Preview: Western Carolina at Tennessee

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    (Photo via WCU)

    (Photo via WCU)

    Western Carolina (1-1) at Tennessee (1-1)

    Saturday, 7:00 p.m. ET

    Neyland Stadium (102,455) • Knoxville, Tenn.


    Series Record: First Meeting

     Setting the table

    After a brutal 31-24 loss to Oklahoma last week, Tennessee gets to tune up its sputtering offense against FCS foe Western Carolina. Both teams are coming off losses – Tennessee to Oklahoma and Western Carolina to The Citadel (28-10). Unless you live under a rock, you know Jacksonville State (FCS) nearly upset Auburn last week – but they’re a much better program than Western Carolina at this point and the Vols shouldn’t have any trouble winning this one handily…even if they don’t play their best football. Priorities for the Vols will be staying healthy and fixing an offense which mounted just 17 total yards after the first two plays of the second half last week. Expect Tennessee to experiment with some different combinations on the offensive line, in the secondary, along the defensive front and at linebacker throughout the game. Western Carolina will be looking to prove they can hang with an FBS foe – something they did last year when they battled USF in a 36-31 defeat. They, too, will be looking to get their offense clicking after struggling to consistently move the ball last week.

     Who has the edge

    When Tennessee throws…

    The Vols will thoroughly outclass the Catamounts on the outside and should have numerous opportunities to get the passing game going. Last season, FCS foe Chattanooga made things difficult for the Vol offense thanks to a talented defensive front. For perspective, that Chattanooga team beat this Western Carolina team 51-0 last year. The Catamounts don’t have the personnel to put consistent pressure on Dobbs, so he should have time in the pocket to work on stretching the field. Expect a confidence building day for the Vol passing game as they prep for their trip to The Swamp next week. Edge: Tennessee 

    When Tennessee runs…

    Tennessee moved the ball effectively on the ground at times against Oklahoma – one of the nation’s stingiest defenses against the run last year. Jalen Hurd averaged 4.5 yards per carry against the Sooners and, if given a dozen carries or so this week, he should go over 100 yards for the third consecutive game this season. Western Carolina allowed The Citadel to rush for a whopping 341 yards on on 69 carries in their last outing – if the Vols want to pound the ball down their throat, they’ll be able to. Alvin Kamara and John Kelly should see their share of carries as well. Edge: Tennessee

    When Western Carolina throws…

    This is the matchup to watch. Catamount quarterback Troy Mitchell can be dangerous – last year he threw for 221 yards and two touchdowns against Alabama and 378 yards and two touchdowns against USF. He set a school record last season with over 3,000 yards from scrimmage and certainly has the tools to test Tennessee’s defense. Western Carolina has some weapons at receiver, too. Karnorris Benson, a 6-1, 205 pound senior is one of the best receivers at the FCS level. He accounted for 118 receiving yards on nine receptions against Alabama last year and could win some one-on-one matchups with Tennessee’s defensive backs. Spearman Robinson, a 6-4, 215 pound junior, is another name to watch. He hauled in two touchdowns against Alabama last year and also recorded eight catches for 69 yards and one touchdown against USF. That said, the Vol defensive front should make things tough on Troy Mitchell. Western Carolina’s passing attack was neutralized by Chattanooga last year thanks to the ability of their defensive front to pressure the quarterback. The same should hold true for the Vols on Saturday.  Edge: Tennessee

    When Western Carolina runs…

    The Vol defense largely bottled up Oklahoma’s talented backfield last week and shouldn’t have any trouble halting the WCU ground attack this week. Against Alabama, South Florida and Chattanooga last year, the Catamounts averaged less than 30 yards rushing per game. Though Detrez Newsome is a pretty talented running back and Troy Mitchell can make things happen with his legs, UT’s front seven should effectively bottle them up. Edge: Tennessee

    On special teams…

    With the exception of Aaron Medley’s surprising struggles this season, Tennessee’s special teams game has been very, very good. Trevor Daniel is averaging 49.3 yards per punt, good for fourth in the NCAA and first in the SEC. Evan Berry is averaging 35.3 yards per return and Cam Sutton is averaging an impressive 21.0 yards per return – both rank in the top-13 nationally in those categories. Though Western has some athletes at kick and punt return, the Vols will thoroughly outclass them – Tennessee has featured some of the best coverage units in the country the last 15 games. The Vols should hold an edge in this area every game this season, especially if Medley can get his mind right.  Edge: Tennessee

     What Western Carolina is thinking

    We have played reasonably well against similar teams in the past. We almost beat South Florida on the road and we moved the ball on Alabama at times last year. We can make things interesting in Neyland if we play our game, especially if the Vols are hungover from a tough loss. Either way, we’re going to collect a large paycheck.

     What Tennessee is thinking

    Thank goodness for this game. After last week’s soul crushing defeat, we need to get our offense, especially our passing game, some confidence. We also need to get some of our young talent some valuable game reps. We should be able to stretch the field and prove, on film, that we can complete the deep ball. If we can do that consistently, it’ll open things up on offense at Florida next week. We should be able to get our starters on defense, who were on the field far too long last weekend, some reps as we try out new personnel packages. Maybe we can even get backup quarterback Quinten Dormady some valuable reps and let him build some confidence as we head into the bulk of our schedule.

     What RTI is thinking

    This game is coming at a great time. The Vols should be able to right a lot of wrongs offensively against an outmatched FCS foe and thus build some confidence headed into Florida week. They’ll also be able to get healthy and get some rest for some of their starters. Western Carolina may hit a few big plays, but the Volunteers should be able to name their score this week. The Vols have never lost to an FCS team – that streak should continue this week.