Date: September 1, 2018
Time: 3:30pm EST
Venue: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC
How to Watch/Listen
Streaming: CBS Sports, or the CBS Sports App
Radio: Click HERE for a complete list of radio affiliates in West Virginia. If you live outside of the state, or don’t live close enough to a radio affiliate, you can listen to the Mountaineer Sports Network from IMG on TuneIn Radio.
Spread: WVU -9.5
I was holding out hope for blue-blue-gold, but I suppose this will do.
Know Your Enemy
Series History: This is the Mountaineers' first ever meeting with Tennessee. As they say, only one chance to make a good first impression.
2018 Record: 0-0. This game is the season opener for both teams.
Head Coach: Jeremy Pruitt. Though West Virginia actually has the honor of playing the Vols on Pruitt's head coaching debut, most casual college football fans will recognize him from his highly-decorated work as a defensive coordinator at both Alabama and Georgia. His units have generally been characterized by an aggressive, attacking style of play, and based on the caliber of athlete that Tennessee usually has on both sides of the ball, I wouldn't expect this group to be any different.
Offensive Coordinator: Tyson Helton. Helton joins Pruitt at Tennessee by way of Southern California where he spent the last two years as QB coach/passing game coordinator turning Sam Darnold into a Top 5 pick.
Defensive Coordinator: Chris Rumph and Kevin Sherrer. Rumph and Sherrer enter their first season at Tennessee after joining Pruitt from Florida and Georgia, respectively. Both of these guys have solid SEC backgrounds and they boast over 20 years of college coaching experience between them.
When we have the ball..
Players to watch: DE Kyle Phillips, JACK Jonathan Kbongo, LB Daniel Bituli, LB Darrell Taylor, LB Quart'e Sapp, S Nigel Warrior, CB Micah Abernathy
Defining success: Isolate and attack their young corners
Tennessee's defense should be heading into 2018 well-motivated. Not only do they have the honor of being Jeremy Pruitt's inaugural unit as head ball coach, but they'll also be wanting to wash their mouths of the bad taste left by a 2017 campaign that fell well short of program standards. The Vols were statistically very good in 2017 in terms of passing yards allowed, but when you consider that they also faced the 4th fewest passing attempts in the country, gave up over 250 yards per game on the ground on over 5.4 yards per carry (126th and 121st, respectively), and were one of just a handful of teams that somehow managed to surrender even more explosive runs than we did (91, 119th nationally), it looks as though that may have been as much a matter of opponent preference as anything - why pass when you're having that much success with the run, right? Still though, you can't discount the upgrade in coaching quality or the pedigree of SEC recruiting, and there's no denying that they return some pretty nice pieces for Pruitt and Co to play with at all three levels.
According to Holgs, we can only guess with regards to how they're going to play, what with them having a new staff and all that, but we should have a pretty good handle on the who. Ends Kyle Phillips and Jonathan Kbongo anchor a senior-laden defensive front that has the flexibility to alternate between 3-down and 4-down looks thanks to the latter's athletic ability, Daniel Bituli, Darrell Taylor and Quart'e Sapp give them sideline-to-sideline athleticism at linebacker, and Nigel Warrior and Micah Abernathy form one of the more active safety tandems we're likely to face this year. The one area they're weak, though, is at corner, and therein lies their problem.
For all the talent and experience they have elsewhere, Tennessee's wide and nickel corner spots will feature three new starters in 2018, and unfortunately two of those lads are true freshmen. Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson were both highly regarded out of HS and may well end up being very good players, but facing an offense like ours in your first collegiate game at cornerback isn't just being thrown into the fire, it's being fired out of a cannon into the sun. Will and Co formed one of the three or four most explosive passing attacks in the country last year when healthy, and there's no reason to believe they're going to be anything but better with another year under their belts. And considering that every team sport ever is about identifying and taking advantage of favorable matchups, you have to imagine that we'll attack this one as often as possible.
I'm expecting us to try to establish the run early in an effort to force Warrior and/or Abernathy into the box. If we can do that (and considering that their front 7 features many of the same guys that allowed all those rushing yards last year, I'd like to think we can), it should open up some space for Will go to work on those greenhorns on the outside. I'm especially looking for Marcus Simms, who reportedly had an excellent camp, to carry his form over into the regular season and have a big game. His ability to win 1v1s when defenses shade towards Sills or Jennings is going to be crucial to our success both tomorrow and going forward.
When they have the ball...
Players to watch: QB Jarrett Guarantano, QB Keller Chryst, WR Brandon Johnson, WR Marquez Callaway, WR Jauan Jennings, OT Trey Smith
Defining success: Create negative plays on early downs
As subpar as Tennessee's defense was in 2017, their offense was somehow that much worse. How's this for making you want to puke: 118th nationally in scoring, 113th in rushing, 109th in passing, 125th in total offense, and 128th in explosive plays generated. *Shivers*. That's absolutely anemic, and the worst part is that I'm not sure that they have a path to immediately be better in 2018.
The offseason-long QB battle continues into week 1, which suggests to me that neither returning starter Jarrett Guarantano nor Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst have been particularly overwhelming over the summer. Guarantano is probably the more attractive candidate on paper and appears to be the fan-favorite to win the job, but Chryst's experience may prove to be the calming influence the Vols need, much like Kyle Kempt's was for Iowa State last year. Either way, I can't imagine that Pruitt and new OC Tyson Helton are thrilled that this is still a thing in late August.
