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Rocky Top Talk is here for a Q&A full of Lane Kiffin stuff

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When your ex is in town but you totes don’t care...

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Tennessee Knoxville News Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

Rocky Top Talk is the premier location on the World Wide Web to get all th information you would ever need about the Tennessee Volunteers.

Nick Carner, one of the contributors there, was kind enough to give us a few minutes of his time to answer questions about Saturday’s game coming up with Ole Miss.

If you’re planning on making the trek to Knoxville, this is a must read as there’s some good local spots for eatin’ and drankin’ you need to know about right now. If you’re not attending the game and don’t know a Vol fan, this is definitely required reading to get nice and cozy inside the head of someone who likes that weird color orange - and don’t judge him too hard for the Matt Corral pun.

  • What’s your place in the Lane Kiffin-UT saga? Were you a student then or an alum watching angrily from your living room? What do you think most fans are feeling going into Saturday?

I graduated from UT in 2012 — so I was on campus when the ordeal happened. I’ll just say this: I’m a big Lane Kiffin fan. I always have been. I hold no ill will toward him for leaving Tennessee in the fashion he did, but not everybody agrees with me there. And that’s all right.

With all that said, I think most folks around here want to keep the focus on the coaches and players who are here at Tennessee now. So, respectfully, I think we’ll just leave that one alone, for the most part.

  • It looks like the Vols will be doing the Checker Neyland for this game. How much does that add to the hype of the game?

Checker Neyland is neat. It’s something that fans can do to participate and to feel involved in the game, beyond just showing up and yelling. I’m pretty universally all for things like that. Plus, if I’m not mistaken, it’s a concept that originated from within the fanbase. That’s cool, too.

But I think the game being sold out is the more meaningful topic.

(The last time Tennessee checkered the stadium was in 2017 against Georgia, and that’s also the last time Tennessee sold out a football game.)

Neyland (pronounced “Knee-land,” not “Nay-land,” Stadium at 100-percent capacity with an engaged crowd is a special place. It’s also really, really loud.

Tennessee’s just got a great all-around gameday experience — The Vol Navy, the Vol Walk, the team running through the “T,” as it takes the field, getting zero cell phone reception the entire game, etc., and yeah — I think checkering the stadium adds to the hype. It’s gonna be an electric atmosphere.

  • What is your assessment of the progress of QB Hendon Hooker from the beginning of the season to now?

I don’t think I can say enough good things about Hendon Hooker. Prior to the season, it kinda felt like he was generally the forgotten member of the QB room, with Michigan transfer Joe Milton winning the job in camp and Vol fans pining for former 5-star signee Harrison Bailey to get a fair shake in the competition.

What’s impressed me the most, though, is the way he’s improved as the season’s gone on. Tennessee QBs were struggling to hit the big play earlier in the season, Hooker included. Like, the Vols had WRs running wide open, ahead of the DB by two and three steps, and the QBs kept sailing the ball.

But recently, something’s clicked, and Hooker’s going over the top and hitting the WRs in stride. It kinda feels like the open, big-play chances in the passing game was the missing puzzle piece for Tennessee offensively. I’m interested to see how Ole Miss comes out early defensively with that in mind.

Hooker’s also gotten better with his ball security. There was a play in the Pittsburgh game when he was scrambling, right? He picked up the first down, but then instead of sliding or running out of bounds, he tried a spin move and ended up taking a hit and fumbling the ball. I don’t have the exact numbers, but earlier in the season, he had multiple lost fumbles in fewer than three games. In the last two games, though, I’ve noticed him sliding more and fumbling less.

Tennessee played its last two games relatively mistake free, and both of the aforementioned trends, in particular, will have to continue against Ole Miss. The Vols aren’t good enough or deep enough to overcome many self-inflicted errors.

  • On defense, which players should Ole Miss fans be aware of making the big plays on Saturday?

Well, big plays can be good or bad, right? So, linebacker Jeremy Banks is somebody to keep your eye on. He’s probably been Tennessee’s best LB this season (full disclosure: that’s not saying a whole lot) but at times he’s had troubling reigning himself in. He leads the team in sacks and ranks third in total tackles, but he’s also had a nonzero amount of personal-foul penalties called on him. Tennessee’s woefully thin at LB, so it needs Banks really dialed in and focused.

Senior nickel back Theo Jackson is a player who just always seems to find the ball. He’s missed the South Carolina game and is still tied for the NCAA lead in tackles for loss (6.5) among DBs and ranked second in the SEC in pass breakups (six).

Last one: LB/ DE Tyler Baron. Baron’s been a bit banged up — he missed the Missouri game and most of the South Carolina game — but, big picture, I think he’s the best NFL prospect on Tennessee’s defense.

… Corral-ling the Ole Miss QB is obviously gonna be a priority for the Vols, and a solid, disciplined game from Baron would do wonders for Tennessee’s chances.

  • I’ve never been to Knoxville for a game weekend. Where should I try to eat, get some drinks, etc.?

I reckon all that kinda depends on when you get into town, right? Saturday — campus and the adjacent downtown area is gonna be an absolute zoo. Everything nearby is gonna be packed.

If you get to town a bit early, like maybe Friday, there’s several places one could catch some live music. Friday during the day, local radio station WDVX features live, local music at Barleys in the Old City, and then there’s a Grateful Dead cover band playing at The Outpost Friday evening, if that’s more your speed.

For drinks/ food: Preservation Pub has a rooftop bar that’s super dope, while nearby Suttree’s has high-gravity beer, a menu with some off-the-chain Ramen dishes AND it’s got a whole-ass arcade attached.

To really get your grub on: Pete’s is a Knoxville institution, and if you get up early, you might could catch breakfast there. JC Holdway is a bit more pricey, but they don’t miss. Everything there is just great. And then there’s tacos and bangin’ guacamole at Babalu.

Last but not least: do yourself a favor and stop at Cruze Farm for ice cream.

Speaking generally, in Knoxville, there’s the downtown area, Market Square and the Old City, and they’re all basically right next to each other and a short walk from the stadium. I’d advise you to plan ahead, get here early and enjoy yourself. Gamedays in Knoxville are a good time.

  • Predictions?

Oh, man. Predictions... hmm...

As a Tennessee fan, lately I’ve been conditioned to expect calamity. So the team’s been playing pretty well, right? That doesn’t have me brimming with confidence. Instead, I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I expected the last two games to be close, and Tennessee won running away both times. But those were lower-tier SEC teams, and Ole Miss ain’t that.

It’s two explosive teams that are getting great play from QBs and offensive skill guys. I mean, this game screams “pound the over,” right?

At the end of the day, Ole Miss has played well against better teams, so that’s probably where I’ll draw my conclusions. I’m thinking the Rebels escape with a dub.