The Tennessee Volunteers will host the Georgia State Panthers on Saturday evening at Neyland Stadium to kick off the 2019 season. The two schools have met just once previously, back in 2012, resulting in a 51-13 victory for the Volunteers.
Following a disappointing 5-7 record in Jeremy Pruitt’s inaugural season on Rocky Top, Tennessee enters Year 2 with a cautious sense of optimism. That’s primarily due to question marks along both lines of scrimmage that could make or break the 2019 campaign.
That said, it seems likely that the Volunteers will take a step forward this season. They return a wealth of experience, particularly at the skill positions. An upgraded coaching staff, one that now includes Jim Chaney, Derrick Ansley and Tee Martin, is expected to pay dividends. And a host of talented newcomers appear poised to make an immediate impact as well.
Disappointing would be an understatement in describing Georgia State’s 2018 season. Following a seven-win campaign in 2017, the Panthers took a giant step backward last season, winning just two games en route to a last-place finish in the Sun Belt East.
While Georgia State is probably a year away from truly getting back on track, third-year head coach Shawn Elliott seems to like the Panthers’ chances to be much improved this season. There’s also evidence to support that claim with most of the Panthers’ top playmakers back on both sides of the football. That will certainly be put to the test on Saturday against the heavily favored Vols on the road.
Georgia State at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 31 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Tennessee -26
When Georgia State Has the Ball
There’s no question that the Tennessee defense boasts substantially more talent than the Georgia State offense. However, Georgia State does feature a handful of playmakers on offense who could make a little noise on Saturday. Chief among them is senior quarterback Dan Ellington, an efficient passer who completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,119 yards with a 12-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio last season. The dual-threat signal-caller also led the Panthers in rushing with 625 yards and five additional touchdowns.
Ellington will be the focal point of the Vols’ defense on Saturday. However, senior running back Tra Barnett and sophomore wide receiver Cornelius McCoy are both viable threats who will command attention as well. Meanwhile, the left side of the Georgia State offensive line features a pair of all-conference talents in Hunter Atkinson and Shamarious Gilmore.
In terms of game plan, look for Georgia State offensive coordinator Brad Glenn to try and exploit the absence of two of Tennessee’s best players on Saturday in linebacker Daniel Bituli (minor knee procedure) and cornerback Bryce Thompson (suspended). Filling the void for the Vols will be a pair of highly regarded true freshmen — LB Henry To’oto’o and CB Warren Burrell. Both players are extremely talented, but the Panther offense is sure to test their inexperience early and often.
The Panthers will also try to test Tennessee’s inexperienced defensive line, which lost all three starters from last season. Emmit Gooden, the Vols’ top returning defensive lineman, was also lost for the season with a torn ACL early in fall camp. The good news is that highly touted Michigan transfer Aubrey Solomon was declared eligible by the NCAA earlier in the week and should help bolster the new-look Tennessee front.
While there will likely be a few bumps in the road in Derrick Ansley’s debut as the Vols’ defensive coordinator, Tennessee still has a significant edge, and for the most part, the Vols should be able to hold the Panther attack at bay.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
Tennessee’s struggles on offense in 2018 were well documented, which is a big reason why offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was brought in from Georgia to help right the ship. Chaney inherits an experienced group of playmakers at the skill positions. But much of the Vols’ success on offense this season (or lack thereof) hinges on the improvement of Tennessee’s much-maligned offensive line and quarterback Jarrett Guarantano’s ability to take a step forward in 2019.
Jeremy Pruitt will use this game as an opportunity to test out a wide rotation of players along the offensive line in search of the “right combination.” Fortunately, star offensive lineman Trey Smith will be among those in the rotation. Smith was medically cleared to play this week, following a long stint on the sidelines with blood clots in his lungs.
While the Georgia State defense should be improved with the return of seven starters from last season, that is far from a huge vote of confidence for a group that ranked among the worst in the nation in 2018, primarily against lackluster competition. For that reason, Jim Chaney isn’t likely to open up the playbook too much on Saturday with bigger fish to fry down the line.
That said, you can probably expect Guarantano to take a few deep shots downfield. The Georgia State defense allowed the second-most plays of 30-plus yards in the FBS last season, averaging 3.6 per game. That also bodes well for big-play running back Ty Chandler.
Even with the Tennessee defense at less than full strength on Saturday, the Vols should be just fine on that side of the football. The bigger question: Will we see the same Tennessee offense that sputtered in easy matchups against the likes of UTEP and Charlotte last season, or will we see a much-improved Tennessee offense capable of dominating inferior competition? Time will tell, but all signs are pointing to the latter. While Georgia State will be a better football team in 2019, the Panthers are no match for a far superior Tennessee team on the road.
Prediction: Tennessee 41, Georgia State 13
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.