A long overdue rivalry that dates back to 1902 will be renewed on Monday night when the No. 25 Tennessee Volunteers face off against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic. The second of two high-profile SEC vs. ACC matchups to be played in Atlanta’s brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Georgia Tech enters the 2017 season with a nice head of steam following a 9-4 campaign that included wins in six out of its last seven contests. Perhaps more importantly as it relates to Monday night’s game, the Yellow Jackets were a perfect 3-0 against teams from the SEC East in 2016 (Georgia, Vanderbilt and Kentucky). Despite losing a handful of key players, the Yellow Jackets' starting lineup returns largely intact on both sides of the football.
Tennessee also is coming off a 9-4 campaign. A roller-coaster season that resulted in several highlight victories, but ultimately disappointed as the Vols fell short of an expected division title. Fifth-year head coach Butch Jones is now charged with replacing several star players. But thanks to a well-stocked roster loaded with potential, optimism reigns supreme on Rocky Top.
This will mark the 44th meeting between these two storied programs with Tennessee leading 24-17-2, and the first in 20 years. The last meeting was on Oct. 24, 1987, which resulted in a 29-15 victory for the Volunteers.
Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech (Atlanta)
Kickoff: Monday, Sept. 4 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Tennessee -3
Three Things to Watch
1. The Great Quarterback Mystery
Accomplished starting quarterbacks Joshua Dobbs and Justin Thomas have exhausted their eligibility for their respective schools. Which leaves just one certainty, that both Tennessee and Georgia Tech will have a new quarterback under center for the first time in a long time on Monday night. The lingering question is, who will get the nod?
Butch Jones lists two possibilities to fill the Vols’ vacancy, junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano. The overwhelming consensus is that Dormady will get the start. However, there is a decent possibility of seeing Guarantano at some point as well. Dormady is a strong-armed pocket passer with a firm grip of the offense and slightly more experienced. Guarantano, while perhaps not as polished at this point, brings an athleticism to the position that some feel is a better fit the Vols’ spread attack.
It gets a little more complicated with Georgia Tech. Head coach Paul Johnson lists four possibilities for the Yellow Jackets’ starting job. Those candidates being juniors Matthew Jordan and TaQuon Marshall, along with redshirt freshmen Lucas Johnson and Jay Jones. Johnson has alluded to the possibility of playing all four, although the popular opinion is that it will be either Jordan or Marshall in the starting lineup. Jordan, who helped the Yellow Jackets to a win over Virginia Tech last season, is bigger and more experienced. Marshall, a converted running back with plenty of speed, has received rave reviews during the offseason. At this point only Jones and Johnson know for sure who will be under center.
2. Can Tennessee Slow Down Georgia Tech’s Triple Option?
Tennessee is not going to completely shut down the Georgia Tech run game, no one ever does. But the Volunteers’ ability to minimize the damage will be paramount to their success (or lack thereof) in this matchup. Unfortunately, those efforts were dealt a serious blow with the loss of starting middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. to a knee injury. But all is not lost for a Tennessee defense that still has a couple of things going in its favor.
For starters, the Vols have had several weeks to prepare for the triple-option attack. A big luxury when you consider that most teams only get one week to prepare for an offense that is rarely seen, extremely difficult to defend and even harder to prepare against. Tennessee also caught a break with the recent dismissal of Dedrick Mills, the Yellow Jackets' leading returning rusher, while highly touted A-back Clinton Lynch appears doubtful for the season opener due to injury.
While these things bode well for the Volunteers, the Georgia Tech run game still provides more than its fair share of challenges. And there is no question that a Tennessee defense that struggled mightily at times against the run last season will have its work cut out for it, especially with its best defender on the sideline.
3. Georgia Tech Defense vs. Tennessee Offense
Like Tennessee, Georgia Tech’s biggest challenge will be defending the run. An area in which the Yellow Jackets also struggled in 2016. It helps that they return eight starters on defense, but standouts such as Patrick Gamble and P.J. Davis will be sorely missed from a front seven that appears shaky at best. A Tennessee rushing attack, led by junior John Kelly, will most likely be difficult to contain.
The Ramblin’ Wreck defense should be in good shape when it comes to defending the pass. They return literally everyone of consequence from a secondary that was very solid in 2016. The big question mark here once again lies with the front seven, and their ability to get pressure on the Tennessee quarterback. The Yellow Jackets recorded just 18 sacks in 2016 with Gamble responsible for almost half of them. They will need some semblance of a pass rush to take some pressure off of the secondary. The recent suspension of Vols’ starting left tackle Drew Richmond could help that cause.
Tennessee has its share of uncertainty on offense, including a first-year offensive coordinator in Larry Scott. But the Vols have more than enough talent in place on that side of the football to give the Georgia Tech defense problems.
This matchup could go in any number of different directions and anyone who claims to know exactly what to expect in this football game isn’t telling the truth. There are simply too many unknowns regarding both Tennessee and Georgia Tech. The one thing that seems likely is that both defenses will be hard-pressed to slow down the opposing team’s offense.
It really comes down to who performs better in the trenches. Special teams, an area that favors Tennessee, could factor heavily into this matchup as well. But it’s the Volunteers' overall edge in talent that should make the difference and get them into the win column on Monday night. That said, a Georgia Tech victory would not come as a surprise.
Prediction: Tennessee 31, Georgia Tech 27
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.