KNOXVILLE (School Release) -- For the fourth time in five weeks, Tennessee will face an opponent that's ranked at least 12th when the Vols play at No. 8 Arkansas on Saturday.
For the Vols, who have played No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Alabama and No. 12 South Carolina in that stretch, it's just business as usual.
"They look very good obviously," sophomore center Alex Bullard said. "We're going against another top ten opponent. We are going to have to be very detailed in our assignments and be focused on what we have to do. As long as we stay focused on what we need to do everything else should take care of itself."
While the Vols' past three ranked opponents have been run-oriented, Arkansas' aerial attack poses a different challenge.
The Razorbacks feature a passing offense that ranks first in the SEC and eighth nationally (318.7 yards per game), highlighted by quarterback Tyler Wilson, who leads the league in passing yards per contest (291.8).
Wilson's success is aided by a pair of standout receivers in Jarius Wright and Joe Adams, who rank first and fourth in the conference in receptions per game, respectively.
In other words, it will be Tennessee's greatest challenge this season in terms of pass coverage.
"I think that is fair to say," head coach Derek Dooley said. "I mean statistically thinking, they are the best throwing team in the league. But when you look at it, they have a quarterback that has a real playmaking mentality, a little bit like Tyler (Bray) has. They have a lot of speed on the perimeter. They play fast. It's not that they just run fast, they run fast without the ball.
"They have a real confident swagger to them. Every time a team inches closer to them they answer the bell. Pow, pow, pow. . .touchdown. I've seen it so many games. So, yes this will be our biggest challenge answering the pass. And it's really hard to stop them, not many teams have."
The Vols, however, cannot afford to just focus on the pass defensively.
"Bobby (Petrino) has always done a good job of running the ball and calling a lot of runs," Dooley said. "You look at his quarterback attempts.They are like us philosophically, and when you look at his numbers I feel like they are playing there best when he is throwing it around 35 to 38 times which is what I have told you guys that is where we need to be in a four quarter game, not in the 40s and 50s. I can't speak for him, but he does a real good job of making sure you have to defend the run."
Regardless of the Razorbacks' gameplan, Tennessee will get a better idea of how far its come after a trying October.
"I think we've improved a lot over the year." senior defensive lineman Malik Jackson said. "It's kind of hard to tell with all the losses we've had. As a defense, I feel like we've gone out there every week, competed real hard and played for the most part all four quarters. We just have to keep the ball rolling and try to get a big win against a big team. That's coming up this week."
LANE WORKING IN THE WILDCAT
Looking for ways to jumpstart its running attack, Tennessee turned to a new weapon against MTSU on Saturday with freshman tailback Marlin Lane taking direct snaps in a "wildcat" formation.
While it is still very much a work in progress, the Vols were pleased with the early results.
"We got some positive yards out of it," Dooley said. "It was a starting point. We got seven yards on a power. We didn't get much on our sweeps the way we were hoping, but it helped us a little bit on the power. It was a good start. We'll keep playing with it, but it's not going to solve our problems.
The new formation was nothing out of the ordinary for Lane who ran it his last two years at Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, Fla., after serving as the team's quarterback as a freshman.
For the Vols though, it was a play they hadn't used since 2009 mainly because of personnel concerns.
"I've always liked it, I have," Dooley said. "I haven't run it here just because I haven't had a comfort level with the right guy running it. I think it's a good way to take a few plays off the quarterback. If you don't run your quarterback runs, the zone read stuff, it's just a way to have that component in your offense and it helps, but it is rarely going to be the difference between winning and losing."
While Tennessee continues to fine-tune its version of the "wildcat" formation, most of the debate has swirled around what the Vols will call it with suggestions ranging from `4-Runner' to `Swagcat' to `Express Lane' and many others. The guy taking the snaps will leave that to the experts though.
"It doesn't matter," Lane said. "As long as I'm out there running it, I'm cool with it."
GORDON MAKING PLAYS AT NICKEL
Tennessee has been looking for someone to step up and make big plays. Redshirt sophomore Eric Gordon did just that against MTSU, collecting two tackles for loss and intercepting a pass from his nickel position.
"Anytime you are in the nickel position, I feel like you are in a position to make a lot of plays in the run as well as the pass," Gordon said. "When I got a chance to make a big play, I made that and it feels great."
With 5.0 tackles for loss, the third-most of any UT player, the Vols know Gordon has the ability to change the game with big plays defensively. Now the key for him to become more of an every-down player is sustaining that effort on a consistent basis.
"What Eric does is he can go out there and make some plays for you," Dooley said. "Eric's biggest challenge is his dependability, lining up right, knowing what to do and not giving up big plays. We want Eric to play more, but the dependability is the key in that.
"He's probably frustrated a little bit, as all players are when they aren't playing as much as they think they should. But like most players they tend to focus on things that don't involve them instead of focusing on their play, dependability and their consistency. That's what we talked to Eric about. Quit worrying about all the other guys back there. Line up right, play your technique right and he will play more."