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Tennessee Football Preview: Avoiding the Pitts

Tennessee Pittsburgh
Tennessee Football DL Tyler Baron against Pittsburgh in 2021. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics.

The Volunteers head to the Keystone State in a quest for national relevancy 

The Opponent: The Pitt Panthers are your defending ACC champions, and are coming off an emotional win in the Backyard Brawl against West Virginia. Pitt went 10-2 in their regular season last year, and won the ACC Championship game over Wake Forest. It was the Panthers’ first conference championship since joining the ACC, but this is not a program devoid of tradition. Pittsburgh claims nine national championships, although only one comes after the Civil Rights Act abolished segregation in the 1960s. That was in 1976, a team that was coached by Johnny Majors and finished their season 12-0. Notable former players include Dan Marino, Tony Dorsett, Mike Ditka, and Larry Fitzgerald. There is no shortage of notable other alumni for this university. Pitt has graduated a myriad of Nobel Prize winners, US Senators, entertainers such as Fred Rogers, and authors such as John Irving.

That said, special shoutout to Pitt alum Zelda Rubinstein. She made a lasting impression on me in the Poltergeist films, and was straight butter as the organist in Sixteen Candles.

Tennessee Football

Are they Good?: Yes, Pitt is somewhere between solid and very good. AP Voters have Pitt ranked #17, holding steady from their preseason spot. That is largely a reflection of last year’s Panther team. This year’s bunch is without a first-round QB in Kenny Pickett, and without an All-American wide receiver in Jordan Addison. More interestingly, Pat Narduzzi elected to jettison his offensive coordinator after a record-setting season. Gone is Mark Whipple, enter Frank Cignetti Jr. Narduzzi made no bones about the fact that he wants to run the ball more, and chew up the game clock. Cignetti is a Pittsburgh native, and football lifer. He has coached everywhere, most recently as OC at Boston College. On paper it is a fascinating move. Narduzzi swapped out the offensive coordinator who led the ACC in points per game (41.4) for a guy who had Boston College in the bottom third of that same conference at 24.7 ppg. Just looking at his short tenure at BC is a disservice to Cignetti though. He has had success in the NFL with multiple Hall of Fame quarterbacks. He runs a classic pro-style offense, but it will be run out of multiple formations. Defensively, Pitt is going to reflect head coach Pat Narduzzi. They are going to play aggressively. That means carefully disguised blitzes, and cornerbacks that are comfortable playing on an island. Pitt’s defense will have something to prove after looking fairly pedestrian against West Virginia last week. Bottom line, this is a good team. They don’t see last season as an aberration.

What Does Vegas Say: The line appears to be settled in at Tennessee -6.5 as of Thursday. Several online books had this line up over the summer, and it was consistently Vols -3.5. Opening line after both teams’ first game was -4.5, which was very quickly bet up to -7 or even -7.5. It is fairly rare to see a lower ranked team go on the road as a touchdown favorite, but that appears to be the situation here. Degenerates that I know and trust tell me that nearly 80% of the money was on Tennessee as of Wednesday night.  We will see if that evens out once Joey Public places his bets today and tomorrow. Over/Under appears settled at either 66 or 66.5.

What will this game tell us about the Vols? It will tell us a fair amount more than Ball State was able to. To begin to be nationally relevant again, Tennessee has to win games like these. You don’t get many chances to win on the road against ranked opponents. Those wins have been incredibly sparse for Tennessee over the past decade. A win would be a great sign that this program is heading in the right direction. An unstated goal for the Vols should be 8+ wins this season. That goal becomes very difficult with a 2-2 start in September. A loss to Pitt would make the Florida game seem like a must-win for Josh Heupel. A loss to Pitt would just further the running joke that Tennessee will never be “back”. Fair or not, perception can become reality in college football. Tennessee has to win games like this to get where it is trying to go as a program.

This game will tell me something about Tennessee’s wide receivers. The Vols know what they have in Cedric Tillman. Are there other playmakers in that group? Ball State did not put much pressure on Hendon Hooker. They dropped a lot of guys into coverage, and seemed intent on not giving up the long ball. Pitt will defend very differently. They will bring pressure, and put their cornerbacks man-to-man against Tennessee’s receivers. What will these one-on-one opportunities tell us about Bru McCoy and Jalin Hyatt? Does someone else, like a Ramel Keyton, step up instead? This Pitt secondary led the ACC in interceptions last year, and are able to run it back with the same starters. Whether Tennessee’s receivers can get the best of this bunch will go a long way in determining the winner of this game.

More from RTI: Tennessee Jumps Into the Top 10 of ESPN FPI Rankings Before Pittsburgh Matchup

Matchup to watch on Offense: Can Tennessee protect Hendon Hooker? It is the obvious question, but it is really all that matters tomorrow. Pat Narduzzi is going to bring pressure, and he is going to try to disguise it in every way possible. Pitt’s defensive front seven has some real playmakers. SirVocea Dennis is not just an excellent name. The Pitt linebacker can make plays all over the field. Dennis is one of several Panthers that can absolutely get after the QB. Pitt led the ACC in sacks last season with 54. That was 12 more than a Clemson defensive front with multiple first round draft picks on it. Ball State did not elect to blitz Tennessee much last week. Even if they did, those were a different class of pass rushers than what Pitt will showcase tomorrow. Tennessee has to be able counter this pass rush.

