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Tennessee Volunteers vs. Virginia Tech Hokies Preview and Prediction

Jalen Hurd

Jalen Hurd

Bristol Motor Speedway is known as the world’s fastest half-mile track, but on Saturday night, the scene shifts from NASCAR to college football as Tennessee and Virginia Tech meet for the first time since 2009 in a unique setup. The Volunteers and Hokies will play on the infield of BMS and over 150,000 people are expected to attend this neutral site and non-conference matchup. The location for this game makes a lot of sense, as Blacksburg is less than 130 miles from Bristol, while Knoxville is just under 120 miles to the speedway.

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The overall spectacle and experience at BMS is something to behold, but both teams can’t get caught up in the unique setup. Needless to say, there’s a lot at stake for the Volunteers and Hokies in Week 2. Virginia Tech opened the Justin Fuente era with a 36-13 victory over Liberty last week, but Saturday night’s matchup against Tennessee is a better barometer test for where this program stands. The Volunteers avoided an upset in an overtime win over Appalachian State last Thursday, which prompted voters to drop coach Butch Jones’ team outside of the top 10 in the Associated Press poll after a No. 9 preseason rank. Were the Week 1 struggles a sign of things to come for Tennessee? Or simply a matter of a good Appalachian State team giving the Volunteers all they could handle?

Tennessee and Virginia Tech have met eight previous times. The Volunteers hold a 5-3 series edge, but these two programs have not met in a regular season game since 1937.

Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech (Bristol, Tenn.)

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 10 at 8 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ABC

Spread: Tennessee -11.5

Three Things to Watch

1. The Quarterbacks

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For different reasons, the spotlight will be on the two quarterbacks in this game. Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs struggled in Thursday’s win over Appalachian State and is looking for a rebound performance. The senior completed 16 of 29 passes for 192 yards and one score and rushed for minus-four yards on nine carries. Dobbs will never be one of college football’s best passing quarterbacks, but he’s certainly capable of playing better than he did against the Mountaineers. For the Tennessee offense to click, Dobbs needs to utilize his mobility and complete around 60 percent of his passes. That’s a tough proposition against a Virginia Tech defense that forced four turnovers in the opener and held Liberty to just 2.6 yards per play. Expect coordinator Bud Foster to stack the box and force Dobbs to prove he can consistently hit downfield passes.

On the other sideline, this is the biggest test Evans has faced in his short stint at Virginia Tech. After two years at Trinity Valley Community College, Evans was recruited by Fuente to Blacksburg and edged senior Brenden Motley for the starting nod in fall workouts. Liberty wasn’t the toughest of tests in Week 1, but Evans was solid in his debut, completing 20 of 32 passes for 221 yards and four scores, while rushing for 46 yards on five carries. Tennessee’s defense limited Appalachian State to 108 passing yards in the opener and returns one of the SEC’s top defensive backs in Cam Sutton. Similar to Dobbs, look for Evans to use his legs to make plays outside of the pocket. However, the Tennessee secondary will present more challenges than Liberty provided in Week 1. How will Evans perform in the biggest game of his career?

Related: Predictions for Every College Football Game in Week 2

2. Isaiah Ford vs. Cam Sutton

Tennessee cornerback Cam Sutton won’t be matched for the entire game against Virginia Tech receiver Isaiah Ford, but this is still one of the weekend’s most intriguing player matchups. Ford was the only ACC receiver to record over 1,000 receiving yards last season, finishing 2015 with 75 catches for 1,164 yards and 11 scores. He was the primary target for Evans in the opener with 11 grabs for 117 yards and one touchdown. Sutton is one of the SEC’s top cornerbacks and started 2016 by recording four tackles (one for a loss) and one interception against Appalachian State. While Ford is the go-to target, Cam Phillips (five catches in the opener) and tight end Bucky Hodges (two touchdown receptions in Week 1) also present challenges for coordinator Bob Shoop’s defense. If Ford and Sutton are matched one-on-one, which player will win those battles? And if Sutton isn’t on Ford, will the other Tennessee defensive backs – Micah Abernathy (FS), Todd Kelly (SS), Emmanuel Moseley (CB) and Malik Foreman (nickel) – keep Virginia Tech’s best playmaker in check?

3. Tennessee’s Ground Game and Offensive Line

The battle in the trenches is always critical to the outcome of any game, but there’s extra pressure on Tennessee’s offensive line after last week’s subpar performance. The Volunteers were expected to have one of the SEC’s top offensive lines with four starters back in 2016. However, this unit only cleared the way for rushers to average three yards a carry in the opener against Appalachian State. Can the offensive line get a better push against the Hokies? Opening up running lanes is critical for this unit in order for Tennessee’s offense to get on track, as well as to produce big plays from talented running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. This duo combined for 131 yards against the Mountaineers but did not produce a rush longer than 13 yards. The Hokies were 11th in the ACC last season against the run and returned only two starters in the front seven. Additionally, how will this group perform in pass protection? Virginia Tech recorded only one sack in last week's game, but even with the lack of returning starters here, this unit is talented and deep with options for coordinator Bud Foster. If the Hokies win the battle here, it's going to be another tough night for Tennessee's offense.

Final Analysis

Tennessee should have plenty of motivation to show last Thursday’s performance was a fluke or more of a representation on how good Appalachian State is in 2016. On the other sideline, this is an opportunity for Fuente to notch a marquee victory and put his stamp on the program. Virginia Tech’s defense needs to keep Dobbs in the pocket and limit the damage by Hurd and Kamara on the ground. If the Hokies keep Dobbs in third-and-long situations all night, that’s a huge win for Virginia Tech. For Tennessee, keep an eye on the matchup between coordinator Bob Shoop and quarterback Jerod Evans. The junior college recruit was sharp in his first game, but the Volunteers’ defense is one of the best in the SEC and will be a tougher matchup. Expect Evans to connect with Ford on a few plays downfield, but Tennessee eventually wins this one in the fourth quarter to secure a 2-0 start.

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Prediction: Tennessee 27, Virginia Tech 20