The running back situation unfortunately doesn't appear to be any better. Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan combined for just 357 yards and 2 TD on 82 carries a year ago, while graduate transfer Madre London finished with 304 yards and 3 TD as the third option in a mediocre Michigan State ground attack. All three will carry the ball this Saturday, but I'm not sure that any of them would crack our current rotation.
The two bright spots for Tennessee offensively are along the line and out wide at receiver. Starting up front, the Vols return at least one very talented tackle in freshman All-American and preseason 1st team All-SEC selection Trey Smith, and Drew Richmond has 13 starts under his belt on the other end of the line. The situation in the middle appears to be somewhat less settled, but at least two of the three spots should feature guys who started games in 2017, including Huntington native Riley Locklear at right guard.
Out wide though is where you'll find Tennessee's most talented offensive position group. Marquez Callaway and Brandon Johnson are both over 6'2 and were pretty productive last year, combining to haul in 61 balls for 888 yards and 6 touchdowns despite the team's obvious QB deficiencies. Even more exciting for the Vols though will be the return of Juaun Jennings, who actually broke out two years ago with 40 catches for 580 yards and 7 touchdowns as a sophomore before missing most of last year with an injury. His return gives the Vols a trio of big, athletic targets that can make plays after the catch, provided their quarterbacks are able to consistently get them the ball.
As for how I think we need to approach the Vols defensively, I'd like to call your attention back to the 5 Stats piece I wrote last week, and specifically to the last paragraph of the quote in the "Defensive Success Rate/IsoPPP/Havoc Rate" section:
"When you’ve got a prolific offense and can absorb the occasional gash, this aggressive approach can be devastating. If you can force an extra couple of three-and-outs or turnovers per game, that’s a service break the other team just can’t cope with. You just have to make sure you’ve got the athletes to turn aggression into production.”
Playing aggressively and creating havoc (TFLs, PBUs) can knock offenses off schedule and "break their serve", which if you have a prolific offense can be all you need to open up an ultimately insurmountable lead. With that (and our deliciously prolific offense) in my mind, I think our highest priority Saturday should be selling out to create negative plays on early downs. Doing so could leave us vulnerable to big plays, but it has to be considered that our offense might simply be good enough that the risk of Tennessee actually hitting a big play (not statistically likely; see above) is worth the reward of getting our guys the ball back as soon as possible, because a couple quick 3-and-outs could mean an quick 14 or 21-point hole for the bad guys.
As far as who's going to create those negative plays, let's just say that I'm excited to see David Long play behind an allegedly competent defensive line for the first time in his career. Dude finished 7th nationally in tackles for loss per game last year playing behind two guys who aren't even with the program anymore.
Defining success: Please God just bore me to death
Special teams seems to be as dynamic a situation for Tennessee this year as it was for us last year. Their return and coverage units figure to be better coached than they were a year ago when all four were basically in the middle of the road nationally in terms of average return yards for and against, but they graduated one of the bigger legs in country and are replacing him with a complete unknown. Overall a lot of uncertainty, and uncertainty makes me uncomfortable. I will gladly take an afternoon of touchbacks and fair catches, please and thank you.
An open letter to VolNation:
You may not know this, but this season marks the 30th anniversary of the best team in our school's history. My friends and I all grew up learning the names and stories from that magical '88 season and wondering what it would've been like to live through it, to actually watch the Old Gold and Blue play for a National Championship. We've come close a time or two, but always fell just short.
Then last year we saw flashes of something special. We were ultimately too vulnerable defensively to survive in a conference with Baker Mayfield, Mason Rudolph, and Kenny Hill, but when Will Grier committed to coming back, our minds began to wander.
The eight months since Will's decision have been some of the longest of my life. I know many others who feel the same. We haven't felt that way because we’re scared that you’re the team that's waiting for us. We've felt that way because we're hungry.
You see, we haven't tasted success, real success, on a national scale, since Pat White and Co were ripping up a heavily-favored Oklahoma squad in the Fiesta Bowl. That's a long time to wait, but now for the first time in a decade it feels like we might have the chance to climb that mountain again. For the first time in a decade, we’re daring to dream.
Which brings us to Saturday. We have the chance to make a statement to the whole country that this year, West Virginia is for real, and we really couldn't have asked for a better stage: a high-profile neutral site game against an SEC opponent that's spent those same eight months looking down their noses at us. That's you, Tennessee. You've spent eight months looking down your noses as if you didn't go 4-8 last year, as if you've been relevant this century, as if it’s scoffable that little West Virginia could possibly 9.5-point favorites over a team that has the good fortune of playing in the same conference as Alabama. The arrogance is unfounded and insulting. Peyton Manning won't be playing in this game and Nick Saban won't be coaching in it, and when you get right down to it, here's what we're looking at:
A 4-8 team that returns 13 starters, is breaking in a first-time head coach, and hasn’t even figured out their QB situation is playing against a team that returns 17 starters, including perhaps THE Heisman frontrunner at QB, and was about five plays away from being 9-1 in mid-November last year.
Simply put, I think that we are miles better than you offensively, I think that we have every chance to be just as good as you defensively, and I think that outside of us colossally bottling it, I haven't seen anything to convince me that you'll be anything other than in our way tomorrow.
See you then.
West Virginia 38 Tennessee 21