An effective run game is a great counter for an aggressive pass rush. Tennessee was without Tiyon Evans in last year’s game against Pitt, and Jabari Small left early with a shoulder injury. True freshman Jaylen Wright was mostly ineffective running behind a banged up offensive line. Tennessee’s quarterbacks did have success last year, averaging over 7 ypc when tucking and running. West Virginia gashed this defense on the ground last week. The Mountaineer running backs averaged over 7.5 yards per carry. That will get you beat in almost every game. Tennessee has to really like their chances if they can run the ball anywhere close to that effectively tomorrow. Pitt will have to think twice about an aggressive pass rush if they are getting gashed on the ground again. I’ll be watching to see how much early success Tennessee can have running the ball.

Matchup to watch on Defense: The obvious answer here is can Tennessee pressure Kedon Slovis just one week after recording no sacks against Ball State. That will be critical. Kenny Pickett made a lot of clutch plays with his legs last season inside Neyland. Slovis does not appear to have the same mobility as Pickett, but the Vols can’t let him get comfortable in the pocket.

Pass rush is the obvious answer, but I will be watching how the Tennessee defense defends the middle of the field. It is an area where this defense has struggled under Tim Banks. It can require solid safety play, and linebackers playing sound pass coverage. Those are two things Tennessee has not always been able to rely on. Pitt does not run a modern spread offense, obsessed with working on the perimeter of the field. Kedon Slovis worked the middle really well against West Virginia, and the Panthers will test Tennessee there as well. How do Aaron Beasley and Jeremy Banks do dropping into coverage? Can Trevon Flowers or Jaylen McCullough step up and make a play over the middle? The Vols can’t let Pitt have free run over a third of the entire field. I’ll be watching the battle in between the hash marks tomorrow.

Fun Facts & Travel Tips: Pittsburgh is a lovely city when blessed with nice weather. Traveling Vols appear to be in luck this weekend with sunshine and highs in the low 80’s. One low-key thing I love about Pittsburgh is all their professional sports teams have the same color scheme. It is an absolute shame more cities don’t do that. Hopefully Vols fans are able to see those colors on display Friday night as the Pittsburgh Pirates host the St. Louis Cardinals. PNC Park is an absolute gem, arguably the most underrated stadium in Major League Baseball. Pittsburgh is known as the City of Bridges, claiming 446 in total. Unfortunately Vol fans will not be able to cross the famous Roberto Clemente bridge this weekend, as it is closed for repairs. If the downtown cityscape looks familiar, Pittsburgh stood in for Gotham City in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films. All in all, a trip to Steel City should be a good experience for traveling fans. Not to throw cold water on anyone’s travel plans, but I would not go out of your way to eat at a world-famous Primanti Brothers deli. It is french fries squished inside a sandwich. That’s it. You could literally go to any deli in the world that serves french fries, and have the exact same experience. Otherwise, enjoy the weekend in Western PA.

So what Happens? Tennessee missed a golden opportunity to jump on Pittsburgh early last year in Knoxville. Joe Milton was unable to connect with receivers running wide open down field, otherwise the Vols are up 20+ early in that game. I expect Tennessee to have some of the same opportunities early in tomorrow’s game, and I do expect the Vols to hit on some. This is a different offense than in Josh Heupel’s second game last season. They are healthier and more experienced. It really comes down to how Hendon Hooker handles pressure. I don’t think Tennessee’s offensive line is good enough to consistently blunt this Pitt pass rush. The Panthers will get to Hooker a few times at least. I think the Tennessee QB really makes some plays with his legs though. Then it is a function of how successful Pitt can be at taking the air out of this offense, and what tactics do they use. Pat Narduzzi is no stranger to Josh Heupel’s offense, and he has been candid this week about his concerns with the pace. I would expect to see plenty of cramps tomorrow from Pittsburgh defenders. I also expect Frank Cignetti Jr to slow his offensive pace down substantially in parts of this game. Pitt would love nothing more than six to eight minute drives. They need to be better at running the ball than last week though. The Panthers only had 76 yards rushing against West Virginia last week, a number they are looking to improve upon. The health of sophomore running back Rodney Hammond Jr is in question for tomorrow. His absence would leave junior Israel Abanikanda to shoulder the entire load for Pitt. Tennessee stifled Abanikanda and this rushing attack last year inside Neyland Stadium. Can Tennessee’s defense play themselves off the field tomorrow? Let’s not forget this defense was horrible last year on third down (42% opponent conversion rate). They were arguably worse in the red zone, allowing opponents to score 92% of the time. Pitt is going to try to wear this defense down, and honestly that wasn’t too hard to do last year. Tennessee’s defense needs to worry about making one or two key stops, and creating one or two turnovers. As always, turnovers, special teams play, and sheer luck will go a long way in any game. For all the concerns I have about this Tennessee defense, my trust in Tennessee’s offense outweighs those. You can certainly be worried about the aggressive nature of this Pitt defense, but I like the opportunities that creates for Hendon Hooker and these receivers. Hooker has a big day with both his arm and his legs. Tennessee’s defense does just enough to hold on after the Vols take an early lead. The Vols get revenge on the second leg of the Johnny Majors Classic. Tennessee 38, Pitt 34

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