No. 17 Tennessee (1-0) vs. Virginia Tech (1-0)
Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET
Bristol Motor Speedway (153,000) • Bristol, Tenn.
Series Record: UT leads 5-3
Setting the table
The scene is set for maybe the most anticipated venue in college football history. There’s so much excitement about playing a college football game at Bristol Motor Speedway that there was a live camera set up capturing the transformation…and people actually spent time watching that. The field is now down, the checkerboard end zones have been painted, and the scene that was once wishful thinking has turned into reality.
Oh yeah, that’s an actual game to be played also. And while sloppy performances in Week 1 for both UT and Virginia Tech, to an extent, may have put a slight damper on the excitement for the on-field matchup, this is still a big game for both programs. New coach Justin Fuente is trying to make his first big statement as he works to replace legendary coach Frank Beamer at VT. The Vols, meanwhile, are trying to prove that their preseason top-10 ranking was no fluke, even though they didn’t look like an elite team in an overtime win in Week 1 against Appalachian State. There’s plenty on the line for both teams. One thing is almost certain: More people will see what happens in person in this game than any other in college football history.
Who has the edge
When Tennessee throws…
The passing game clicked early in the opener for the Vols, stalled for about two quarters and then made an explosive return late as Joshua Dobbs hit a pair of huge passes to Josh Malone to get the Vols back in the game. While Dobbs made some questionable decisions and was off target at times, there’s plenty of blame to go around for the UT passing attack. The protection was porous, and the receivers had some untimely drops. UT needs more from all of them.
The Hokies, meanwhile, are working on rebuilding a secondary that was uncharacteristically shaky at times last season. It shut down Liberty in the opener, but UT will clearly provide a far bigger challenge from an athletic standpoint. Safety Chuck Clark is the player to watch for the Hokies. There are some unknowns in both areas for each side here, but the onus will be on Dobbs and Co. to prove that they can consistently make plays in the passing game. Edge: Slightly to Virginia Tech
When Tennessee runs…
Tennessee’s historically potent rushing attack in 2015 looked just decent in the opener against the Mountaineers. Jalen Hurd had 110 yards, but it was a grind with no carry longer than 13 yards and an average of 3.9 yards per carry. Alvin Kamara was quiet and Dobbs had his first negative-yardage game of his career. This is another area the offensive line needs to step up in. Virginia Tech lost a few pieces on the defensive line, but likes who is replacing them. The Hokies were subpar in run defense last year, and will be tested if UT can click on all cylinders again. The Vols will have to prove it, but they have all the potential to put up a big game on the ground. Edge: Tennessee
When Virginia Tech throws…
Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans is a big guy who can make all the throws. He averaged almost 400 yards per game passing in junior college, and now he joins a Justin Fuente-led offense that has produced QBs such as Paxton Lynch and Andy Dalton in the past. Isaiah Ford is a game-changer at wide receiver, while tight end Bucky Hodges will play on Sundays. There’s a ton of potential for this passing attack, but Evans must prove he can make the big throws against a top defense. UT will be tested, but the Vols have an opportunity to use Bob Shoop’s scheme to their advantage and possibly confuse the inexperienced Evans with a variety of looks and blitzes. Edge: Even
When Virginia Tech runs…
The Hokies have some options in the backfield in Trevon McMillian and DeShawn McClease, but it was Evans who led the way on the ground with 46 yards. They were average rushing last year (159 ypg), and Fuente’s system is definitely based around the quarterback. So the Vols, after giving up 184 yards on the ground to Appalachian State last Thursday, will need to key on Evans’ feet as well as his arm, while doing a better job tackling when they get to the ball. There’s nothing particularly fierce about VT in this area, but UT can’t be its own worst enemy again. Edge: Slightly to Tennessee
On special teams…
Butch Jones said the Hokies haven’t missed a beat from their traditional special teams dominance that was a trademark of the Frank Beamer era in Blacksburg. They have a great kicker in Joey Slye, some nice options in the return game and coverage continues to be a point of emphasis as well. This is another area that UT is loaded in, but had some uncharacteristic mistakes in Week 1, as Cam Sutton muffed a punt and the Vols gave up a big late punt return. Expect the Hokies to be smart in trying to limit Sutton and Evan Berry in the return game, so UT’s edge might be mitigated a bit. But the overall potential of UT’s group is higher than VT’s.
Edge: Slightly to Tennessee
Best-case scenario for UT
Tennessee shows that Week 1 was a fluke and comes out and throttles the Hokies in a fashion that many expected last Thursday. The offensive line shores up its protection, Mike DeBord has more flexibility in play-calling and turns Dobbs loose and Shoop’s defense is solid again – confusing Evans and holding the Hokies to minimal gains. The national attention and momentum from this game propels the Vols back up the polls again and gives them confidence for SEC play around the corner.
Worst-case scenario for UT
People will remember this game for a long time. The Vols don’t want that memory to be the one where the hyped-up UT team fell flat against a rebuilding Virginia Tech squad. A loss would confirm that the opener was no fluke, and certainly deflate expectations for the season. UT would still have a chance to bounce back and contend in the SEC East, but there’s no denying that a loss of any shape, form or fashion would be a huge hit to Butch Jones and UT.
How we think it’ll play out
The RTI team all picked Tennessee to win by a decent margin in the preseason, but UT’s shaky start last week certainly didn’t give us a ton of confidence in that pick. The Vols, in our opinion, remain the more talented team in this matchup, and the Hokies didn’t exactly light it up against Liberty in their opener. But the Vols simply can’t have some of the same mistakes and sloppy plays they had in the opener. Tennessee remains the safe bet, but this game very well could come down to the final possessions.