The Mountaineers and Volunteers meet for the first time ever on Saturday in Charlotte
The West Virginia and Tennessee football programs have co-existed for 127 years, and yet, never once have they met on the gridiron, not even in a bowl game. I know, it’s a real head-scratcher. But that is about to change on Saturday evening when these two storied programs square off inside Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium for the first time ever in the Belk College Kickoff Game.
Following a somewhat disappointing 7-6 (5-4 Big 12) campaign in 2017, the preseason hype train has been full steam ahead for the Mountaineers and head coach Dana Holgorsen. West Virginia enters Saturday’s matchup against Tennessee ranked 17th in the AP Top 25 and a front-runner to compete for the Big 12 title in 2018. The Mountaineers also return one of the most explosive offenses in the country, led by Heisman hopeful Will Grier at quarterback and All-American candidates David Sills and Gary Jennings at wide receiver. Question marks still exist on defense. However, reports from fall camp have been promising on that side of the football as well.
Disappointing would be an understatement when describing the Volunteers’ 2017 season. In fact, Tennessee would endure its worst season in school history (4-8, 0-8 SEC). The good news is that optimism has returned to Rocky Top behind first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt, a five-time national champion as an assistant coach. While it will take more than a fresh start and a renewed sense of optimism to turn the Tennessee program around in short order, the Vols should have enough talent in place to make that a reality. A golden opportunity awaits to prove it on Saturday, as Pruitt’s first test as a head coach will be nothing short of challenging. Meanwhile, Holgorsen and his Mountaineers have a chance to show the nation that the hype is well-deserved.
Tennessee vs. West Virginia
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte)
Spread: West Virginia -10
Three Things to Watch
1. The element of surprise
There aren’t many advantages for a first-year head coach going into a matchup against a top-20 team led by a veteran head coach. But Jeremy Pruitt does have one thing in his favor. The element of surprise could prove to be a legitimate X-factor for the Volunteers on Saturday. From strategy to player personnel, the Pruitt has been extremely tight-lipped regarding his plans for this team. Media access was very limited during Tennessee practices, making it even more difficult to unravel the mystery. A vanilla spring game for the Vols provided few clues as well.
Pruitt has even gone out of his way to keep his starting quarterback a mystery heading into Saturday, suggesting that it is still an ongoing battle between Jarrett Guarantano and Keller Chryst. In fact, based on a less-than-revealing depth chart released by Pruitt on Monday, the Mountaineers are left to believe that Tennessee is unsettled at multiple positions. Something that didn’t sit too well with West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen, who responded by releasing an equally puzzling depth chart.
But the secretive nature of the Vols’ head coach is just part of the challenge facing the Mountaineers, which begs the question - How do you practice for a game against a team with a brand-new coaching staff and new schemes on both sides of the football? Furthermore, there is virtually no game film for the Mountaineers to study. This creates quite the conundrum for Holgorsen, who said it best earlier in the week — "The truth of the matter is we really don’t know what they’re going to do." And that’s just how Pruitt planned it.
2. Aerial assault
Holgorsen and company might be scratching their heads in anticipation of Tennessee’s game plan for Saturday. But there is little doubt as to West Virginia’s approach for Saturday. The Mountaineers are sure to go to the air early and often, and why wouldn’t they? WVU returns arguably the nation’s most dangerous passing attack.
Despite missing the final three games last season with a broken finger, quarterback Will Grier still managed to throw for almost 3,500 yards and 34 touchdowns. The senior signal-caller and Heisman Trophy candidate has plenty of weapons to throw to, including Athlon Sports preseason All-American wide receiver David Sills, who led the nation in touchdown receptions (18) a season ago. Fellow senior Gary Jennings also returns from a stellar 2017 campaign in which his 97 receptions ranked fourth in the country. An already dangerous receiving corps is further bolstered by talented junior Marcus Simms and the addition of Alabama transfer T.J. Simmons.
The Volunteers will attempt to counter with a largely unproven secondary, led by standout safety Nigel Warrior. Despite Tennessee’s woes on defense last season, they did have the third-ranked pass defense in the nation in 2017 (161.7 ypg). Although that’s fairly misleading, considering that opposing teams rarely threw the ball against them, opting to stay on the ground against an abysmal Tennessee run defense.
The Vols are also charged with replacing three starters in the secondary. To help fill the void, Tennessee is expected to rely heavily on a pair of true freshmen, Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson. While this young duo has been touted as extremely talented, Grier will likely target them due to their inexperience. It could be a long afternoon for the entire Tennessee pass defense.
3. The ground game
While the Mountaineers are sure to lean heavily on their stellar passing attack, they would be wise to at least test the waters against a Tennessee run defense that ranked among the worst in college football last season. West Virginia will look to employ a four-man committee to get the job done — juniors Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway, along with freshmen Alec Sinkfield and Leddie Brown. If Tennessee has not addressed its leaky run defense, this four-headed monster should have no problem finding running room behind a stout offensive line that returns four starters.
As for the Volunteers, ball control and clock management will be critical to their success in this matchup. This means that Tennessee will definitely need to lean heavily on its ground game, which should be much-improved in 2018. The Vols finally have a full complement of healthy offensive linemen, led by preseason All-American Trey Smith. They also feature a potential game-changer at running back in sophomore Ty Chandler. Fellow sophomore Tim Jordan will factor in as well, along with Michigan State transfer Madre London. Much like Tennessee, the West Virginia run defense could once again be a serious liability following a rough 2017 in which they surrendered 204.2 rushing yards per game.
It’s anyone’s best guess as to what to expect from Tennessee in this matchup. There are simply too many unknowns. That should prove advantageous for the Volunteers. That said, we can probably count on some mistakes from the new-look Vols as well. The West Virginia defense is a big mystery in its own right, at least in terms of how good this group is going to be in week 1. The one thing that we do know is that the Mountaineers’ passing attack has everything in place to be explosive right out of the gate. And while Jeremy Pruitt has been billed as a defensive mastermind, the West Virginia offense will likely be more than he and his Vols can handle on Saturday.
Prediction: West Virginia 34, Tennessee 27
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.