Can Tennessee restore optimism on Rocky Top with a win over BYU on Saturday night?
The Tennessee Volunteers will host the BYU Cougars in Knoxville on Saturday night in what will be the first-ever meeting between the two schools. Both teams enter the primetime matchup desperate for a win following a rough Week 1.
It didn’t take long for optimism to give way to utter doom and gloom on Rocky Top, courtesy of Tennessee’s embarrassing season-opening loss to the Georgia State Panthers last Saturday. The Panthers, who won just two games last season and were picked to finish last in the Sun Belt this season, arrived in Knoxville as a 25-point underdog. They exited a stunned Neyland Stadium with a 38-30 victory, dealing a lackadaisical Tennessee squad arguably the worst defeat in program history. A must-win matchup against BYU on Saturday night provides second-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt and his Vols with their first shot at redemption.
While Brigham Young didn’t suffer the same embarrassment as Tennessee in Week 1, the Cougars’ 30-12 home loss to in-state rival Utah was no less painful. Despite Utah’s No. 14 national ranking, the Cougars were expected to give the Utes a serious run for their money. Unfortunately, a combination of Utah running back Zack Moss and costly BYU mistakes proved to be too much. To make matters worse, it marked BYU’s ninth consecutive loss to their arch-nemesis in the 100-year-old “Holy War” rivalry. Head coach Kalani Sitake will now take his Cougars into SEC country in a bid to rebound against the wounded Vols.
BYU at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 7 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Tennessee -3.5
When BYU Has the Ball
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson entered his sophomore campaign with plenty of hype. And while he didn’t get off to the best of starts, tossing a pair of costly pick-sixes in the season opener against Utah, he does pose a serious threat to the Tennessee defense on Saturday. The Vols struggled to contain dual-threat quarterback Dan Ellington last week, and Wilson possesses a similar skillset with a better arm. Wilson’s favorite target is junior tight end Matt Bushman, who will be a matchup nightmare for the Vols and will line up all over the field in an attempt to exploit mismatches.
South Carolina transfer Ty’Son Williams spearheads the Cougar ground attack. Williams ran for 45 yards and a touchdown on just seven carries in week 1, but he also had a costly fumble. The former Gamecock is no stranger to Tennessee, and Williams’ pedestrian 3.4 yards-per-carry average in two career games against the Vols bodes well. However, Tennessee will need to be much better against the run this week after giving up 213 yards and three touchdowns on the ground to Georgia State in Week 1.
Ball security will be the top priority for BYU after having three turnovers converted into touchdowns last week. In terms of strategy, the Cougars will likely come at Tennessee with a variety of different looks on offense. You can also expect plenty of misdirection and run-pass option plays to confuse an inexperienced Tennessee front seven that appeared lost at times last week. The healthy return of senior linebacker Daniel Bituli (knee) would go a long way in helping the Tennessee defense fix some of its issues, but as of now, his availability for Saturday appears iffy.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
The play of Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano will be a huge factor in determining the Vols’ success on Saturday. Despite throwing for over 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns last week against Georgia State, Guarantano also committed two turnovers in a performance that left plenty to be desired.
The performance of Tennessee’s offensive line also left plenty to be desired, allowing four sacks and providing little running room for a Vols’ ground attack that rushed for just 93 yards last week. BYU doesn’t have the scariest defensive front and did not generate a single sack last week. However, the Cougars are dangerous at the next level with seasoned linebackers Zayne Anderson and Isaiah Kaufusi.
The Vols should be able to glean an advantage at the skill positions. Running backs Ty Chandler and Eric Gray are both home-run threats, which bodes well against a BYU defense that allowed 262 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground against Utah. Wide receivers Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer could be a handful for the BYU secondary. And the Vols have a matchup nightmare of their own in tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson. That said, this group will only go as far as Guarantano and the offensive line can take them against BYU, which is a concern.
You can probably expect offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to open things up a bit this week in a bid to generate some big plays. Of course, that’s easier said than done given Tennessee’s struggles to consistently execute a very basic playbook last week. Much like BYU, Tennessee’s top priority on offense will be ball security after turning the ball over far too often in the season-opening loss to Georgia State.
Tennessee’s uninspired effort last Saturday was a wake-up call for a team with serious issues across the board. What’s more concerning is the fact that these are many of the same issues that plagued the Vols in blowout losses against Missouri and Vanderbilt in the final two games last season — issues that clearly weren’t addressed with an entire offseason to do so. And they're problems that can’t be magically remedied in just under a week. Tennessee will play more inspired football on Saturday night, but that probably isn’t going to be enough to get past a BYU squad that is unquestionably more talented and dangerous than Georgia State.
Prediction: BYU 31, Tennessee 24
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.