Q&A with Checkerboard Chatter

I teamed up with my Bloguin counterpart, Derek Lusk, who runs the Tennessee Vols site, Checkerboard Chatter for insight into the game this weekend.  

We exchanged some questions and answers about the game.   Here my questions to Derek, along with his answers:  

1. What are the expectations for Matt Simms in this game?  Can he lead Tennessee to an upset?  He played OK against LSU last year.  

When Tyler Bray went down last week against the Bulldogs you could sense that the fanbase was thinking, “Oh no.  Now we have to play LSU and Bama without Bray!!!!”  Truth be told, the Vols might have trouble winning the next two weeks even if Peyton Manning found some additional eligibility.   

I think the most that we could hope for from Simms is that he not turn the ball over and put the offense in positions to keep the LSU offense off the field.  That is his best chance at pulling an upset.  That is exactly what he did last season when the Vols very nearly pulled off a miracle down there in Death Valley.

2. Tauren Poole ran for over 100 yards against LSU last year.  Will he be at full strength?   Can he be effective?   How important is the running game to any success that Simms may have?

All reports indicate that Poole will play but he won’t be at full strength.  He hasn’t been at full strength the last few weeks and that was before he suffered a hamstring injury against Georgia.  Between Poole’s back issues and now the hammy, I don’t anticipate him being very effective.  If the Vols are going to get anything going on the ground it will likely come from talented freshman Marlin Lane.  He has shown flashes this season and has been very good catching passes out of the backfield.  He has 4 touchdowns through 5 games.  Not bad at all for a true freshman. 

As you referenced, the Vols ran the ball well last season in Baton Rouge.  That allowed Matt Simms to play a conservative game and not turn the ball over.  Matt and the offense could certainly use that Saturday but considering Tennessee is the only team in the SEC averaging less than 100 yards on the ground as a team, I don’t hold much hope.

3.  How about the other side of the ball?  The Vols’ defense has been pretty good this year.  How will they stack up against LSU’s power rushing attack?

Tennessee has been pretty good against the run this season.  The held Isaiah Crowell to less than 3 yards per carry.  Like so many other aspects of the Tennessee team, the front seven is good but they are young and not very deep.  Eventually a team as talented as LSU is likely to wear down this group and break a big play.  Last week Tennessee placed such an emphasis on stopping the run that it ended up costing them in the form of deep passes in the second half.  If Tennessee commits 8 men to the run this week, which I suspect they will at times, look for Jarrett Lee to have some shots similar to Aaron Murray.

4.  What has to happen for Tennessee to pull off the shocker?

A lot.  I think Tennessee needs to win the turnover battle by a margin of 2 or more.  I believe Tennessee will need to win the time of possession statistic.  And the Vols will need to make at least one big play in special teams and not give up any to the Tigers.  If all that happens Tennessee will have a chance.  But even all that might not create the result Tennessee wants.  Those things all basically happened last season and Tennessee still left Baton Rouge with a loss.

5.  What are your thoughts on Derek Dooley so far?  As a former LSU assistant and head coach at Louisiana Tech, people in Louisiana are familiar with him.  Is he the right guy and just needs some time to get things going?  Or are most Vols fans pretty skeptical?

I think he is doing exactly what needs to be done to get Tennessee back to the top of the East.  Now, do I know that he will get there?  Not with certainty, but I think he is taking the right steps.  He is recruiting well.  He is focusing on the process and not necessarily the result.  He is trying to keep the team and the fans focused on the big picture.  

There is some skepticism, but the intelligent Vol fans know that Derek Dooley was handed an absolute mess.  He has provided stability and calm to what was a crazy two years in Tennessee football.  I am pulling for the guy.  I truly believe no one is going to out work him.

Now here are Derek’s questions to me with my answers:

1.  How do LSU fans view Les Miles at this point in his career?  There seemed to be some tumultuous times between Miles and the fan base.  Has he proven enough to get the detractors off his back?

LSU fans love Les Miles right now.  His record and accomplishments while leading LSU’s program are as good as any in Tigers’ history, and LSU fans realize this.   It was not always this way.  Following a guy like Nick Saban is never easy, but Miles did a very good job.   But the sub-par seasons in 2008 (8-5 with Peach Bowl win) and 2009 (9-4 with Capital One Bowl loss) brought out a ton of critics.   And honestly, Miles had made some questionable decisions regarding LSU’s program to earn that criticism.   Even through the first part of 2010, the critics were still vocal.   But as LSU kept winning, people realized just how good a job Miles was doing with last year’s team.   After the blowout win in the Cotton Bowl to earn LSU’s 11th win of the season and Miles’ fourth Top-10 finish in six seasons at LSU, any remaining critics were sent to their room and told to shut up.
Miles is unique.  He does things his way.   And his way is not always the flashiest or the sexiest.   But he is a very good football coach, and I suspect he’ll coach at LSU as long as he wants to.


