Tennessee (7-6 in 2014) vs. Bowling Green (8-6 in 2014)
Saturday, 4:00 p.m. ET
Nissan Stadium (68,798) • Nashville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network
Series Record: First meeting
Setting the table
The 2015 season – arguably the most anticipated one for the Vols in many years – begins with a “neutral site” game in Nashville against Bowling Green, the MAC East champions from 2014. This game came about when a previously-scheduled opener in Nashville against UAB fell through when the Blazers were forced to, temporarily, shut down their program. The Falcons brings one of the most up-tempo offenses in the nation to Nissan Field on Saturday. Head coach Dino Babers, in his second year, hopes that his Baylor-like system can take another step in 2015 after putting up some nice numbers in 2014. Defensively, Bowling Green was among the worst in the nation last year and has a lot of questions on that side of the ball. Tennessee, meanwhile, is ready to reveal its revamped offense and defense, though some questions on the offensive line and some depth concerns after injuries piled up in camp do linger heading into the opener.
Who has the edge
When Tennessee throws…
The Vols will be without Pig Howard (suspension), Jason Croom (injury) and others at receiver this game. In fact, the Vols are only expected to travel with seven receivers, and one of them, Preston Williams, will be limited in how much he can do after only receiving NCAA clearance just over a week ago. But the Vols have options, and a couple young receivers from the Midstate area – Jauan Jennings and Josh Malone – should get a chance to shine in this one. Joshua Dobbs is locked in as the starting QB and had a great camp. Butch Jones has indicated that the Vols could play No. 2 QB Quinten Dormady in some capacity as well. Bowling Green gave up 291 yards through the air per game last year, second to last in the MAC, so unless there have been some sweeping improvements, or unless the offensive line completely falters, UT should be able to move the ball through the air with regularity. Edge: Tennessee
When Tennessee runs…
The Falcons were among the worst in the nation in rushing defense in 2014, giving up over 200 yards per game on the ground. On top of that, BGSU lost several key members of the defensive front from a unit that already struggled. Tennessee’s offensive line will continue to be a work in progress this year, but for Tennessee’s sake, the Vols will hope that they can get consistent push against this potentially porous unit. Regardless, the running back duo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara should find ways to get through, around and by the Falcons’ defense. Look for Hurd to get maybe 15-20 touches and perhaps expect a similar number for Kamara. Tennessee could easily go for 200+ yards on the ground in this one as the Vols look to lay the foundation to be a more physical running team in 2015 under new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord. Edge: Tennessee
When Bowling Green throws…
This is the area that perhaps scares you the most if you’re Tennessee. Quarterback Matt Johnson returns from an injury after leading the Falcons to a MAC title in 2013. He has an impressive list of targets as well, including a couple transfers from major programs and some guys who will get NFL looks. The Falcons will spread the Vols out and really test the secondary in space. It’s a UT secondary that has a lot of talent, but also got thinned out in camp with injuries. Malik Foreman will be tested at nickel and whoever starts next to Brian Randolph in place LaDarrell McNeil will need to step up as well. It’s difficult to cover any offense that is this fast and provides so many different looks. Tennessee, in part because it should be able to regularly pressure Johnson with four men, ultimately should be ok, but expect the Falcons to move the ball some through the air some on Saturday. Edge: Slightly to Tennessee
When Bowling Green runs…
He’s not huge, but running back Travis Greene is another really talented skill player for the Falcons who could get an NFL look. Despite some injuries, he’s averaged around 1,200 yards per season on the ground in his two years as the starter for the Falcons. Bowling Green returns all five starters on the offensive line. The offensive system uses tempo and spacing to help players like Green find creases in the defense. That should limit some of UT’s advantages up front, though Tennessee should have enough firepower with the likes of Derek Barnett, Curt Maggitt, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and others in the front seven to keep BGSU from running wild. Edge: Tennessee
On special teams…
Bowling Green kicker Tyler Tate was very good last year (23/29) and had a higher percentage even than Tennessee kicker Aaron Medley. Punter Joe Davidson holds several school records and had a solid season last year, while Tennessee’s Trevor Daniel will be making his first career start at punter. So I’ll give the slight kicking edge to the Falcons, but Tennessee’s overall coverage units and return men have more size, talent and athleticism and that should show up in various phases on special teams. Watch out for Ryan Burbrink in the return game, however. Bowling Green needs some big plays and he’s the type player who could give them one. Edge: Even
What Bowling Green is thinking
We won’t be intimated by the Vols. We face major opponents every year, and this is going to be a special team for us in 2015. Matt Johnson is back, we’re going to be able to fully maximize the offensive system in year two, and we have nowhere to go but up on defense. Blocking Tennessee’s defensive linemen will be a challenge, but we have a veteran line that communicates and we’ll go fast enough that we can keep them on the field and wear them down. We won’t be able to stop UT’s offense consistently, so we’ll have to take some chances, turn them over and then capitalize. It’ll be a higher-scoring game, we’ll get them into the fourth quarter, and anything can happen.
What Tennessee is thinking
There are some massive games for our program coming up in the next few weeks, but we have to take care of business in this one first for those to even mean as much as they should. This Bowling Green team could be tricky to stop sometimes – that offensive system presents some real challenges. But at the end of the day, we’re bigger, deeper, stronger, faster and just better than the Falcons in almost every area. We need to get that offense off the field so it doesn’t get in a rhythm and then let Dobbs, Hurd and Co. take over and put enough points on the board to have this one out of reach by the fourth quarter.
What RTI is thinking
Thank goodness, college football is back. With Oklahoma looming next week, it, admittedly, it is hard to get fired up too much about this one. But you’re only guaranteed 12 opportunities in college football, so we expect the Vols to be fired up and to take care of business. Bowling Green will dent the scoreboard at least a couple times. It wouldn’t be stunning to see the Falcons put together a drive or two early that concerns/frustrates UT a bit. The Vols will bounce back, though, and make plays that keeps it from ever getting too close down the stretch. The Vols put up big numbers on offense, take a decent lead into halftime, pull away some in the third quarter and then are able to get some young guys in during the fourth on the way to a three-or-four score margin of victory.