It’s been 670 days since Bowling Green last won a football game after going 0-5 in the shortened COVID-19 season. The shortened COVID season didn’t go much better in Knoxville where Tennessee went 3-7 and fired head coach Jeremy Pruitt.
Both programs were so eager to put 2020 in the past that they’re opening their 2021 campaign two days early, playing Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET.
While Bowling Green was one of the worst teams in the country last season, Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel expects to see a different Falcons team this fall.
“Bowling Green, when you watch the video from a year ago, they’re a program that got a late start,” Heupel said. “There was some time off for them, getting them back. They only got a five-game schedule out of it. I think athletically you’ll see a different group this year than what you’ve seen from them because of time on task, strength and conditioning, being in better shape, being able to play harder for longer.”
Heupel expects to see a different team athletically because Bowling Green added seven transfers from power five schools this offseason.
Even after adding help via the transfer portal, Bowling Green is one of the youngest teams in the country. The Falcons boast 71 players in their first or second collegiate season. That number is good for the third most in the country.
Bowling Green’s offense was putrid last season, scoring just 57 points in five games. The Falcons were one of just two teams in the MAC to not total 100 points in the season. Buffalo, who led the MAC in points, totaled 304 points in its seven game season.
Returning is starting quarterback Matt McDonald who threw for 712 yards, one touchdown and six interceptions on 44% passing.
“Offensively, they are heavy 12 personnel,” Heupel said. “They have some athletic tight ends that can create matchups within the passing game. You’ve got to be able to be gapped out and handle the misdirection and the counter plays, you’ve got to be able to fit things extremely well. We need to play up the field and create some distortion and play on the other side of the line of scrimmage with our front, but you’ve got be able to handle the play action pass, too.”
Terrion Stewart, Bowling Green’s leading rusher last season, is back after tallying 295 yards and four touchdowns last season. The Falcons top three pass catchers from last season have all departed. Tyrone Broden, who caught six passes for 97 yards in Bowling Green’s leading receiver.
On defense, Bowling Green ranked 10th in the MAC in points allowed a season ago. The Falcons leading tackler from a season ago, Darren Anders, is back. However, Bowling Green’s next three leading tacklers last season are no longer with the team.
“Multiple in their fronts, four-down, 3-down,” Heupel said of Bowling Green’s defense. “A mirage of coverages on the back end of it. They’ve had a couple of transfers that I assume are going to play for them. … New coordinator, he was there a year ago as their corners coach I believe, but he will go back to (calling plays). I know he’s called plays at previous stops. It will be interesting to see how different they are on that side of the ball and we’ve got to be able to adjust.”
Both Tennessee and Bowling Green are looking for a win to put their disappointing 2020 season in the past. The Vols are 35.5-point favorites and the SEC Network will broadcast the matchup.