No. 9 Tennessee (9-4 in 2015) vs. Appalachian State (11-2 in 2015)
Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET
Neyland Stadium (102,455) • Knoxville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network
Series Record: First meeting
Setting the table
Tennessee and Appalachian State are about three hours apart in distance, but they will meet for the first time in history on the football field Thursday evening. App. State is the poster child for upsets. Everybody knows what happened in Ann Arbor in 2007. But if anything, that likely just serves as a reminder to Tennessee and other Power-5 foes that take on the Mountaineers that they can’t be taken lightly. UT has huge matchups around the bend with the Battle at Bristol, Florida and others coming up soon. But the Vols have to get past an App. State program that has won 17 of its last 19 games first.
Who has the edge
When Tennessee throws…
The passing game has been one of the biggest topics around Knoxville all offseason. Joshua Dobbs wasn’t terrible last year. But virtually everybody acknowledges that he needs to be a more consistent, accurate passer in 2016 if the Vols are going to live up to expectations. He needs help too. The wide receivers need to get off the line better this year, get separation and make plays down the field. The O-line, which will have a new starter at left tackle in Drew Richmond, must be solid in protection as well. App. State topped the Sun Belt in pass defense last year, but is now without star DB Latrell Gibbs (7 INTs in 2015). Tennessee simply has to be better in this phase of the game in 2016. That starts Thursday night. Edge: Slightly to Tennessee
When Tennessee runs…
Simply put: The Vols should be able to run all over the Mountaineers. There’s no excuse for one of the top rushing teams in the nation last year to struggle, even against a defense that finished second in the Sun Belt last year in rush defense (131.5 yards per game). The Vols are bigger, quicker, stronger and just overall better in this area. Appalachian State is working to replace Ronald Blair (now with the 49ers) up front and has a couple players around 240 pounds on the defensive line. UT should be able to expose the Mountaineers here. Edge: Significantly to Tennessee
When Appalachian State throws…
App. State quarterback Taylor Lamb does a good job of taking care of the football and avoiding sacks, but he’s not the type to put up massive numbers in terms of total yardage like (UT’s opening opponent last year) Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson. Lamb will manage the game, hit the timing routes and try to avoid the catastrophic play. The Mountaineers were 10th in the Sun Belt last season in passing yards per game (195.8), but Lamb did throw for 31 touchdowns – putting him in the top 10 nationally in the category. The receivers are relatively unproven, though Shaedon Meadors (20.9 ypc) and tight end Barrett Burns (8 TDs) are a couple targets that need to be covered tightly, Burns especially in the red zone. Lamb will pose some problems and hit his share of throws, but UT should take care of business in this area. Edge: Tennessee
When Appalachian State runs…
This is what the Mountaineers do extremely well. Lamb is a threat with his feet, but it’s All-Conference running back Marcus Cox, who is coming off a 1,400+ yard season in 2015, that is the true threat. App. State was sixth nationally last season on the ground, and even put up over 200 yards against Clemson in the run game. The Mountaineers will move the ball on the ground. The question is to what extent. UT’s defensive front will have a huge say in that. While Cox will break a few, UT’s overall speed, size and depth edge on defense should limit the damage. And if the Vols get up early, they can put the Mountaineers out of their element and then possibly run away with this one. Edge: Slightly to Tennessee
On special teams…
Senior punter Bentlee Critcher can boom them, but there isn’t much experience at kicker or in the return game for App. State. Tennessee, meanwhile, arguably has the best overall special teams unit in the nation. The Mountaineers will likely be forced to kick away from the UT returners or face possible huge plays. The overall level of depth, athleticism and speed strongly favors UT in virtually all phases of special teams. Edge: Significantly to Tennessee
Best-case scenario for UT
Tennessee comes out, gets an early lead and never really looks back. There will be a few first-game errors, but the Vols play crisp, clean and get out of the game healthy. The Vols easily run when they want, but are also able to gain some valuable reps and confidence in the passing game. The defense shines in its first game under Bob Shoop, but doesn’t give too much away. UT wins the game something along the lines of 49-7.
Worst-case scenario for UT
Well, you probably know what this is. The ’07 upset over Michigan has little bearing on this game, but it did serve as an ever-constant reminder that anything can happen on a given week in college football. Appalachian State keeps the chains moving, shrinks the game and makes some huge plays on defense to get it into the fourth quarter. From there, UT crumbles under the pressure of all the expectations crashing in on them. For the second time in a decade, App. State does the unthinkable.
How we think it’ll play out
This is a game Tennessee should win, there’s no way around that fact. The Vols are better at every position, and if they’re going to ascend to the heights that many are hoping for in 2016, they need to come out, take care of business and win convincingly on Thursday evening. Butch Jones has been pretty good at that during his time in Knoxville. There are tougher obstacles on the horizon, but UT picks up the season-opening win in pretty convincing fashion.
Daniel: 45-17 UT
Nathanael: 48-13 UT
Stephen: 55-17 UT