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Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech: Chick-Fil-A Bowl Opening Thoughts

Note:  We'll have furrer4heisman from Gobbler Country on our podcast tonight, 9:00 PM EST

I moved from East Tennessee to Southwest Virginia in June 2006, 75 miles west of Lane Stadium in Blacksburg.  Virginia Tech is to this area what Tennessee is back home:  with no professional teams around and no other local collegiate competition, the Hokies dominate the landscape and the conversation every day.  Maroon is the color of choice even an hour away, and I've come to appreciate and respect their passion, because it's very familiar.

As such, my excitement for this matchup is off the charts.  This is a huge opportunity for Tennessee to end the season on its highest note, and for Lane Kiffin to get the biggest win of his young career.  This is a very big football game, and based on the flow of this season, Vol fans should be more excited about this bowl game than, really, any other since the National Championship.  We've played in more prestigious bowls than the Chick-Fil-A in the last eleven years, but end of season losses have tended to put a damper on those environments.  But now, with the reset button having already been pressed on our expectations in Kiffin's first year, the 7-5 Vols are exactly where they should be, in a season we can feel good about, against a Top 15 opponent.  This is one to be very excited about.

And know this:  Tennessee fans may not care about Virginia Tech.  But the majority of Hokie Nation does not like Tennessee.  This is a big deal to the Hokies.  It needs to be a big deal to the Vols.

I'm not an expert on Virginia Tech -  just someone who's been paying more attention to them than the average Tennessee fan for the last four years.  I usually make it out to VT's Thursday night home games, and went to the VT-Miami game in September this year.  So as we officially begin the countdown to New Year's Eve, here are a few (okay, several) thoughts on the Vols-Hokies matchup...

People who are overly worried about Tyrod Taylor probably haven't seen Virginia Tech play

Tyrod is one of those guys with name recognition value among most college football fans.  But through three seasons, his street cred is better than the actual on-field result.  Virginia Tech, true to form, isn't looking to pass first - Taylor averages only 175 yards passing per contest.  Take a look at Taylor's passing numbers against bowl teams this season:

  • Alabama:  9 of 20, 91 yards
  • Nebraska:  12 of 27, 192 yards, 1 TD
  • Miami:  4 of 9, 98 yards, 1 TD
  • Boston College:  7 of 10, 126 yards, 2 TDs
  • Georgia Tech:  10 of 14, 159 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs
  • North Carolina:  11 of 23, 161 yards
  • East Carolina:  17 of 30, 137 yards

For the season, Taylor completes only 55% of his passes.  It's an offense that's designed to minimize risk - Taylor has thrown only four picks this season - but also designed to take advantages of defenses that load up to stop the run at key times.

And in stopping the run, again, it's not Taylor that causes problems there necessarily - Tyrod runs for only 28.6 yards per game.  And while Taylor's decision making has improved greatly from last season in terms of interceptions, he still made plenty of questionable decisions in terms of run/pass situations:  the Hokies allowed 30 sacks this season, 90th in the nation. 

All of us who saw what Dexter McCluster and/or Auburn did to Monte Kiffin's defense are automatically on guard anytime we play a team that runs some gimmicky stuff.  And yeah, Virginia Tech is going to run out of some pistol and shotgun sets, as well as maybe a few Wild Turkey looks.  VT's rushing attack is 16th nationally at over 200 yards per game.  And the Hokies have tight ends and wide receivers that know how to block.  But the reason for the offense's success isn't about Tyrod Taylor.


People who aren't overly worried about Ryan Williams definitely haven't seen Virginia Tech play

It's not gimmicky, it's not trickeration, and it hasn't happened because teams were too worried about stopping Tyrod Taylor:  Ryan Williams might be the best running back Tennessee has faced all season.

I know about Mark Ingram, and I remember what McCluster did to us (which isn't to suggest that Williams is going to run for 250 yards against us...I hope).  But Ryan Williams has better numbers than both of them.

The redshirt freshman (that's right) ran for 1,538 yards and 19 touchdowns this season - his 128 yards per game make him fifth in the nation in rushing.  And he's first in the nation in highlight reel runs.  Don't believe me?  Here's a fantastic look at every big play he's made this season from hokiehivpi:

I challenge you to find ten minutes worth of material from any other running back in the nation with a better wow factor.

You know who Ryan Williams reminds me of?  Montario Hardesty.  They're both explosive, hard runners with a knack for when to make the right move, both have incredible balance...Hardesty hasn't fumbled all year, and Williams has only one - a costly one against UNC - that I can remember.

Virginia Tech grows these guys on trees:  Williams follows in the footsteps of Lee Suggs, Kevin Jones, Branden Ore and Darren Evans, and like Evans before him, wasn't supposed to be the feature back this season.  But when Evans tore an ACL in preseason, Williams immediately stepped in and became a huge difference maker, and ultimately was named the ACC Freshman of the Year.  Sidenote:  both of these guys in the backfield together next year?  Look out.

Stopping Ryan Williams straight up is enough of a challenge.  It's in reintroducing the stuff that changes up a defense that it becomes even more complicated.  Make no mistake:  containing Williams is the first and most important key to victory.


