All of the media hype and fanfare that has accompanied the Tennessee Volunteers' preseason top-10 ranking will finally be put to the test on Thursday night as the Vols play host to former FCS power Appalachian State in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. Tennessee head coach Butch Jones will look to improve on the Volunteers' 9-4 record from last year, which was highlighted by six straight wins to close out the season including a lop-sided Outback Bowl victory over Northwestern. Tennessee returns a wealth of talent, includng 17 starters from last season's squad.
Appalachian State head coach Scott Satterfield led the Mountaineers to an impressive 11-win season in 2015, culminating in a 31-29 bowl victory over Ohio in just their second season at the FBS level. Thanks in large part to a talented roster that also returns the majority of its key starters, the Mountaineers enter 2016 as the clear favorite to win the Sun Belt.
Appalachian State, which stunned a top-five Michigan team in 2007, will be looking for history to repeat itself by upsetting the Vols in Knoxville. Tennessee will be looking to avoid that fate and validate the preseason hype with an emphatic victory.
Appalachian State vs. Tennessee
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 1 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Tennessee -20.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Tennessee’s Passing Attack
There is little doubt that the Volunteers' potent rushing attack will be on full display on Thursday night, but it is the passing game that Tennessee fans are most anxious to see. Improvement is not only expected, it is paramount to the Volunteers’ title hopes in 2016. It all starts with senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs. Dobbs has been solid in the short and intermediate passing games, but following a season in which he completed just three passes in excess of 40 yards, improved accuracy with the deep ball is a must. Tennessee has a host of capable receiving options returning, but it is the Volunteers’ stable of talented underclassmen — most notably Preston Williams, Tyler Byrd and Marquez Callaway — that could steal the show and provide the big-play spark that Tennessee has been missing. The Vols certainly have the potential for a much-improved season through the air in 2016. Now they must prove it on the field with Appalachian State providing the first test.
2. The Bob Shoop Effect
Volunteer fans have had plenty to be excited about this offseason, but the hiring of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop probably tops the list. Shoop has an exceptional track record of turning mediocre defenses into top-ranked ones in short order, so it should be interesting to see what he can do with a talented Tennessee defense that returns almost all of its key players from 2015. Shoop isn’t likely to show all of his cards in game one, but the Tennessee faithful should come away with a very good idea of what he has in store for the rest of the season, especially in terms of his signature aggressive style and unique personnel packages. A very capable Mountaineer offense could prove challenging.
3. Appalachian State's Offense
The Mountaineers return seven starters from an offense that averaged 467 yards per game last season and ranked in the top 25 nationally in practically every statistical category. All-Sun Belt senior running back, Marcus Cox, is the nation’s second-leading active rusher, accumulating more than 4,000 yards and 43 touchdowns in his first three seasons. The Mountaineers' ground game is aided by four returning starters on the offensive line that graded out among the nation’s best last season. All-conference quarterback, Taylor Lamb, is no slouch either, having thrown for 2,387 yards and 31 touchdowns last season, while adding 436 yards and five scores on the ground. The Mountaineers' impressive stat sheet may lose a little bit of its luster when you consider that they compete primarily against Sun Belt competition. However, this is a veteran offense with enough talent to provide the Tennessee defense with a challenge.
There are obvious parallels that can be drawn between this game and Appalachian State’s colossal 34-32 upset of Michigan in 2007, including the fact that two of Tennessee’s top assistant coaches were assistant coaches for that Wolverines team. But those expecting to see a repeat of 2007 will most likely be disappointed. Despite all of Appalachian State’s achievements, they have not beaten a single Power Five opponent since pulling off college football’s biggest upset in 2007. In fact, they have not even been close to beating a Power Five team, losing by an average margin of 49-11. Appalachian State has more than enough talent and experience to rule the Sun Belt this season, but will be hard-pressed to knock off a far superior Tennessee team on its home turf. And if you think the Vols are going to look past the Mountaineers like the Wolverines did in ’07, think again.
Prediction: Tennessee 38, Appalachian State 14
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McVey is a diehard Tennessee Volunteers' fan who loves singing "Rocky Top" every opportunity he gets. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.