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2015 Opponent Look Ahead: Western Carolina

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Tennessee vs. Western Carolina

When: Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015; 7 pm ET

Where: Knoxville, Tenn. (Neyland Stadium)

Early line: Unlisted

Western Carolina at a glance:

Head coach: Mark Speir (10-25 in 3 years at WCU)

Conference: Southern (FCS)

All-time record: 306–433–23

2014 results: 7-5 (5-2 SoCon); Finished T-2nd in the SoCon

Returning starters: 19: 11 (offense), 8 (defense)

2014 overview: For a program that won a total of just 12 games since 2007 leading up to the 2014 schedule, the 7-5 campaign that the Catamounts put together last year was impressive at worst, borderline miraculous at best.

WCU showed its new fight in the season opener at South Florida, coming within a score of knocking off the FBS foe before ultimately falling 36-31 in Tampa. That served as a launching point for the Catamounts, which then went on to win their first four conference games before dropping a pair to Chattanooga and Samford – the top two teams in the conference.

Those losses kept WCU out of the SoCon title conversation, but it went on to knock off VMI and wrapped up the season with a respectable effort at Alabama where the Catamounts dented the scoreboard a couple times against the playoff-bound Tide in a 48-14 loss.

You could consider the Catamounts somewhat of an FCS version of Tennessee in terms of expectations for 2015. Virtually everybody is back, including senior dual-threat QB Troy Mitchell, who will have all but certainly rewritten the WCU record books by the time 2015 in complete. WCU will have to prove it can take that next step to contend for the SoCon title and make the FCS playoffs, but it is clearly a program with rising expectations and a preseason Top 25 ranking in the FCS, according to Athlon.

Three early questions for the 2015 matchup:

1. Will Troy Mitchell cause problems for UT’s defense?

If there’s one player that the Vols will need to be aware of in this matchup – it’s Mitchell, who could be one of the best quarterbacks at the FCS level in 2015. He put up big numbers in 2014 – including over 3,000 yards of total offense and 26 total touchdowns. If your initial reaction is to dismiss those numbers due to FCS competition, consider that against FBS opponents, he averaged 299.5 ypg passing, threw four touchdowns and zero interceptions. In preparing for him last year, Nick Saban said Mitchell “probably runs the ball as much as any quarterback we’ve played all year.” The Vols remember Arkansas State QB Fredi Knighten putting up 231 yards of total offense and two TDs in Neyland last year, and will need to avoid letting Mitchell cause too much damage.

2. Can the Vols protect the ball?

Turnovers are the quickest way to turn a game like this into any kind of competition. WCU did a good job of forcing them last year, averaging over two takeaways per game. And cornerback Trey Morgan, who returns in 2015 after an All-Southern Conference season in 2014, was the king of forcing them – recording six interceptions (including one against Alabama), forcing four fumbles, recovering two of them and recording eight additional pass deflections, which can easily lead to turnovers. Tennessee needs to avoid the ball-hawking Morgan when possible and hold onto the ball to make sure WCU doesn’t make the game in any way interesting.

3. Can the Vols take care of business and use second half to rest starters and play backups?

If all goes according to script, this should really be the only significant question. Coming off the game with Oklahoma and heading into a three-week gauntlet against Florida, Arkansas and Georgia, the Vols would love to be able to use this week as a half-bye that limits the opportunity for injuries and gets some of the younger players some experience as well. There shouldn’t be much reason for the likes of Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Hurd, Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt to have to play too far into the second half, but if those first two questions aren’t answered well by the Vols, it could make it a longer evening for everybody.

How do we expect it to play out?

I’ll give the standard Appalachian State/Michigan-inspired warning that anything can happen in college football, but there’s no reason to say anything other than this is a money game that Tennessee should win, and win in convincing fashion. Anything else would be a failure and should lead to great concern.

Mitchell will run around and make some plays for WCU. The Catamounts might score a time or two, but if this game is within even a couple scores in the third quarter, UT hasn’t had a great day. Expect the Vols to have a three-to-four score edge by halftime and to be able to call off the dogs somewhat in the second half on their way to cruising to a 48-10 type of win.

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