2.  Where do you stand on the Jarrett Lee/Jordan Jefferson situation?

I think the situation is being handled perfectly.  Jarrett Lee has played extremely well and has earned the starting position, so let’s get that out of the way.   As a team, LSU is ranked 25th in the nation in passing efficiency.  It would have been preposterous to suggest such a ranking for LSU’s quarterbacks in late August.  When Jordan Jefferson’s suspension was lifted, a lot of LSU fans became nervous.   Was Les Miles going to try to fix what wasn’t broken?  He has not done that.  But he has involved Jefferson a bit into the game plan and given him the opportunity to play.  Jefferson absolutely brings something extra to LSU’s running game and if utilized correctly, he can bring a ton of value to the team.   Remember that when LSU won a national championship in 2007, they did so by utilizing a second quarterback in Ryan Perriloux.  Like Jefferson, Perriloux also brought an extra dimension to the running game.   So Les Miles already has this blue print.  

Playing two quarterbacks can prove dangerous.   What happens if Lee plays poorly one game while Jefferson plays well?   Do you now have a quarterback controversy?   Anything is possible, but I do not see it that way.   The two quarterbacks have such varying styles that it would take more than one bad game to make the switch.   The team would not just be changing quarterbacks, but they would also be changing offensive styles.   I just can’t see LSU going away from what has worked so well for them this year.  

Lastly, it’s important for Jefferson to get playing time to ensure he is ready should anything happen to Lee.   In each of the last four seasons, LSU has needed their backup quarterback to start at least one game for them due to either injury or ineffective play.  Having a backup with as much experience as Jefferson should definitely be viewed as an asset.

3.  Describe your emotions in the final sequence of last year’s Tennessee-LSU game that ended in such dramatic fashion.

Pass Interference In the End Zone – 1st and goal at the 2
Confident fist pump

Incomplete Pass.  2nd down.  Jordan Jefferson enters game.
In a raised voice, “What?!  Why!   It’s OK, It’s OK.  Let’s see what happens.  It’s OK”

Jefferson tackled at 1
“Well crap.  Run the next play.   HURRY IT UP JORDAN!   WHY ARE YOU LOOKING AT THE SIDELINES?”

Players inexplicably substitute – precious time ticks away
– Lo
ud inaudible high pitched shrieks and girl noises!   “What the f#$ are they doing?   Why?!?”

Snap goes flying past Jefferson
– “Mother f@#$er!! Again?   F#$&ing again?!  Really Les??”   <– This continues for a good 60 seconds

Ref on headset
“Wait!  What?”   I start to chuckle.   “Are they going to let us win this thing?”

Penalty announced
Full fledged laughing.  This is unbelievable. 

– Hysterical laughing

So it went from confidence to shakiness, to complete disbelief, to a LOT of anger, to laughing at the foolishness of the whole thing.   I saw more angst and criticism from fans over that win than any other loss I can ever remember.

4.  Where does this LSU team stack up in comparison to the other squads just in the Les Miles era?

It’s obviously too early to say.  The Les Miles era has seen some pretty damn good teams.  Of course, you’ve got the 2007 national championship team.  But some around Baton Rouge feel that the 2006 team (Sugar Bowl champions, #3 final ranking) was more talented.  You’ve got a pair of other Top-10 teams to choose from too (2005, 2010).  

This team will ultimately be judged by any championships they win.   But so far…they stack up pretty well.   Through the first part of the season, none of the other teams can match what this one has accomplished.   This team has won all of their games by at least 13 points.   And they went out of conference to play what could be the champions of two other conferences (Oregon, West Virginia) and beat both away from home…convincingly.  
But that’s only through six games.  Again, this team will ultimately be judged on how they finish this season…not how they started it.

5.  Is there any possible way that Tennessee can find a way to win this game?

Of course Tennessee can win the game.   For LSU, this is a road game against one of the top programs in the conference.  Anything can happen…we know that.  

In order to make that happen, I think Tennessee will need to do two things.   First is that they’ll need to run the ball.   It has been well publicized that they have not run the ball well thus far within the conference.  But a year ago, Tauren Poole pounded out 100 yards against LSU and that opened a few things up for them.   They’ll need to find a way to do that again.  If the running game is not working and Tennessee finds themselves in a lot of obvious passing situations, then LSU’s defense could have a field day.  

The Vols will also need to play very well on defense.  At times, LSU’s running game has bogged down.  That has usually been because the opposition has brought their safeties up in run support.   But if Tennessee can contain LSU’s running game with their front seven, then they could cause some problems for the Tigers and perhaps force a turnover or two.   

They’ll need some big plays and turnovers to get it done, but it’s not impossible.

Lastly, my prediction.   I think LSU takes care of business in Knoxville and comes away with a 34-13 victory.