Prediction Panel: Tennessee vs. BYU

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    The RTI team makes their picks for the Vols’ match-up with the BYU Cougars this upcoming Saturday. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford and staff writer Ben McKee share their predictions for this Saturday’s contest.

    Nathanael’s Pick

    After Saturday’s disaster against Georgia State, I only see this upcoming game against BYU playing out in one of two ways: Either the Vols come out with a lot more passion and “want to” against the Cougars and get a victory, or they still struggle with effort with some players and execution is still a major issue, and the Vols fall to 0-2.

    Right now, I’m definitely leaning more towards one over the other.

    I’ve not heard or seen much from this past week that makes me feel like Tennessee’s issues have been completely fixed or even fixed enough to get the win this upcoming weekend. Now, UT does keep a lot quiet and behind closed doors, so maybe that’s why I’ve not heard or seen anything. But aside from comments from Jauan Jennings and the departures of Terrell Bailey and Jordan Murphy, I don’t know that Tennessee has done enough to address their glaring issues from Week 1.

    Tennessee struggled with effort at times, but Jeremy Pruitt was right about execution being the biggest problem against Georgia State. And I don’t know how much of that can be fixed in just a week’s time.

    The Vols struggled to do basic things like line up correctly on defense against the Panthers, and Georgia State isn’t exactly on the same level as BYU. The Cougars have a capable offense led by a quarterback who can beat you with both his arm and his legs. Tennessee had issues guarding the dual-threat capabilities of Georgia State quarterback Dan Ellington last week, and BYU quarterback Zach Wilson is even more of a threat on the ground, and he’s a better passer.

    I don’t have a ton of reservations about Tennessee’s offense in this one. BYU lost a lot off their top-30 defense from last year, and they looked vulnerable in areas against Utah last week. I definitely think UT’s offense can score three or four touchdowns. It’s the defense that worries me.

    Maybe Daniel Bituli plays on Saturday, and maybe his presence is enough to help the Vols get lined up and execute better. But I have a hard time believing one player can make that big of an impact. No slight to Bituli, but he’s not exactly an All-American type of player, so I just don’t think his absence left that huge of a void to explain the issues against Georgia State.

    I hope I’m wrong. I really do. It benefits no one — not Tennessee’s football program, not the fans, and not sites like ours that cover UT sports — to have the Vols fall to 0-2 on Saturday. But unfortunately, that’s what I see happening.

    The definition of “faith” is “to believe without seeing.” Right now, I need to see the improvement and the “want to” from Tennessee before I believe. My faith in this squad has pretty much vanished after the last three games they’ve played.

    Pick: BYU, 33-30

    MVP: Zach Wilson, BYU QB

    The reason BYU will be able to win on Saturday will ride on sophomore quarterback Zach Wilson’s shoulders. I think he’s capable of racking up 300 yards of total offense against Tennessee’s defense. The only reason Georgia State QB Dan Ellington didn’t last week is because the Vols gifted the Panthers a short field on multiple occasions. Wilson has totaled over 250 yards of total offense four times in his eight starts, so that’s definitely not outside the realm of possibility for him.

    Ben’s Pick

    Either last Saturday was a fluke, or it wasn’t. Either Tennessee will save its season before it truly begins, or the Vols will sink.

    That’s what we’ll find out when Tennessee takes on BYU at 7 p.m. ET in Neyland Stadium on Saturday.

    Personally, I didn’t see or hear enough throughout practice this week to make me think a different team is going to show up. The practices this week were the same exact practices I witnessed all fall camp: flat practices with a lot of confusion among players. (It should be noted the media doesn’t get to see a ton of practice and that this may not have been the case once we leave).

    There’s two questions to be addressed in regards to the game against BYU: Will Tennessee play with more effort? And was the Vols’ performance against Georgia State a fluke?

    As for the effort, it’s been missing in three-straight games dating back to last season. Following the debacles to Missouri, Vanderbilt, and Georgia State, I’m in the boat that I’ll see it when I believe it in terms of effort. There’s no excuse to not play with effort, but apparently this bunch is going to try.

    As for whether Tennessee will simply perform better, I don’t know. I’d like to think the Vols are better than they were last year, but after watching the defensive performance in Week 1, it looks like they took a step back. Sure, the effort was a problem, but Tennessee also made a horrific amount of errors and played extremely poorly. Against a BYU team that is significantly better the Georgia State, I have a feeling last Saturday may repeat itself.

    BYU’s offensive line is a tremendous group, Zach Wilson is one of the better quarterbacks in college football, the Cougars have a capable running back, and eight of the top 10 pass catchers return. Oh, and junior tight end Matt Bushman is a nightmare match-up.

    That doesn’t bode well for a Tennessee defense that didn’t know how to line up correctly, missed tackles, took poor angles, struggled in coverage at times, and lacked of effort last week. It’s why I’m picking BYU to win — I don’t trust Tennessee’s defense based off the way it played last weekend.

    Now, Tennessee does have a chance to win this game, and if it does, it’ll be because of the play of Jarrett Guarantano and the wide receivers. There’s potential for big plays against a BYU secondary that lacks depth and doesn’t have the same caliber athletes as Tennessee at the skill positions. If the Vols’ offensive line can give Guarantano time to push the ball down field, I like Tennessee’s chances. But it’s something the group has to prove to me first before I begin believing in them.

    Pick: BYU, 35-27

    MVP: BYU’s offensive line

    Led by left tackle Brady Christensen, center James Empey, and right guard Tristan Hoge, BYU’s offensive line is poised for a big day against a Tennessee defensive line that struggled mightily against Georgia State.

    Christensen was ranked the second-best freshman offensive tackle in all of college football last season by Pro Football Focus after starting every game for the Cougars. He was nominated as a Freshman All-American Candidate.

    Empey was not only nominated as a Freshman All-American, but he was named one by the 2018 Football Writers Association of America. In addition, he was named the No. 1 freshman center in the country by Pro Football Focus. He played and started all 13 games, and he’s smart, physical, and one of the key leaders on the offense.

    Hoge sat out in 2017 after transferring from Notre Dame, but he started all 13 games last year. He’s on the NFL’s radar following a good sophomore season.

    Should these three key linemen keep Wilson clean and provide him time to scramble, it could be a long day for Tennessee fans.