The Opponent: Despite bearing the name of one of America’s oldest colonies, the University of Virginia was not formally founded until 1819. Esteemed American President, Thomas Jefferson, is credited as its founder. The university’s founding was partly due to Jefferson’s growing disenchantment with his own alma mater, the College of William & Mary. Considering itself a “Public Ivy” due to its low acceptance rate, and high academic standards, UVA is certainly one of the more pretentious schools to appear on Tennessee’s schedule in some time. Expect a paltry wine & cheese crowd from the Wahoos on Saturday. Virginia has been playing football since 1888 and is a charter member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Tennessee and Virginia have only played twice in the modern era of college football. The last meeting was an epic Sugar Bowl clash on the first day of 1991. Andy Kelly, Carl Pickens, and Tony Thompson led a furious 4th quarter comeback for a 23-22 Tennessee win.
Are they Good?: No, Virginia is not good. It may sound cruel to answer that bluntly before the ‘Hoos have even played a game this year, but expectations are incredibly low for Virginia in 2023. FanDuel has their over/under win total set at 3.5, with the under garnering significant action. It is worth noting that this is a Virginia program playing its first game after the tragic shooting deaths of three of its players last season. It is also a program that has been negatively affected by the transfer portal. Bottom line though, Virginia is on the short list of presumed worst Power 5 teams in America heading into this season.
What will this tell us about Tennessee?: A fair amount, simply because it is the first game of the season. I would not read too much into any margin of victory. Whether Tennessee covers a massive point spread won’t give us much indication as to their standing in the SEC. However, we will learn a lot about individuals on Saturday. Joe Milton is top of that list. How does he look after a full offseason of being “the man”? How deep are the Vols at certain positions? Can any fresh faces make an impact on a largely veteran team? Those are the things we may learn about Tennessee on Saturday. While Virginia could always surprise folks this season, it would be worrisome to see Tennessee struggle on Saturday.
What does Vegas say?: Las Vegas has this point spread anywhere from -27.5 to -28.5. The Over/Under is set between 56.5 & 57.5. There is reason to believe Virginia will struggle to score against Tennessee’s first-team offense. However, both the spread and over/under could very well be decided late in a lopsided game. Virginia was 4-6 ATS last season, whereas Tennessee was 10-3. Tennessee games hit the Over seven times last season, whereas Virginia games only hit that figure twice.
Matchup to Watch on Offense: Tennessee’s offensive line versus Virginia’s defensive front. The Cavaliers’ defensive line appears to be the strongest part of their team. Tackle Aaron Faumui is a solid block in the middle of that line, and will challenge Tennessee’s inexperienced interior. Virginia will be desperately missing edge rusher Chico Bennett Jr, expected back soon, but has another nice end in Kam Butler. While the Cavaliers are both thin and inexperienced in other areas, this should be a solid test for Tennessee. Everyone will be watching the center position, where Ollie Lane should start in place of Cooper Mays. Can Lane & Milton run this offense as seamlessly as Mays & Hooker? Without Lane, who rotates in at left guard? It is a big opportunity for Texas transfer Andrej Karic. I would not expect Tennessee’s offensive line to be perfect on Saturday, but a solid performance would help squash fears of impending doom from message boards and talk radio.
Matchup to Watch on Defense: I am very interested to see the rotation in the secondary, specifically how many guys play early on. However, I am most intrigued to see Tennessee’s pass rush. The Vols had a respectable 31 sacks last season, however, Byron Young’s presence off the edge will be sorely missed. Can Tennessee generate pressure without blitzing this season? That is a major question mark for this team. We have seen flashes from veterans like Tyler Baron and Roman Harrison, but both need to show more consistency. Omarr Norman-Lott has generated rare praise from Rodney Garner this August. Could he or Omari Thomas provide a pass rush from the interior? It is a big season for sophomores James Pearce Jr and Joshua Josephs. Both look the part, and will have plenty of opportunities. Virginia will be breaking in four new starters along its offensive line on Saturday. It is a group that surrendered 3.40 sacks per game last season as well. Tennessee needs to be able to generate pressure against this team.
Fun Fact: Virginia is a school with a rich history and a deep roster of notable alumni. It is a beautiful campus set just outside the picturesque Shenandoah Valley. The history and classical architecture of the school was nearly lost were it not for a sympathetic anti-hero, George Custer. Infamous for his blunders at the Battle of Little Bighorn, Custer first made a name for himself as an officer in the Union Army. The University of Virginia was one of a small handful of Southern schools to remain open during the Civil War, and it was open in March of 1865 when Custer and his cavalry troops arrived to find the waiving of a white flag. It was a stressful time in Charlottesville as the Union Army had been burning cultural centers throughout the American South. Custer took sympathy on UVA though, and helped preserve one of America’s oldest public universities. For further reading check out this article from the school magazine. Great history.
So What Happens?: You never want to be too cocky going into a season opener, but it is hard finding areas of concern against this Virginia football team. The Cavaliers will have an FCS-transfer at quarterback, playing behind an inexperienced offensive line, and without their top four pass catchers from last season. This was not a prolific offense last season with an experienced roster, so while Virginia may see gradual growth over the course of a season, I think they will really struggle against Tennessee’s defense on Saturday. I expect Tennessee to control Virginia’s ground game, and force Tony Muskett into uncomfortable third and longs. While I expect Virginia to move the ball at times on Tennessee, I do expect the Vols to pick up where they left off in 2022. Tim Banks’ defense was very good in the red zone (3rd in the SEC) and was superb at creating turnovers (2nd in the SEC). Offensively I think you will see some rust early on mostly due to a shuffled offensive line. Virginia has some players on defense, and expect the Cavaliers to be plenty motivated to start. Tennessee’s pace and talent will wear down this Virginia defense though. Again, I am not sure how much I would read into it given the opponent but I think Tennessee absolutely rolls on Saturday. Once this offense finds its stride, the Vols will overwhelm an outmatched opponent.
Tennessee 45, Virginia 13