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Tennessee Football: What will happen when Vols face Austin Peay?

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As Tennessee Football blew out Virginia last week, Brian Kelley committed the cardinal sin of coaching when he proudly proclaimed LSU would “beat the heck” out of Florida State.

Final score: FSU 45, talk-too-much Tigers 24.

No coach should ever predict victory over an opponent.

Josh Heupel won’t even predict Tennessee Football will beat Austin Peay — even though this will be no contest.

Don’t mention Georgia State. That was a different Era (or error) of UT football. And the Vols’ coach was Jeremy Pruitt – not Heupel.

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Heupel isn’t quite immune to upsets. South Carolina trounced Tennessee Football a year ago.

But Heupel is immune to losing to a much lesser foe.

I won’t bother breaking down the matchups. After all, the Governors lost their opener on the road to Southern Illinois 49-23 and needed 20 fourth-quarter points to keep it that close.

 But here are a few things to keep an eye on.

1. Tennessee will be without starting inside linebacker Keenan Pili, the BYU transfer who got a game ball after the Virginia victory for his leadership, calling out the defensive signals and overall play.

Pili will be out several weeks, according to Heupel, with an undisclosed injury.

Sophomore Elijah Herring came off the bench against Virginia and led the team with five tackles (Pili had four). How will Herring respond in a starting role? Will he be adept at calling out the defensive signals? Will he be in the right place at the right time?

Herring needs to play at a high level for the defense confidence heading to Florida the next week.

2. Tennessee receivers did OK against Virginia. OK won’t get it against Florida.

Against Virginia, Ramel Keyton dropped a bomb but did have three catches for 66 yards. Bru McCoy and Dont’e Thornton combined for just four catches. Squirrel White had six catches but was injured in the second half. He should be available against Austn-Peay.

The wideouts should be more engaged and have a better performance against Austin Peay.

3. UT’s secondary held Virginia to 11 of 24 passing for 106 yards. The Cavaliers might be the worst passing team UT will face this year. Still, the secondary gets credit for breaking up five passes and not allowing receivers to run free.

Tennessee Football held only one team below 106 passing yards in 2022 and that was Kentucky with Will Levis (98). Even Ball State (269), Akron (241) and UT-Martin (316) moved the ball in the air against the Vols last season.

How the secondary responds against the Governors could be a measuring stick relative to UT’s improvement in pass defense.

4. Will the defensive front continue to be disruptive? The defensive line changed the line of scrimmage against Virginia. It should do the same against Austin Peay.

Defensive tackle Omari Thomas is an All-SEC player. But watch for the other tackle, Arizona State transfer Omarr Norman-Lott. He has a burst off the line. Tennessee Football also needs to apply pressure from the edge. James Pearce and Tyler Baron did that against Virginia with two sacks each. Roman Harrison and Joshua Josephs need to join the act.

5. How will freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava play? He did fine in his two series against Virginia. And he needs to continue to develop because only four SEC teams last year started the same quarterback every game.

Don’t forget: Joe Milton got hurt in his second game as a starter in 2021.

Percentages suggest Iamaleava will be thrust into meaningful action at some point.

“He’s dynamic,” Heupel said of Iamaleava. “He’s got the ability to be a playmaker.”

We’ll see if he displays that against the Governors.

6. Will the Vols’ offensive line continue to perform well without center Cooper Mays?

It should. The Vols ran for 287 yards against Virginia with 12 runs of 9+ yards. And many of those yards came with runs up the middle. They should run at will against Austin Peay.

Watch to see how Ollie Lane and Dayne Davis perform at center.

Prediction: Tennessee 59, Austin Peay 10.

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