This week’s On The Beat features the Tribune’s Eric Blum talking with Blake Toppmeyer, Tennessee football beat reporter for the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Toppmeyer, a Tribune alum in his own right, has covered the Volunteers since 2017.
Toppmeyer breaks down Tennessee’s rise in the Southeastern Conference under coach Jeremy Pruitt, what the Volunteers could do against Missouri to continue one of the nation’s longest winning streaks and predicts the final score.
The full interview can be heard in this week’s edition of the Tribune’s Mizzou Sports Podcast. The conversation has been slightly edited for length and clarity.
Eric Blum: How does your time in Columbia covering Mizzou compare to your time in Knoxville covering Tennessee?
Blake Toppmeyer: "The beat is a little bit bigger here in terms of number of reporters, but not drastically different. I think that the biggest change in terms of a reporting perspective is the average age of the reporter. There are more adult reporters that cover Tennessee and with Missouri, you’ve got the huge journalism school. So there's usually tons of student reporters milling about in addition to the folks that are doing this for a living and where those students are headed. In terms of fan bases, with Tennessee the way I sometimes describe it to folks back in the Midwest, because I'm a Midwest native, is like if in Missouri, you had the St. Louis Cardinals, but then you took away everything else. Like you took away the Blues, you took away the Chiefs, you took away Mizzou, you just had the Cardinals. And so, as passionate as Cardinals fans are right now about the Cardinals, imagine if you took everything else away and there was just that one thing. And so, in Tennessee, that's sort of the way it is. ... For a lot of Vols fans, it's Vols is 1A and there's a massive gap toward whatever is 1B. Yes, there's the Titans, there's the Predators. But those teams don't really resonate outside of Nashville. A lot of people that live in Nashville aren't even Titans fans. Pro sports are still sort of new to Tennessee, whereas the Vols, you’ve got fans throughout the state."
EB: What is the makeup of this year’s Tennessee Volunteers team?
BT: "It's a pretty veteran group at a lot of positions. There are eight starters back on each side of the ball, one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the conference in Jarrett Guarantano, a guy that certainly had his ups and downs throughout his career. He had one of his best games against Missouri last year. But he's had his struggles and there's been other times where he's been really good. Defensively, a lot remains to be seen there because although there's a bunch of starters back, you have the three most important players from last year's defense are the three guys who are gone ... Offensively, it’s interesting because I think the expectation coming into the season was that this would be dependent on its running game and on its offensive line that returned all five starters. And then in the season opener, they passed 31 times. I do think the offensive line group in particular is a position group that often looks better in Week 5 or 6 than in Week 1."
EB: It appears Tennessee is pegged into the third spot in the SEC East standings this season and that the Volunteers should be better than everyone in the division that isn’t Georgia or Florida. Do you think UT has turned a corner for this season?
BT: "Last season, that was big for Tennessee and where this program wants to go, in at least getting to that third-place spot in the SEC East last year. I think Tennessee wants to be able to consider itself in conversation with Georgia and Florida again, but before you can start talking about being in the conversation with Georgia in Florida, you have to at least separate yourself from South Carolina, Kentucky and Missouri. And Tennessee last year did that. They beat all the teams that on paper, I felt like they were supposed to beat. They finished third in the East and there was still that separation between the top two and Tennessee. And so, now it's kind of a two-fold question. Can they continue to be separated from those other four teams in the East? But also, can they close any of that gap with Georgia and in Florida? Last season, even though Tennessee established itself as a third-best team in the East, there was still a sizable gap between Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. So at the very least, I think for the future of Tennessee’s program, it can't backslide this year. They brought too much back. It really would be a disappointing season if it back slides further than third place in the East."
EB: What do you expect game day to be like in Knoxville during a pandemic?
BT: "A lot of traditions, like a lot of places, will be put on hold this year. There's going to be no running through the T, no Vol Walk, which is kind of a neat spectacle before the game. Tennessee fans, it's not uncommon for them to be lining 10-deep as the Volunteers walk into the stadium beforehand. It's really kind of a neat scene to take in. That won't be happening. You're going to see fewer boats and yachts on the Tennessee River in the Vol Navy. And then inside the stadium, Tennessee's planning for a crowd of about 22,000 to 24,000, which is about one-quarter capacity that Neyland Stadium holds. And I think Neyland Stadium is one of the loudest stadiums in the SEC. I don't think it's the loudest, but I think it's up there. And so, that experience is going to be a little bit lacking. I think Tennessee’s stadium this year will probably be as loud as any other in the SEC, but still not going to be anywhere close to what it can be."
EB: What’s your final score prediction for the game and why?
BT: "I’ve got Tennessee 34, Missouri 24, which I think would be just barely Missouri covering there. I think if I was a gambling man, which I'm not, at least on sports, I would probably stay away from this game because it feels like the line is a little too close for my comfort on either side of things there. But if forced to choose, I would take the Tigers to lose, but to cover the spread."
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