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Preview: Tennessee vs. Tennessee Tech

Photo Credit: Mason Burgin/RTI
Photo Credit: Mason Burgin/RTI

Tennessee (5-3, 2-3 SEC) vs. Tennessee Tech (3-5, 3-3 OVC) 

Saturday, 4:00 pm ET

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

TV: SEC Network Alternate

Series Record: Tennessee leads 5-0

 Setting the table

It’s Homecoming in Knoxville, and the Vols, after a tumultuous week, will certainly look forward to getting back on the field against what should be an inferior opponent. In the past seven days, the Vols have lost to 13-point underdog South Carolina, seen one of their most recognizable players, Jalen Hurd, quit the team, and have faced questions about effort, team chemistry and about how much belief there is in this team overall.

None of that will completely go away on Saturday, regardless of the outcome. But it is important for Tennessee to finally come out and play a complete game. That’s something the Vols haven’t done this season, regardless of competition. If the Vols can get a convincing win, play with more energy, and maybe even get a loss from Florida against Arkansas to help in the standings, it could still be a really good Saturday.

 Who has the edge

When Tennessee throws…

Joshua Dobbs must rebound after what might’ve been the worst game of his career in Columbia. The senior quarterback was out of rhythm all evening. A Tech defense that allows almost 240 passing yards per game at the OVC level should give Tennessee some opportunities to move the ball through the air. Even without Hurd or Alvin Kamara on the field, expect Tech to try to stack the box against UT to stop the run game and force Dobbs to throw it down the field. He must show that he can capitalize. Edge: Tennessee 

When Tennessee runs…

The Vols weren’t expecting for the John Kelly era at running back to start until next year, but they got a preview last week, and he should carry the load this Saturday as well. The early returns on Kelly have been impressive. He’s averaging 6.3 yards per carry, albeit in a limited sample size. Still, coaches and teammates have been highly complimentary of him all week. The challenge for UT will be to keep a smaller, active defensive front from penetrating the way that Appalachian State did in the opener. If the Vols can do that, Kelly should put up a 100-yard effort. Edge: Tennessee 

When Tennessee Tech throws…

The passing game is a strength for Tech (245 ypg). Quarterback Michael Birdsong, is a big (6-5, 245) transfer from Marshall who can sling it. His top target is Dontez Byrd, a Louisville transfer, who has 42 receptions for 502 yards and four touchdowns on the year. He’s clearly the biggest threat on offense. Tennessee has struggled to locate the deep ball on defense this season at times, so look for TTU to exploit that as much as possible. Even though this is what Tech does best, the Golden Eagles haven’t seen a pass rush like UT’s this year. They’ll hit some plays in the passing game, but Tennessee simply has too much of a talent edge to get burned badly. Edge: Tennessee 

When Tennessee Tech runs…

It will be interesting to see what Tech does with the run game. Normally, this is a weak spot for the Golden Eagles, a team that averages just 96 yards per game. But it’s also common for FCS teams to try to run the ball to try to keep the clock running and shorten the game. Expect Tech to do what it can to establish the run, even though it’s not a natural strength. Tennessee, despite struggling in this area all season, should have enough talent on the defensive front to limit big plays in this area. Edge: Tennessee 

On special teams…

Evan Berry again showed last week why he’s one of the most dangerous returners in the nation. If Tech kicks to him, it will likely pay the price. Both teams have been pretty solid in the kicking game, but UT’s athletic edge should show up in this area. Edge: Tennessee 

 Best-case scenario for UT 

Tennessee jumps out to an early lead, has its starters play well through halftime and is able to get some backups in during the second half.

 Worst-case scenario for UT

Something that looks like the battle between Georgia and Nicholls State earlier this season. If this is a competitive game, there will be a lot of questions about the overall mindset and morale of this team.

 How we think it’ll play out

Tennessee hasn’t played a complete game all year, regardless of competition, so it’s understandable to expect the Vols to struggle their way through this one as well. And they very well might. But the talent level here is substantial enough to think that UT, even if not completely focused, should be able to win this one comfortably. The truth might be somewhere in the middle. We’re envisioning a win by at least a few scores, but some rough moments along the way.

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