Tennessee football returns to Neyland Stadium Saturday evening for its 2023 home opener against Austin Peay. The Vols are looking to stay unbeaten on the season before they open SEC play while the Governors are looking to get in the win column this season.
Each week, the RTI team will provide game predictions for Tennessee’s weekly opponent.
We move on to the Virginia Cavaliers.
More From RTI: Tennessee Has “No Plans” To Redshirt Nico Iamaleava
Austin Peay is by far the easiest opponent on Tennessee’s 2023 schedule.
The Vols could win this game by three scores playing nothing but third-stringers.
In other words, Tennessee will pick up a very sizable win before hitting the road next week.
But what can we learn about Tennessee in such a blowout? For starters, starting linebacker Keenan Pili is out, so we’ll see a healthy dose of young guys Arion Carter, Elijah Herring, Kalib Perry and Jeremiah Telander.
Additionally, we’ll see a bunch of guys get some run at pretty much every position. Nico Iamaleava is the one player most people will be watching closely, and I hope we see him play for well over a quarter.
There’s not much to say about this game. If there’s one thing Tennessee needs to improve upon from last week’s performance, it’s punting and kickoffs. We’ll see plenty of kickoffs, but Jackson Ross may not have many opportunities.
There’s no line for this game for a reason. Tennessee could score 70, but I say they go just under as they improve to 2-0 for the second consecutive season.
Prediction: Tennessee 69, Austin Peay 6
Last week I used a Paul Heyman quote to say that the notion of Tennessee winning the game wasn’t a prediction but a spoiler. The same thing is obviously going to be even more true this week as well.
This is a game where Tennessee is going to roll and it’s going to be anywhere from a 40 to a 50-plus point victory for the Vols in the home opener. What’s more interesting, though, is what’s on the horizon.
This is the final game on Tennessee’s schedule before a stretch of six straight Top 60 teams according to ESPN’s preseason SP+ rankings. In other words, this is Tennessee’s final gimme-game before the schedule starts to ramp up for an extended period of time. The Austin Peay game is about getting as many young guys in-game reps as possible before the competition starts to ramp up.
The first thing I’m thinking about is quarterback Nico Iamaleava. Joe Milton was an experienced backup to Hendon Hooker last year while Nico Iamaleava is a true freshman. The former five-star recruit did see a handful of snaps in the season opener but it’s important to get him genuine, multi-drive playing time. Not just a few drives, either. Let the freshman work the defense over a long period of time before time runs out to do so this season.
Other than Iamaleava, it’ll be good to see what young players such as Cam Seldon, Jeremiah Telander, Tyre West, Kaleb Webb, Rickey Gibson, and Ethan Davis can do. I expect to see Tennessee’s depth chart fully emptied in this one on Saturday. Playing time for everyone!
Prediction: Tennessee 63, Austin Peay 6
This is a pretty simple one. There’s not even a gambling line for Tennessee’s 2023 home opener as instate FCS foe Austin Peay travels to Knoxville. This is a “name the score” game for Josh Heupel as Tennessee could genuinely win by 100 if they played its starters for the whole game and called an aggressive game.
That won’t happen and the matchup will give us a chance to watch some of Tennessee’s talented young players who hope to earn an established role by the end of this season. But there are two things I’m curious to watch as it pertains to the final score.
First is how aggressive Tennessee is throwing the ball down the field while Joe Milton III is in the game. Milton only took five deep shots last week against Virginia and Tennessee’s coaches were pleased with that. Virginia played a soft defense and forced the Vols to drive down the field rather than hitting the big play. Milton took what the defense gave him as he should have, but do the Vols decide to be more aggressive throwing the football earlier in this game? That could beneficial for Milton and Tennessee’s receivers confidence and comfortability ahead of their first real challenge next weekend at Florida.
The second is the new clock rules which keeps the clock moving on first downs in the first 28 minutes of each half. Tennessee’s up tempo offense makes it more immune to the new rules making a big impact but this is a game that it could slow down the Vols’ scoring totals.
Still, Tennessee cruises in this one.
Prediction: Tennessee 66, Austin Peay 7
In short, Tennessee gets to name the score against an overmatched Austin Peay team.
Heupel’s team beat Tennessee Tech 56-0 in 2021 and UT-Martin 65-24 last season. The Vols are deeper overall on defense this season, so I will be curious how much Austin Peay can move the ball against mostly reserves in the second half. This is a big game for Tennessee’s special teams, a unit that was pretty abysmal in the opener. I am not sure how much action punter Jackson Ross will see, but the Aussie could use a few more kicks before the trip to Gainesville.
We saw both good and bad from Dee Williams returning punts. This could be a game where he takes one to the house, but I am more concerned with ball security.
It is all about tightening up everything on Saturday, and getting reps for young players. We are very likely to see the first touchdown throw from Nico Iamaleava, who should get to play most of the second half. I am guessing he ends up with two passing touchdowns.
Prediction: Tennessee 65, Austin Peay 10