this game because of the opponent - the reality is you guys are just outside the Top 10, and beating Virginia Tech would be the biggest win of Kiffin's career. He's commented that he views this game like a BCS bowl based on the opponent. In some ways this is a no lose situation for Tennessee: if the Vols lose, it's in an admitted rebuilding year and to a team that will end the year in the Top 10. But if the Vols win, it becomes the signature win of the season on a national stage. So while I personally will be devastated if the Vols lose since I live in southwest VA, the program will continue to move forward either way.
GC: What in the name of Heath Shuler has gotten into Jonathan Crompton the last half of the season?
RTT: Shuler is an appropriate comparison, since they both have the tendency to throw the 100 MPH fastball to the fullback two yards away from them. I think Crompton gained confidence from the fourth quarter of the Auburn game, where the Vols were playing catch-up and Auburn was playing soft coverage. And the coaching staff did a fantastic job preparing the gameplan against a weak Georgia defense...but when he went 20 of 27 for 310 yards and 4 TDs, believe me, all of us were stunned. It's the most surprising individual performance I've ever seen. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who worked with Drew Brees and Kyle Orton at Purdue, called it the best in-season turnaround he's ever seen.
In hindsight, the Vols were really slowed by injuries in the receiving corps and on the offensive line in September, and having all the pieces finally on the field at the same time in October made a real difference. Crompton has always been a workout warrior and a great film student, so it's been very rewarding to see it pay off. After that Georgia game, he started playing with real confidence - one of the great tragedies of the Tennessee-Alabama game is that Crompton's performance (21 of 36 for 265 and a TD) against a fantastic defense got lost in the storyline; if the Vols don't get two field goals blocked, Crompton is a hero. He's not perfect and he has missed practice because he banged his hand on a helmet in the past week...but he's become a very solid quarterback, and has a chance to go out on a high note.
GC: How do you think the Vols will do against Ryan Williams? You were able to hold Mark Ingram to one of his worst outings, but Dexter McCluster had a huge game against you.
RTT: Tennessee's defense has had the most trouble this season when it's gotten crossed up with misdirection and wildcat looks. The two games the Vols really struggled in defensively were against Gus Malzahn's Auburn attack (where Ben Tate ran for 128 and the Tigers ran for 224), and against McCluster. Some of McCluster's performance was inflated by the loss of Janzen Jackson at free safety, and the fact that the Vols were playing with their third string middle linebacker (Herman Lathers, who will also start against VT, but at least now is more experienced). The Vols were often lined up incorrectly to handle the wildcat, and Ole Miss burned them.
There's no stopping Ryan Williams. If Tech runs right at us, we'll slow him down, but he's going to get his yards. But like Ingram, I don't think he'll have a huge day just running straight ahead. It's the Wild Turkey and pistol sets that worry me - anything where the defense can get crossed up. You don't even have to have Tyrod Taylor complete a bunch of passes to soften us up - Ole Miss ran for a thousand yards in spite of Jevan Snead. I think Williams will get right at 100 yards...but anything significantly over is going to be very problematic. I think the real key to Tennessee's victory is bending but not breaking on defense - holding the Hokies to field goals, and preventing Williams from going off.
GC: If this game comes down to a big special teams play, how confident are you that Tennessee will win?
RTT: Zero percent.
Special teams is Tennessee's glaring weakness this season, which makes Tech the team you don't want to see. This year, the Vols lost to Auburn by four points in a game where they missed a field goal and an extra point, and had every right to beat Alabama but ate two kicks in the fourth quarter. We've allowed two kickoff returns for touchdowns, a blocked punt for a safety, and have had four field goals blocked, including three in a row between Alabama and South Carolina, which has to be some kind of record. The Vols are only 13 of 21 on field goal attempts this year from three different kickers, including a late season walk-on addition. Kicks were repeatedly blocked in practice this past week, which suggests to me that all three kickers have a complex.
Kiffin joked that the Vols will just go for it on fourth down, but this may not be a joke at all. I'm not sure the Vols will try anything over 40 yards, and if this game comes down to a last second field goal, there won't be anyone wearing our shade of orange who believes it's going to split the uprights.
GC: Is there any chance this game results in the two teams schedule a home-and-home series sometime in the future?
RTT: Yes...but not in the near future.
The Vols have always played one major non-conference game per season, and despite the oft-used excuse of "we don't recruit southwest Virginia", the Vols have scheduled several opponents in the next decade that are not in fertile recruiting grounds. The problem is, the Vols are booked up for the next decade-plus: in the next twelve years, we have a home-and-home date with Oregon, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Southern Cal. So yeah, I think this game will help UT and VT get together in Knoxville and Blacksburg...in 2022 and 2023.