The RTI team makes their picks for the Vols’ match-up with No. 17 West Virginia this upcoming Saturday. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford, staff writer Ben McKee, and contributor Charley Collier all share their predictions for this Saturday’s contest.
If you asked me what I expected from this game before fall camp started, I would’ve told you West Virginia was going to beat Tennessee and it probably wouldn’t be all that close. I expected a double-digit win for the Mountaineers before the start of August.
But now, after seeing the Vols in fall camp and learning more about both them and WVU, I’ve almost been swayed to change my pick to choosing the Vols. Almost.
Tennessee’s rushing attack should be able to find plenty of holes in West Virginia’s defensive line and linebacking corps. Neither WVU’s line nor their linebackers are very big, and even with the overhaul the defensive line has gone through this fall with the addition of grad transfers and bulking up, they’re still going to be out-matched against an SEC offensive line like UT’s. Not only that, but West Virginia’s secondary is thin on both bodies and experience.
Both of these teams have a lot of question marks. Most of West Virginia’s are on defense, though. Their offense returns a bulk of the production that saw them soar their way to a top-25 overall offense last season. They’ll be headed up by Heisman hopeful Will Grier at quarterback, and their receiving corps might be the best in the country. WVU has a solid offensive line that will protect Grier, and they also employ a running back committee that could cause some problems (though I don’t expect them to gash the Vols like teams did last year).
All in all, I think this is a winnable game for Tennessee, and I feel much better about their chances now than I did a month ago. So what’s keeping me from picking the Vols?
The defensive line.
I don’t worry necessarily about the Vols’ starting trio of Kyle Phillips, Shy Tuttle, and Alexis Johnson. But the depth behind them worries me a great deal. I think Emmit Gooden will be fine, but almost everyone else in the rotation is very young and inexperienced. Do Tennessee’s coaches trust them yet? If not, then the four guys I mentioned are going to have to play a lot of snaps because West Virginia runs a lot of plays. And if that’s the case, I worry about fatigue for UT’s defensive line.
And if we see Tennessee’s defensive line with their hands on their hips in the fourth quarter, that could be bad news for the Vols.
I know in UT’s new defensive scheme that the outside linebackers are the ones more responsible for rushing the passer, but the defensive line is still very crucial to the success of the defense. And I just don’t have faith in their depth right now.
This game should be very close, but ultimately I have to see it from Tennessee before I trust them and can pick them. And right now, I haven’t seen it in a game yet.
Pick: West Virginia, 33-27
MVP: Will Grier, West Virginia QB
Three months ago, I was convinced that Tennessee was going to be blown out. Today, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vols pull off an upset over the No. 17 team in the country.
It all starts and ends with Will Grier and the wide receiver group. This is where I believe it gives the Mountaineers a slight edge. With two freshmen likely to start at corner for Tennessee, Grier will look to exploit Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson. Unfortunately for the Vols, it’ll be hard to shade towards one side of the field to relieve Taylor or Thompson. If you double-cover David Sills on one side of the field, you’re leaving Gary Jennings, Marcus Simms or T.J. Simmons in a one-on-one matchup.
Where Tennessee can flip the advantage is in its favor up front. If the Vols want to slow down West Virginia’s passing attack, they’re going to have to get pressure on Grier. The Mountaineers have a solid offensive line, but the interior of the line is susceptible to allowing pressure. Shy Tuttle and Kyle Phillips are going to need to have strong outings.
The question on offense this offseason pertaining to the West Virginia game has been whether or not Tennessee can score enough points to keep up with the Mountaineers. I think the Vols are very capable of it, but I’m in “wait and see” mode. I’ve seen the West Virginia offense have success. I haven’t seen the Tennessee offense have success. The opportunity to run the ball successfully will present itself to the Vols, and if they can take advantage of it, I’ll be wrong on my prediction.
For now, I’m buying the Will Grier hype.
Pick: West Virginia, 31-24
MVP: Will Grier, West Virginia QB
It’s funny, but the closer we get to this game the more I really feel like Tennessee can win this thing. I feel confident this one is going to be close all the way through the fourth quarter, but I just don’t know if the Vols can pull this one off.
Tennessee wasn’t very good on either side of the ball last year, but that needs to be taken with a grain of salt due to the general mismanagement of talent from a year ago, as well as the plague of injuries. With a new coaching staff and a slew of young talent, this will be a completely different team.
The Volunteer offense doesn’t have time for growing pains in this one. You have to assume that West Virginia is going to put a hefty amount of points on the board, so for Tennessee to win, they need to score at least 35. The Vols will need to take advantage of a below average Mountaineer rush defense, and I think they will. Tennessee is going to establish the ground game early in this one. In 13 games a year ago, West Virginia gave up just over 200 yards a game on the ground, putting them in the bottom third of the FBS. The Vols should absolutely hit that number Saturday, and I see them getting to at least 250, if not 300 yards on the ground. Tim Jordan, Ty Chandler, and Madre London should all have good days.
A healthy dose of runs mixed in with some play action and some shots down field will give Tennessee the opportunity to put up a lot of points. It’s vital that they control the clock to try and keep the ball out of Will Grier’s hands. They can’t have three and outs, or the defense is going to wear out quickly. The Mountaineers allowed 31.5 points per game in 2017, ranking 90th out of 130 FBS teams, and they won’t be much better this year. All in all, I expect Tyson Helton’s first game as the offensive coordinator to be a big one. Guarantano is going to have a solid day, and they just need to avoid the big turnover.
As for the defense, well it could be a long day. West Virginia returns seven starters on an offense that put up 459.6 yards per game and 34.5 points per game last year, finishing the season as a top-20 offense in the country. The combination of Grier and elite receiver David Sills is a deadly one, and that doesn’t bode well for Tennessee’s young corners. The Vols will have a good game plan, but they are relying on a lot of youth to execute that game plan, which is a big question mark.
West Virginia is going to throw the ball all over the yard, so Tennessee must have a good pass rush. If Grier has all day to throw, then the defense doesn’t stand a chance. I don’t have faith in the Vols to be able to consistently apply pressure, so the secondary is going to have to come up big. If they are able to get the pass rush going, expect the Mountaineers to counteract with an abundance of screens, so the linebackers and safeties will need to play well in space. I really like what Tennessee has at safety and at linebacker, but the line and corners both are too unproven to have confidence in.
This game is going to go right down to the wire. As tempted as I am to pick Tennessee, I just can’t do it. In a one possession game, it comes down to execution. A fifth-year quarterback and an experienced head coach has the advantage. Do keep an eye on the forecast though. There is a 50 percnet chance of rain in Charlotte Friday afternoon. If the weather gets sloppy, the game could swing in the Vols’ favor.
Pick: West Virginia 45-38
MVP: Brandon Johnson, Tennessee WR