It’s Football Time in Tennessee! Welcome to Tennessee Game Week where every week this fall I’ll be previewing the Vols’ upcoming match-up as well as whatever other random college football takes I may have. Check back every Wednesday or Thursday for predictions, key match-ups, players to watch, and more so you can go into Saturday pretending to know what the hell you’re talking about.
The Jeremy Pruitt era officially kicks off on Saturday as Tennessee heads to Charlotte to take on West Virginia who are led by QB and Heisman candidate/PED junkie Will Grier and WR David Sills who is coming off of an 18 TD season. Outside of a few blue bloods, it’s tough to imagine a tougher non-conference opponent for Pruitt to have drawn as his first test. He may have made his name as a defensive guru, but West Virginia’s offense might be the country’s best and Tennessee could struggle to find the pieces and the plan to slow them down. The Vols can’t find themselves in a track meet or things will get ugly. Let’s take a look at why Tennessee can win, why they can’t, and some of the key things to keep an eye on that will likely determine the outcome.
Why Tennessee Will Win
The best way to beat an electric passing game like West Virginia’s is to just keep them off the field and run the clock. If Will Grier gets the ball, he’s going to score points on Tennessee’s average defense. There’s really no denying that the more times Grier and Sills take the field, the lower Tennessee’s chances of winning. However, if Tennessee can limit the total number of possessions in the game and dominate the time of possession, they may be able to keep the game low scoring enough to win. What is the best way to do that? Run the ball early and often and keep moving the chains.
Fortunately, Tennessee’s offensive line has the potential to be one of the team’s strongest units. Trey Smith is healthy and will be an absolute beast at LT, Alabama transfer Brandon Kennedy will step in and immediately improve the middle of the line, and former 5-star Drew Richmond could finally figure it out at any moment. The Vols cadre of running backs featuring Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan, and Michigan State transfer Madre London should also be a reliable group. On the other side of the ball, the Mountaineers return one of the nation’s worst run defenses. The 2017 version allowed almost 5 yards per carry and a pathetic 204.2 yards per game on the ground. Pruitt needs to lean heavily on his stable of backs, milk the clock, and keep Will Grier wearing a headset on the sideline. If they succeed at that, the Vols can pull off the upset in Charlotte.
Why Tennessee Will Lose
Tennessee’s secondary does not strike fear in anyone. Micah Abernathy has been a reliable but underwhelming presence over his career, Nigel Warrior shows flashes but is still waiting for his breakout, and the Vols will see two true freshmen see substantial time at CB in Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson (who, in their defense, did turn heads over the summer). The new 3-4 defense could allow for increased pressure on quarterbacks from the likes of Kongbo, but until we see it in action it is probably fair to expect growing pains from the transition. Basically what I’m saying is that Tennessee’s pass defense is going to be pretty damn average at best.
Consequently, West Virginia is a nightmare match-up for anyone without a strong secondary. Former Gator Will Grier is a Heisman favorite and first-team preseason All-American at QB and torched the Vols for almost 300 yards in Florida’s heartbreaking 2015 win. David Sills V, the kid who famously committed to USC at age 13, is coming off an 18 TD season at WR with nearly 1,000 yards to go with it, as well. They also boast a solid offensive line and another 1,000 yard receiver in Gary Jennings, Jr. All West Virginia needs to do is play average defense and prevent the Vols from dominating the time of possession. If Grier and Co. get their minutes, Tennessee’s D has almost no hope of stopping them from putting this one out of reach for the Vols’ much less prolific offense.
Guys to Watch
Will Grier, WVU QB: Are you ready for me to stop fanboying this guy yet? I promise this is the last one. As much as I hate anyone who played for Florida (not to mention getting suspended for PED’s and then somehow getting that waived after transferring to WVU to run from his problems), you can’t knock a guy that threw for 3,500 yards and 34 TDs and returns two of his top targets. Take advantage of this chance to watch a potential Heisman winner in action against the Vols.
Alontae Taylor/Bryce Thompson, UT CB: The Vols will see two true freshmen get a substantial run at corner this season in Taylor and Thompson. They probably won’t be able to stop West Virginia this time, but they both had great summers and should be mainstays in our secondary for the next several years. This will be a fun opportunity to see how they stack up against one of the nation’s best passing games and hopefully get a glimpse into our dominant secondary of the future.
Ty Chandler, UT RB: Chandler was a huge recruit for Butch Jones as a consensus top-100 player in the country coming out of Nashville last year. His freshman year saw his touches limited, though, as John Kelly dominated the bulk of the running game. Tennessee has several questions in the passing game (Will Guarantano ever live up? Will Jauan Jennings return to 2016 form?) so getting production out of the backfield is absolutely critical. The Mountaineer’s D-line is pathetic and Chandler has a chance to bust out a 100 yard game. Getting his season off to a blistering start in a big game would go a long way in boosting Tennessee’s offense going forward.
I’m giving Tennessee more of a chance in this one than most people. The Vegas line has slipped from -9.5 to -7, so thinking the Vols are going to give the Mountaineers a run in this one is far from crazy. I truly think Tennessee is going to be able to run the ball on West Virginia and put up some points. If Guarantano can do enough in the passing game to extend drives in key moments and keep Grier off the field, Tennessee can win in a 28-24 type game. If West Virginia can force just enough three-and-outs or turnovers, though, they will put up 40 points before we know what hit us. My gut is actually telling me Tennessee pulls this one out, so I’ll say 28-24 Vols.
Michigan at Notre Dame
I told you I’d touch on some other takes, as well, and the return of this rivalry is great for college football. Notre Dame pussied out in 2012 citing their new agreement with the ACC and the need to free up slots to play ACC opponents. The last time these schools met was in 2014 with Notre Dame stomping Michigan 31-0 so the Wolverines will have plenty of bulletin board material to get pissed off for this one. Both teams have high expectations as dark horse College Football Playoff contenders and neither one will want to see those hopes dashed before the first full day of the season has even ended. Michigan is a -1.5 favorite and I think they are probably going to win this one as former Ole Miss QB Shea Patterson was just ruled eligible to play this season. He gives Harbaugh his best QB in his Michigan tenure and Michigan has enough talent around him and on both sides of the ball to probably outlast Notre Dame in this one. Playing at night in South Bend will be an electric atmosphere, but Michigan is the better team and should win. Also, fuck Brian Kelly. Seriously.
Urban Meyer Apologizes to Team
Urban Meyer. Scumbag? Yes. Domestic violence enabler? Yes. Nazi sympathizer? We don’t know that he’s not and I feel like the burden of proof is on him here. Well, news broke recently that the day after his suspension was announced, the one that banned him from all team activities until after Week 3, Urban was allowed to meet with his players to “apologize.” If that apology was anything like what we endured the night he was reinstated and suspended, I’m sure it was entirely sincere and heartfelt. I’m also sure it sounded suspiciously like the X’s and O’s of the offensive scheme against TCU. “I’d like to apologize for my actions, the same way I’ll expect my coaches to apologize if we don’t rely heavily on the read option and attempt to exploit our Week 3 opponent’s weakness at linebacker.” – Urban, probably. Ohio State just can’t do themselves any favors here and it doesn’t even look like they’re trying.
Other College Football Reading and Listening
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