Let’s not mince words, Tennessee is pretty well known and this is a huge early season- and early career game for Virginia Tech’s new head coach Justin Fuente. Tennessee starts WAY above us in the polls. An SEC East team that has to duke out this season with Florida and Georgia for the top of the pack, and with potential stumbling blocks of Missouri and Kentucky. Tennessee stands a good shot at getting to the SEC championship game. It’s a bit of a different story than the last time we played. In fact, almost the exact opposite…
Opponent: University of Tennessee Volunteers
City: Knoxville, Tennessee
Ranking: #9 AP, #10 Coaches
Head Coach: Butch Jones (3rd year, prior jobs: University of Cincinnati, Central Michigan University. Record as Head coach: 71-44. Record at Tennessee 21-17)
Previous Record: 9-4 (Last game: Won Outback Bowl v. Northwestern, 45-6)
Three year Spread: 5-7, 7-6, 9-4
History between Coach/Program: Coach Jones beat Virginia Tech at Cincinnati, 27-24 in what I’ll always refer to as the ‘Munchie Legaux’ game. They bombed out the secondary, with a less than 50% completion percentage but 376 yards. Former fantasy sleeper darling Kenbrell Thompkins was almost unstoppable. That year was the Russell Athletic Bowl year. That game has no bearing on this one.
The last time Virginia Tech played Tennessee was Tyrod Taylor’s junior year, wherein we stomped the heck out of Lane Kiffin’s team in the second half and were (well, hopefully) one of the forces behind him scurrying away to USC in a cloud of violations and unmet expectations. That team starred Tyrod, Jarrett Boykin, Danny Coale, Ryan Williams, Kam Chancellor, Cody Grimm, Ed Wang, Sergio Render, Greg BOOONE, Jason Worilds, Brent Bowden, Roc Carmichael, Stephan Virgil…a lot of good Hokie players left after this game. That game also has no bearing on this one, as do any other prior meetings between the teams.
Tennessee’s passing attack last year was only slightly more anemic than ours was. While we ranked 71st with 216 yards a game, they ranked 93rd with 199 yards a game. However, their rushing offense was far better than ours, averaging roughly 70 more yards on the ground than we did (151 to 224). They also scored about five more points per game and gave up three less points. Their Offensive FEI was MUCH greater than ours (FEI is a Football Outsiders statistic measuring opponent-adjusted drive efficiency); they ranked at 19th, we came in at 94th. Memphis, for the record, was 31st. They return Senior Quarterback Joshua Dobbs, and both main running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. By the way, all three are great rushing threats, and Hurd especially is in the mold of VT defense destroyer James Conner- 6’-4” and 240lbs. Both are former five star running backs. Their wide receivers outside returning junior Josh Malone haven’t proven to be overly productive, so look for Foster to try and run the single-coverage game intent on clogging the line of scrimmage. Their offensive line is good enough, but they have a potential redshirt freshman at left tackle, so cue blitzing from that direction. They run mostly out of the shotgun like Cincinnati used to, of course, though they will show an I-formation look on short yardage.
Defensively, Tennessee had a Defensive FEI of 48th, which was just above ours at 52nd. They lost plenty of defensive talent last year, and their defensive line is pretty young overall. However, they return eight starters, including weakside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who was their lead tackler with 105 tackles. Returning is also team sack artist Derek Barnett, who had 10 in his second year playing, 9 in his first in 2014. Defensively they allowed a 51% completion rate, but were penalized six and a half times a game on average.
Looking back on their schedule last year, they fed on lower quality opponents while struggling or matching every major opponent they faced- with the inexplicably close game against a bad South Carolina team and the random walloping of a decent Northwestern team in the bowl game (in fairness, anything can happen in those, as our own Independence Bowl score can attest).
What this game is likely to be:
Cue running the ball a lot by Tennessee. Not that hard to conceive. We have historically stunk at covering running quarterbacks and huge running backs. They have both. They’re not great at passing and we’re pretty good at defending it- but our secondary is young outside of Clark and Facyson, so I’d also expect a heavy amount of deep throws to remove the stopper Bud attempts to put in their very potent rushing attack. I can smell trouble from a mile away with such big running backs and a running threat at quarterback. Moto and Edmunds are going to have their hands full, and the line will have to hold the middle while the linebackers will have to secure the edges. Not going to be easy for an inexperienced linebacking corps and line. They’re not afraid to throw to either Kamara or Hurd, so you’ll see plenty of them. The weak point of their offense would be to rattle Dobbs and press his receivers tight.
On defense, they’re going to be just a tad mystified by what and how this offense is going to do against major competition, and while they do have good players and return several starters, they’re not anything Tech hasn’t seen before- a very normal 4-2/3-5/4 defense that does a solid job sticking on assignment. Since they lost their safeties, I’d think that Coach Fuente would look to try and exploit deep or deep middle, which likely involves a lot of Bucky. Either that, or he’ll do a lot of decoy action to drag Jalen-Reeves Maybin out of the way.
What I want to see:
Outside of the obvious Hokie victory being nice, I am currently hoping for a status quo change. To fare well against Tennessee, Foster will have to effectively plug up the run, and especially a running quarterback, for the first time in a while. I hope he has someone of Tremaine Edmunds’s size spying the read handoff. Hurd, just out of sheer size, is likely his responsibility. I obviously want to see offensive competence, as we’d only have the game against the Flames to put things together. I don’t expect to win- a young team that has problems covering up the strength of a team’s offense isn’t ideal for this matchup- but I do expect progress.