On Saturday, the Tennessee Volunteers will welcome FCS challenger Western Carolina to Knoxville. Oddly enough, these two teams have a lot in common. Like Tennessee, WCU entered the 2015 season projected as a team on the rise, returning most of their starters on both sides of the football. The Catamounts ranked 23rd in Athlon Sports’ pre-season FCS Top 25 Rankings, while the Vols came in at no. 22 in Athlon Sports’ FBS Top 25 rankings. They both run a similar up-tempo offense that likes to spread out opposing defenses. In addition, both schools enjoyed victories against lesser opponents in Week 1, and both are coming off of a tough loss at home.
Of course, that is where the comparisons end. Other than the aforementioned facts, the Volunteers and Catamounts could not be more different. A point that should quickly reveal itself when the two schools face off for the first time ever on Saturday night in Neyland Stadium.
Western Carolina at Tennessee
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Three Things to Watch
1. The Tennessee passing game
In spite of plenty of pre-season hype, Tennessee hasn’t exactly lit it up through the air so far this season. Highly touted quarterback Joshua Dobbs was solid in the passing game against Bowling Green, but struggled mightily against a much tougher Oklahoma defense last week. Dobbs completed less than 50 percent of his passes for just 125 yards against the Sooners. Dobbs, and his corps of talented receivers, have also struggled with the deep ball, completing just two passes for more than 20 yards in the first two contests, both coming against Bowling Green.
The Vols have proven that they can run the football with running back’s Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, but they must build confidence in the passing game if they want to compete in the SEC. The Western Carolina game provides a valuable opportunity to do just that. Look for the Vols to take some shots downfield on Saturday night.
2. Will the Volunteers have some new faces in the lineup?
Following Saturday’s debacle against Oklahoma, several players were criticized for poor individual performances. Most notably at the middle linebacker position and on the offensive line, Tennessee’s two biggest areas of concern heading into the season.
The matchup against the Catamounts should allow Tennessee to test some of the younger talent at those positions without risking much as a result. At the very least, you can probably expect to see more of freshman MLB Darrin Kirkland and freshmen offensive linemen Jack Jones and Chance Hall, as the Vols continue to experiment with their lineup before heading into SEC play.
3. Will Western Carolina be intimidated by Neyland Stadium?
There really isn’t anything a team can do to prepare for running out into a crowd of 100,000 plus rabid fans that all hate your guts and would love nothing more than to send you packing with a loss and a hearing problem. That being said, Western Carolina should be as prepared as anyone to take on the unfriendly confines of Neyland on Saturday night.
The Catamounts are no stranger to the big stage having faced off against some of the toughest teams in America, in some of the toughest environments college football has to offer. A trip to face Alabama in Tuscaloosa last season and trips to take on Virginia Tech and Auburn the previous year provide all the proof you need. Granted, WCU did not fare well in any of those match ups, but this is a veteran team that has been there and done that.
The matchup against the Catamounts should provide the Volunteers with two things that they desperately need coming off of the heart breaking double overtime loss to Oklahoma. A chance to regain their confidence, and an opportunity to get some younger players valuable game experience before heading to Gainesville to face arch-rival Florida next week.
While WCU is not without talent, most notably All-SoCon performers WR Spearman Robinson, QB Troy Mitchell, and OL Jake Thornton, the FCS Catamounts simply cannot match a talented SEC roster on the road. Expect a lopsided victory in favor of an angry Tennessee football team at home.
Prediction: Tennessee 59, Western Carolina 7
— 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