First meeting, which means the Bobcats will look to become just the eleventh active FBS team to have an overall winning record against the Vols (Alabama, Auburn, Nebraska, Penn State, Pittsburgh, USC, and Texas, plus three teams - Baylor, Kansas State and Purdue - who beat the Vols in their only meeting).
Ohio went 4-8, but oh how it could've been different. The Bobcats started 0-4 but could've been 4-0, losing to Vol killers Wyoming 21-20, playing Ohio State off their feet before falling 26-14, losing at home to Central Michigan 31-28, and losing at Northwestern 16-8. They lost an additional close game to Temple (14-10), and scored wins over VMI, Kent State, and finished the season with wins over Akron and Miami (OH).
Frank Solich, last seen as "The guy who'll never be good enough at Nebraska because he's not Tom Osborne", enters his fifth season at Ohio, having produced a division championship in 2006 and a .500 record in 2007. A lot of his success this season will depend on senior QB Boo Jackson, who proved last year he can put up numbers in the MAC with 2,355 yards and 19 TDs/12 INTs. He also ran for over 300 yards, and looks to improve in his second season as the starter. True to his roots, Solich likes to run, and Donte Harden and Chris Garrett are both experienced in the backfield with just shy of 1,000 yards between them last season. The top two pass catchers return as well, Taylor Price and LaVon Brazill. Their offensive line situation is almost identical to the Vols': four players return with starting experience, and zero depth behind them. Still, the pieces are here for something good.
All of Ohio's close losses were low-scoring affairs last year, but several of their wins were shootouts, so it's tough to figure this group out. Seven starters are back and spread throughout the entire defense, and there is additional hope with players returning from injury as well. This is a group highlighted by LBs Noah Keller and Lee Renfro.
Best Case Scenario for the Vols
No matter what happened against Florida, Tennessee goes right back to work against Ohio and continues to get better. As with Western Kentucky, it will be key for the Vols to take a non-BCS team out of the game early and not allow them to believe they have a chance to win. A solid performance here will get the Vols thru September with a third potential win, and have them ready for the SEC grind with inexperience turning into experience, a solid identity on offense emerging, and hope for a good season still intact.
Worst Case Scenario for the Vols
After taking the Buckeyes deep into the fourth quarter in Columbus last seaon and returning this much experience, Ohio will not be intimidated by Neyland Stadium, nor will they believe that they have no chance before kickoff. Mobile quarterbacks have given Tennessee Defenses fits in the past, and this will be the Vols first true shot against one (As long as Tebow prefers running over instead of around people, I'm not going to put him in the "mobile QB" category). If the Vols are sleepwalking after the Florida game, Ohio can pounce on them. This is not the automatic W that Western Kentucky is. Remember Wyoming.
Game Importance Ranking: 6.4
...which is why this is a huge trap game.
Let's suspend reality for a moment and suggest that the Vols upset Florida. Are they going to be ready to come back to work seven days later to play Ohio, when all anyone and everyone will want to talk about is the Florida game?
Let's expand reality and say Florida beats the Vols by 100 points. Are they going to be to come back to work seven days later to play Ohio, when all anyone and everyone will want to talk about is, once again, the Florida game?
Ohio is experienced and experienced in games like this one, and should end up competing for the MAC East this year and get bowl eligible. The Vols aren't talented enough to just show up and win...a solid performance in this game might do more to convince me that Lane Kiffin can coach than anything else, because my assumption is for a team of our talent level, games like this can be awfully difficult to win (see Northern Illinois, Wyoming). If this season becomes a quest just to get bowl eligible, then this one is obviously a must-win. And the Vols will have the better team. They just need to make sure they have the better team for sixty minutes on September 26.