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Ohio Bobcats vs. Tennessee Volunteers Preview and Prediction

Butch Jones

Butch Jones

The Tennessee Volunteers improved to 2-0 on the young season after overcoming yet another slow start to defeat Virginia Tech by a score of 45-24 in the "Battle at Bristol" in front of the largest crowd to ever watch a college football game. In spite of the Vols' record, Butch Jones’ squad still has some glaring obstacles to overcome if the team is going to meet the lofty expectations bestowed upon it in the preseason. The Vols will have an opportunity to correct some of those issues on Saturday as they play host to the Ohio Bobcats out of the MAC.

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Ohio was able to follow up a disappointing triple-overtime loss to Texas State in its home opener with an impressive 37-21 road victory over Kansas last week to even its record at 1-1. Frank Solich’s Bobcats are considered heavy underdogs despite bringing one of the nation’s most productive offenses (45.5 ppg) into Neyland Stadium for Saturday’s matchup. If the Volunteers look past the Bobcats in anticipation of their big game against Florida the following week, an upset-minded Ohio team could give Tennessee more than it bargained for, just like Appalachian State did in the opener.

This will be the second meeting all-time between the Bobcats and Volunteers. Tennessee won a closer-than-expected 2009 matchup against Ohio by a score of 34-23.

Ohio at Tennessee

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 17 at 12 p.m. ET

TV Channel: SEC Network

Spread: Tennessee – 27.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Will the Volunteers Get Off to Another Slow Start?

Last season, Tennessee built a reputation as a team that struggled to finish games. So far in 2016, the Volunteers have struggled to even get started. Tennessee has been outscored by a combined 21-3 in first quarter play, producing just one offensive drive that did not result in a punt or a turnover.

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It is critical that the Volunteers avoid yet another slow start on Saturday. They cannot continue to put themselves in a hole against underdog opponents. Nor can they afford to let their sluggish starts trend into the most difficult part of their schedule. Tennessee is certainly capable of jumping out to a fast start, but it may not be the cakewalk many expect against an Ohio team that has outscored its first two opponents 21-0 in the opening 15 minutes.

2. Tennessee’s Offensive Line vs. Ohio’s Front Seven

The Vols' offensive line was supposed to be an area of strength heading into the 2016 campaign. Instead, it has become somewhat of an enigma through the first two weeks of the season. Tennessee's front struggled mightily against an undersized Appalachian State defensive line in Week 1, and looked even worse in the early going against Virginia Tech last week.

The good news is that front line was finally able to show some signs of life after a few much-needed changes to the lineup midway through last week’s win over the Hokies. That’s not to say that the group didn’t continue to have issues, but the improvement from the Vols' revamped offensive line was clearly noticeable. Tennessee head coach Butch Jones may continue to experiment with his front five against Ohio, hoping to find that magic combination before heading into SEC play.

Much like the Volunteers' first two opponents, the Bobcats will attempt to create confusion within Tennessee’s zone-blocking scheme by using stunts and creating chaos with multiple looks up front. They may just have some success as well. Ohio's front seven on defense have produced seven sacks in two games while limiting opponents to just 2.3 yards per carry.

3. Can Tennessee Finally Gain Traction in the Passing Game?

No one likes to beat a dead horse, but following lackluster performances by the Volunteer passing attack in the first two games, it remains an area of concern. Poor pass protection has been the most glaring factor in the Vols' inability to consistently move the ball through the air. However, Joshua Dobbs' issues with downfield accuracy coupled with the receiving corps’ inability to create separation continue to play roles as well. Regardless of who’s at fault, it is crucial that Tennessee find some semblance of a downfield passing game before heading into SEC play.

Ohio could provide just the matchup Tennessee needs to get things going with its passing attack. While Ohio’s front seven could present Tennessee with some challenges, the Volunteers may be able to have success against an inexperienced Bobcats secondary that has already allowed 624 yards and six touchdowns through the air. If the Volunteers' passing game fails to materialize this week, it may not happen all season.

Final Analysis

This should be a tune-up game against a cupcake opponent conveniently sandwiched between two much bigger matchups for Tennessee. But if the Volunteers treat it as such, they could once again find themselves in trouble early. Ohio has averaged 283 rushing yards through two contests and it is not unreasonable to think that the Bobcats could find some success against a Tennessee defense that has already allowed huge run plays in each of its first two games. And the the loss of starting middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland to injury can only help Ohio's cause. That being said, Ohio has yet face a team anywhere close to Tennessee’s caliber. So, while the Bobcats appear to match up well in some regards on paper, it probably won’t translate well on the field against an overall far superior Volunteers team on Saturday.

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Prediction: Tennessee 41, Ohio 17

— 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.