The Tennessee Volunteers and Pitt Panthers are set to face off in Knoxville on Saturday in the Johnny Majors Classic, honoring the legendary head coach who shares a Hall of Fame legacy at both schools.
The Volunteers kicked off the Josh Heupel era with a 38-6 victory over Bowling Green last Thursday night inside Neyland Stadium, making Tennessee just the 10th FBS program in the history of college football to reach the 850-win mark. The Vols leaned heavily on the run game and a strong performance from their defense to prevail over the Falcons. But it wasn't exactly smooth sailing for Heupel's up-tempo offense. And the challenge will be far greater when an aggressive Pitt defense rolls into Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
Pat Narduzzi kicked off his seventh season as head coach of the Panthers with a 51-7 win over UMass. The Pittsburgh offense made easy work of the Minutemen defense, piling up 598 yards in the blowout victory. Meanwhile, a tenacious Pitt defense limited UMass to just 209 yards of total offense. The Panthers will be in for a much bigger test on the road against the Vols.
This ACC vs. SEC clash will mark just the third meeting ever between the two schools, with Pitt winning each of the previous two meetings in 1980 and '83. This will also be the third meeting between Heupel and Narduzzi. Heupel's UCF squad defeated Pitt 45-14 in Orlando in 2018 with the Panthers edging out the Knights 35-34 in the Steel City the following season.
Pittsburgh at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 11 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Pittsburgh -3.5
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball
The strength of the Pitt offense lies in the passing game behind the arm of Kenny Pickett. A super senior and four-year starter at quarterback for the Panthers, Pickett is coming off arguably his best season, completing 61.1 percent of his passes for 2,408 yards with 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions in nine games. The veteran signal-caller also had a team-high eight rushing touchdowns last season.
Pickett kicked off the '21 campaign with an impressive showing against UMass, completing 27 of his 37 pass attempts for 272 yards with a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions before giving way to backup quarterback Nick Patti in the third quarter. In total, three Pitt quarterbacks connected with 11 different pass catchers for 375 yards through the air in the blowout win.
The challenge for Pickett and the Pitt passing game ramps up significantly on Saturday against a Tennessee defense that had a strong showing of its own against Bowling Green, limiting the Falcons to 187 yards and zero touchdowns through the air. Fortunately, Pickett has no shortage of talented targets at his disposal to help the cause, led by sophomore wide receiver Jordan Addison and senior tight end Lucas Krull. Up front, the Pitt offensive line features a veteran group comprised solely of upperclassmen. However, question marks linger, and the Panthers' line will be tested by a deep Tennessee defensive front, headlined by Tyler Baron and Elijah Simmons.
Perhaps the biggest question mark facing the Pitt offense is a run game that ranked 111th nationally last season, averaging a lackluster 119.9 rushing yards per game. The Panthers must get more production from the ground game for this offense to maximize its potential. And they got off to a nice start, utilizing nine different ball carriers to compile 223 yards and five touchdowns against UMass.
But much like the passing game, Pitt's rushing attack will be in for a much bigger test against a Vols defense that had 11 tackles for a loss and limited Bowling Green to just 32 rushing yards on 23 carries. Senior Theo Jackson led that effort for Tennessee from his Star/nickelback position with 11 tackles (2.5 TFLs).
While the Panthers are unlikely to utilize nine ball carriers again on Saturday, you can expect Pitt to once again employ a committee approach with Israel Abanikanda, Vincent Davis and A.J. Davis Jr. the primary options. Pitt's ability, or lack thereof, to effectively move the football on the ground against the Tennessee defense will go a long way in deciding the outcome of this game.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
Joe Milton III is slated to get his second start in Heupel's fast-paced offense on Saturday. Unfortunately, Milton's Tennessee debut left plenty to be desired. The Michigan transfer got off to a hot start against Bowling Green by completing nine of his first 11 pass attempts. However, that success was short-lived — plagued by inaccuracy and indecision — as he would go on to complete just two of his final 12 attempts to finish 11-of-23 for 140 yards and a touchdown. Milton also ran for 44 yards and a pair of scores, but he looked timid for the most part and also lost a fumble.
That doesn't bode particularly well for Saturday's matchup against an aggressive Pitt defense that held UMass to just 167 passing yards. Despite losing elite pass rushers Rashad Weaver and Patrick Jones II to the NFL, the Pitt pass rush remains formidable, racking up five sacks against the Minutemen, led by linebacker John Petrishen with two.
The Panthers' front seven remains deep and talented. Defensive lineman Calijah Kancey is a force on the interior, and standout linebackers Cam Bright, SirVocea Dennis and Phil Campbell III have all-conference potential. This group will undoubtedly be a handful for a Tennessee offensive line that held up relatively well overall against Bowling Green but still surrendered three sacks, mostly of the coverage variety.
The wide receiver corps could have had made a better first impression as well. Sophomore Jalin Hyatt led the Vols with four catches for 64 yards but also had a pair of critical drops. Cedric Tillman caught Tennessee's lone touchdown pass and finished with two receptions for 48 yards. Meanwhile, Velus Jones Jr. did not record a single catch. They will be tested by a solid Pitt secondary, led by senior cornerback Damarri Mathis.
While the Vols had their struggles throwing the ball against Bowling Green, the run game flourished in the 38-6 win, racking up 326 yards and four touchdowns. Running backs Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small led the way, each rushing for 116 yards and a touchdown. Evans and Small will be heavily featured once again on Saturday, along with freshman Jaylen Wright. But running room will be much tougher to come by against a Pittsburgh defense that allowed just 42 yards last week and ranked third nationally against the run in 2020 at 93.5 rushing yards per game.
Pitt will likely load the box in an effort to slow the Tennessee run game and make Milton beat the Panthers' press-man coverage with his arm. Milton certainly has the arm strength and weapons at wide receiver to make that happen. That said, his accuracy issues against a bad Bowling Green defense were glaring, and that is not going to be easily corrected in 11 days. Additionally, Milton won't have nearly as much time to survey the field and identify open targets against this aggressive Pitt pass rush.
Likewise, the Panthers could have their struggles offensively against Tennessee's revamped 4-2-5 defense, particularly in the run game. However, there isn't much that Pickett hasn't seen at quarterback and his experience, along with a talented supporting cast, should pay dividends in this matchup. Panthers exit Rocky Top with a narrow victory.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 31, Tennessee 27
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.