Tennessee is preparing to play Austin Peay this week.
In reality, the Vols are preparing for the games that will come after Austin Peay.
Tennessee will travel to Florida next week to start SEC play, with more challenging games to follow.
Saturday will offer Tennessee one more tune-up before the real games begin.
So how can the Vols use the Austin Peay game to prepare for SEC play?
Here are five items for Tennessee to address this week.
Prepare the linebackers
Tennessee received disappointing news this week with the loss of linebacker Keenan Pili.
The transfer from BYU will miss multiple weeks due to injury, which means several young linebackers will have to step up.
We heard a lot about Tennessee’s depth at linebacker during fall camp.
It’s about to be tested.
Sophomore Elijah Herring will get the first crack at a starting position next to Aaron Beasley.
The Vols will give Herring plenty of playing time on Saturday.
Freshman Arion Carter should receive plenty of snaps, too.
He was the most hyped Tennessee freshman entering the start of the season.
Is Carter ready to play at a high level now?
That might be a big ask, but it’s now an important question ahead of the Florida game.
Herring, Carter, sophomore Kalib Perry, and freshmen Jeremiah Telander and Jalen Smith will see plenty of playing time against Austin Peay to prepare for SEC play.
Setting the offensive line
Tennessee won’t have its entire offensive line set until Cooper Mays returns at center.
But the Austin Peay game will give Tennessee’s coaches a chance to determine who they trust the most at left guard and right tackle.
Gerald Mincey has the talent to win the right tackle spot.
But will he win it — or will Jeremiah Crawford hold onto the position.
On the interior, Tennessee’s coaches will decide the option at center if Mays needs to miss more time.
And either way, finding consistency at left guard remains a priority.
Tennessee has one more game to rotate linemen before they need to settle on the best unit.
Make time for Nico
Fans chanted for freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava during the season opener and will likely do the same again on Saturday.
They should get their wish – and get it early.
Last year against FCS opponent UT-Martin, backup Joe Milton III entered the game in the second quarter.
Iamaleava should be on the field no later than early in the third quarter.
That will give him an extended amount of time to run the offense and prepare in case he’s needed later in the season.
There’s no quarterback debate: Milton is the guy.
But Iamaleava is No. 2.
That means he needs as much work as possible in case he becomes the No. 1 guy sooner than expected.
The rest of the young guys
Tennessee will play an empty-the-bench game on Saturday.
The Vols’ starters should put up their stats in the first half and then make way for the rest of the team as the game goes along.
Young players to watch include:
- Defensive backs Rickey Gibson and Jordan Matthews
- Defensive linemen Caleb Herring and Daevin Hobbs
- Running back Cameron Seldon
- Wide receivers Chas Nimrod, Kaleb Webb and Nathan Leacock.
Tennessee has recruited a lot of talent on both sides of the ball.
Saturday will give those guys an opportunity to play — and offer coaches a better evaluation for the future.
Special teams fixes
Tennessee’s most glaring issue against Virginia came in the kicking game.
Jackson Ross struggled punting and Josh Turbyville sent two kickoffs out of bounds.
That’s no problem against Virginia but could cause major issues in SEC play.
Let’s see how they perform at Neyland Stadium after having another week of practice.
One problem for Ross: how many times will he actually punt against Austin Peay?
His real opportunity is more likely to come in Gainesville.
Elsewhere on special teams, Dee Williams had a fumble against Virginia. But that’s less of a concern.
He needs to avoid fumbles in the future (thanks, Captain Obvious), but Williams still offers Tennessee a major weapon as a returner.
It’s way too early to panic on Tennessee’s kicking issues.
But this is the right time to work on those problems before SEC play begins.