The Tennessee Volunteers and Bowling Green Falcons will meet inside Neyland Stadium on Thursday night to jump-start Week 1 of the 2021 college football season. It will mark just the second meeting all-time between the two programs. The Vols came away with a 59-30 victory over the Falcons back in 2015 in Nashville.
Tennessee will look for a fresh start under new head coach Josh Heupel following a disappointing 3-7 season under former head coach Jeremy Pruitt, who was fired in January amid allegations of widespread recruiting violations. A turbulent offseason also saw several key players exit via the transfer portal. And potential NCAA sanctions continue to cast a dark cloud over the program. Nevertheless, the new-look Vols appear to be full steam ahead in a bid to reverse their fortunes in short order. That quest begins on Thursday night as Heupel debuts his fast-paced spread offense against the Falcons.
Bowling Green and third-year head coach Scot Loeffler also look to right the ship after an abysmal 2020 campaign. The Falcons struggled mightily on both sides of the football and were outscored 225-57 en route to an 0-5 record against a MAC-only schedule. Unfortunately, things aren’t exactly shaping up for a quick turnaround in 2021. Bowling Green was hit hard by attrition during the offseason, leaving the Falcons with the youngest roster in all of college football heading into Thursday night’s season opener. Loeffler estimates that 70 percent of his team has never played in front of a live crowd at the collegiate level. The future may be bright for the young Falcons, but this group could be in for a rude awakening when they step inside Neyland Stadium to face the Vols.
Bowling Green vs. Tennessee
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 2 at 8 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Tennessee -35.5
When Bowling Green Has the Ball
Former Boston College transfer Matt McDonald will lead the way at quarterback in his second season with the Falcons. McDonald struggled mightily last season as he battled through a shoulder injury, completing just 43.9 percent of his passes for 712 yards with only one touchdown pass against six interceptions in five games. Now healthy following offseason shoulder surgery, McDonald expects to be much improved this season.
That being said, it could be a tall order to turn Bowling Green’s anemic passing game around with so much youth and inexperience among the supporting cast. The Falcons lost their top three pass catchers from a season ago, including star tight end Quintin Morris. The hope is that sophomore Tyrone Broden (6-4, 200) will step up to fill the void along with Washington transfer Austin Osborne and true freshman Jaylen Smith. Loeffler also has high hopes for Christian Sims and converted defensive end Andrew Bench at tight end, an integral position in Bowling Green’s offense. Perhaps the biggest concern lies along a very young and inexperienced offensive line that will be without standout guard and team leader Sam Neverov on Thursday night. A group that now features four underclassmen and a converted defensive lineman can probably expect plenty of growing pains.
While the Bowling Green passing attack faces a serious uphill battle, the Falcons do have high hopes for the run game. Dynamic redshirt freshman Terion Stewart was one of the few bright spots for the Bowling Green offense last season, rushing for 295 yards and four touchdowns on a very impressive eight yards per carry. True freshman Jaison Patterson is another running back who has received high praise during camp.
Bowling Green will be paired against a Tennessee defense with plenty of question marks of its own after a rough 2020 campaign and several key departures. The Vols will transition from a base 3-4 defense to a 4-2-5 scheme under new defensive coordinator Tim Banks. Tennessee returns a solid cast along the defensive line, headlined by pass rushers Byron Young and Tyler Baron. Meanwhile, depth is still a big concern at linebacker. However, starters Juwan Mitchell (Texas transfer) and Jeremy Banks should be solid. The Vols also return a fairly deep and experienced secondary, headlined by cornerback Alontae Taylor and safety Trevon Flowers. Only time will tell how this defense pans out, but the Bowling Green offense shouldn’t present them with too much of a challenge. It will be a very bad sign of things to come if the Falcons’ offense does manage to find success on Thursday night.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
The Vols will unveil their new up-tempo spread offense on Thursday night with recently appointed starting quarterback Joe Milton III leading the way. Milton managed to beat out sophomore Harrison Bailey and Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker to get the starting nod, although it’s possible that we could see all three signal-callers on the field at some point against Bowling Green. Milton is an imposing figure (6-5, 244) with a big arm and dual-threat ability. However, there is room for skepticism regarding the Michigan transfer following a somewhat lackluster 2020 campaign with the Wolverines. Milton completed 80 of 141 passes for 1,077 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions before being benched after five games last season.
While Tennessee returns little in the way of experience at the skill positions, Heupel seems pleased with the level of talent and depth in the running back and wide receiver rooms. The Vols will likely take a committee approach at running back with sophomore Jabari Small, highly touted junior college transfer Tiyon Evans, true freshman Jaylen Wright and redshirt freshman Dee Beckwith spearheading that effort. Meanwhile, speedsters Jalin Hyatt, Velus Jones Jr., and JaVonta Payton (Missississippi State transfer) look to emerge as big-play threats at wide receiver in Heupel’s offense, along with potential red-zone threat Cedric Tillman.
The offensive line needs to take a big step forward after underachieving the last few seasons. It’s not a particularly deep group either. However, the starting five should be solid with the likes of former 5-stars Cade Mays and Darnell Wright holding down the tackle spots to go along with veterans Jerome Carvin and Javontez Spraggins anchoring the interior.
Thursday night’s matchup against a highly suspect Bowling Green defense should be ideal for a Tennessee offense looking to gain some much-needed confidence and valuable experience. Bowling Green does return leading tackler Darren Anders at linebacker to help bolster the defense. However, three of the Falcons’ top four tacklers transferred out, as did 2020 sack and TFL leader Roland Walder. That doesn’t bode well for improvement for a defense that allowed 45 points and 310 rushing yards per game (dead last in the FBS) last season with those guys on the roster. All eyes will be on Milton and Tennessee’s passing game, but it will likely be the Vols’ rushing attack that steals the show.
Josh Heupel probably couldn’t have hand-picked a better opponent to open the season against than Bowling Green. The Falcons were flat-out awful on both sides of the football last season, and with a roster comprised primarily of inexperienced freshmen and sophomores, the 2021 campaign isn’t shaping up to be much better for a team clearly looking to build towards the future.
Tennessee will probably be far from polished, and mistakes are to be expected. However, the Vols should have no trouble steamrolling a wide-eyed group of young players from Bowling Green that has never experienced anything like Neyland Stadium. This should make for a nice tune-up game for Tennessee before Pitt rolls into town in Week 2. Vols wins big to kick off the Heupel era in Knoxville.
Prediction: Tennessee 48, Bowling Green 10
Podcast: Week 0 Recap
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.