Its Football Time in Tennessee: Vols vs. UConn Huskies Preview (11/4/23)

Recently: Tennessee (#17, 6-2, 3-2) got a much-needed SEC road win in Lexington, beating Kentucky 33-27. It was UT's 3rd consecutive win against the Cats, and 36 of the last 40 in the series for the Vols. Sunrise, sunset. 

Meanwhile UConn (NR, 1-7) gave up 246 rushing yards to Boston College and only ran 43 plays to the Eagles' 83, yet somehow only lost to BC by a touchdown, 14-21. Close contests have been a theme this season for UConn with five of the Huskies' eight games being decided by 7 points or less. 

Previously on Vols vs. Huskies: This will be the first football meeting between the two schools. There is of course a storied women's basketball rivalry, fueled by the fact that UConn's growing success in the 90s was measured against Pat Summitt's long-established program, and by the fact that Geno Auriemma--and I can't stress this enough--is a massive prick. 

Five Factor Preview

Tennessee Offense vs. UConn Defense

The Huskies' defense is led by linebacker Jackson Mitchell, who is 13th nationally in tackles per game with 10.1. Mitchell was a Butkus Award semifinalist in 2022. DL Jelani Stafford has 8 TFL this season and 6 touchdowns, being used as a RB in UConn's short-yardage package. The UConn defense has been lackluster in general, but the Huskies have been winning turnover battles of late, forcing 9 turnovers in the last 4 games and going +4 in takeaways in that same stretch. 

Tennessee Defense vs. UConn Offense

UConn lost starting QB Joe Fagnano six quarters into the season. RS Jr. Ta'Quan Roberson stepped in an has completed 58% of his passes for 182 yards/game, 8 TDs and 3 INTs. The brightest spot for the Huskies' offense has been RS Sr. guard Christian Haynes, an AP Mid-Season All-American selection just last week. Yes, the UConn offense has been so milquetoast this season it has me researching an offensive guard's midseason honors just to say something positive about it. The UConn OL does give up just 1.12 sacks/game (15th-best in the nation), so there's a challenge for the Tennessee defense and their nationally 7th-best sack rate of 3.63/gm. 

Vols Offensive Concepts

I typically put the opposing team's favorite run and pass plays in this space, but I do not have that info for Connecticut. In their stead, here's Tennessee's top run and pass concepts so far in 2023:

Tennessee's offense works by forcing a defender to make the wrong choice. Jaylen Wright scored in the 1st quarter against Kentucky on a read option where the DE stayed outside to take away the QB run. Here in the 2nd Joe Milton gets a 19-yard gain because the DE crashes the RB. 

It works in the passing game, too. Here's an example of "divide," a downfield shot play that makes the single-high safety be wrong by choosing which deep route to cover. In this case the UK safety is on the hash, leaving 2/3 of the field open deep. He has no chance of making it back over to help the corner who got roasted on this play, and it's an easy deep TD for Chas Nimrod. 

Prediction: UConn is likely the worst team Tennessee has faced this season. Yes, I'm including Austin Peay in that--the Govs are a top-20 FCS team and haven't lost since their September visit to Neyland. I tried to find a ranking system that has the Huskies ahead of APSU and couldn't. [EDIT: Found one! has UConn ranked 146 and Austin Peay 154.] A loss to this UConn team would be by far the worst loss of the Heupel era and on par with UT's loss to Georgia State in 2018. That sounds like hyperbole, but it's not. Both UConn and GSU joined FBS this century and have nearly identical winning percentages (both right at 39% all-time). The UConn brand might be a little more prestigious due to their basketball programs, but outside of backing into a Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2010, the Huskies haven't done anything on the gridiron to set themselves apart from Georgia St., including UConn's 35-14 blowout loss to the Panthers earlier this season. 

So Tennessee wins this game easily. But do they cover? That aforementioned Austin Peay game did not go how Tennessee planned. Fans were supposed to be getting a good look of Nico Iamaleava in the second half and instead saw UT struggle to pull away from the Govs. This game gives the Vols a great opportunity to show how much they've improved. Tennessee is a 35-point favorite Saturday. Many books don't put a line on FBS/FCS matchups, but DraftKings did have the Vols as a whopping 62.5-point favorite against APSU, a game UT won by 17. The Vols are favored by a little more than half as much in this one against a comparable team. Is UT twice as good now as they were two months ago? 




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