The tight end has disappeared from Virginia Tech's passing game

Last year, Greg Boone caught 22 passes and was thought to be an emerging threat in VT's limited passing game.  But this year, Boone has only 7 receptions, as Tyrod Taylor has almost exclusively gotten the ball to his three leading receivers (Jarrett Boykin, Danny Coale, Dyrell Roberts) and Ryan Williams.  Boone and the other tight ends have combined for only 12 catches on the season.

Given Tech's offense, it's going to be highly improbable that Eric Berry gets the interception he needs to break the record, unfortunately.  But it's going to be highly probable that Berry is up at the line of scrimmage, one last time, helping slow down Tech's run game.  Getting lined up right and knowing assignments, as always, will be critical.  But it won't be the pass or the other skill players that beat Tennessee - again, it starts and ends with Williams.


Virginia Tech's defense does what it does

For a primer, check out the progression of VT's defense from Chris Brown at Smart Football, written during the offseason.  Bud Foster's name will once again get thrown around with various openings around the country...but Foster loves Blacksburg, there's a restaurant that bears his name in town, and I'm not sure he's going anywhere.  Tech's numbers again this year are very good:  11th nationally in scoring defense (15.8 ppg allowed), 14th in total defense (300.1 ypg allowed).  In their four game win streak to close the season, the Hokies gave up 3, 9, 10, and 13 points.  The opposition may not have been the greatest (ECU, Maryland, NC State, Virginia), but that's still impressive, and none of those teams got 300 yards of total offense.

There has been separation in Tech's ability to stop the run (52nd nationally, 138 ypg allowed) and the pass (5th nationally, 161 ypg allowed).  Tech's secondary has more interceptions (10) than touchdown passes allowed (8) this season - you'll want to watch out for Rashad Carmichael back there, and Jason Worilds up front in the pass rush.  But the teams that beat VT got it done on the ground:  268 rushing yards for Alabama, 309 from Georgia Tech, 181 from North Carolina. 

The other common thread in VT losses:  containing Williams.  Alabama and UNC held him under 100 yards, and even though Georgia Tech didn't come close - 100 yards on only 14 carries - it's the second part of that equation that made the difference:  GT built a lead that made Tech go away from its game plan somewhat in the fourth quarter, in part because they ate time of possession alive in that game at +17 minutes.  If the Vols can't stop him, our offense needs to grind it out with our own talented tailback.  Throwing excessively against VT this year has been more risk than reward.


The over/under on blocked kicks in this game is 1.5

Or at least it should be.

There's no bigger nightmare scenario than Tennessee's special teams, minus the recently departed Eddie Gran, against BeamerBall.  The Vols have allowed two kickoffs to be returned for touchdowns, missed an extra point, and had four field goals and a punt blocked this season.  Perhaps Daniel Lincoln - who missed two crucial kicks in the Georgia Dome, the horrors of which we'll discuss more fully some other day, in the 2007 SEC Championship Game - will be healthy enough to retake the job from late season walk on Devin Mathis.  Lincoln has made big kicks before, but his altitude on the ball is begging for the Hokies to feast on him.

Tech's blocked kicks are always game changers, and Tennessee can't afford to give VT any help or short fields in this matchup.  Everyone will look at this aspect and point to it as a key - and everyone will be right.


Don't put too much emphasis on the Virginia Tech-Alabama game

Simply because that was 14 weeks ago.  Despite the fact that Alabama put a balanced 498 yards on the vaunted lunchpail defense, and VT picked up only 155 yards of offense (this, by the way, was a Virginia Tech offensive performance to a T:  look horrific statistically, and still have a chance to win against a great team in the fourth quarter), Virginia Tech is a different - and better - football team now than they were then.  We can both bask in the faded glow of almost beating the eventual National Champions and trade war stories...but I wouldn't look at that game and pull any real expectations from it.

That said...


Virginia Tech has not played well recently against the SEC

Last four meetings:

  • 2004 Auburn:  16-13 L, Sugar Bowl
  • 2006 Georgia:  31-24 L, Chick-Fil-A Bowl
  • 2007 LSU:  48-7 L, Baton Rouge
  • 2009 Alabama:  34-24 L, Atlanta

Granted, three of those four teams either had undefeated seasons or won the National Championship.  But it's also worth nothing that the last time Tennessee and Virginia Tech met, the Vols blasted the Hokies 45-23 in the 1994 Gator Bowl.

The SEC is the best conference in college football, everybody knows it, and nobody knows it more than we do.  Georgia and South Carolina - two teams the Vols beat by three possessions - just got done taking care of the ACC's two best teams.  This is a statement game for not only Tennessee and Virginia Tech, but the ACC.


This game should be a good one.

The Montario Hardesty vs. Ryan Williams matchup alone is worth the price of admission.  Bud Foster and Monte Kiffin are two of the very best at what they do.  Will Jonathan Crompton or Tyrod Taylor make a decision that costs their team the victory, or make a play that wins it?  Will Eric Berry have a shot at the record one more time?

Two teams, 220 miles apart, and what feels like a rivalry just waiting to happen.  Whether it's another 15 years before we meet again or not, this game is huge for both teams.  For Virginia Tech, it's ACC validation, 10 wins and a statement victory.  For Tennessee, it's the biggest win of Kiffin's first year.  The final game of 2009 could turn out to be one of its best.