For the last few seasons, the Tennessee Volunteers have opened their football season against teams that posed little offensive opposition. Utah State last season looked poised to put up points, but starting quarterback Chuckie Keeton was making his first start since tearing his ACL the season before, and the Aggies put up only 7 points and failed to gain much traction. The 2013 season opened against Austin Peay, and the Vols handled the in-state FCS school with ease. But 2015 opens with an offensive challenge the Vols have not seen in quite some time.
The Vols play Bowling Green to start the 2015 season, and the Falcons are no pushover on offense. Bowling Green isn't Western Carolina or North Texas, teams the Vols play later in the 2015 season. Neither are they Oklahoma, the team the Vols play the following week. But Bowling Green possesses a formidable offense, even to an upper-level FBS team like Tennessee.
For the last two seasons, the Bowling Green Falcons have won the eastern division in the MAC and won their first bowl game in a decade last season. Last year was head coach Dino Babers' first season at the helm of the Falcons, and he helped lead the Falcons to an 8-6 record. While the Falcons' defense was one of the worst in the country in 2014, the offense was nothing to sneeze at.
The Falcons return 10 starters on an offense that averaged 432.9 yards a game last season, good for 44th in the country. Bowling Green ran a balanced attack on offense last year, throwing the ball 547 times for 3,639 yards and 17 touchdowns and running the ball 556 times for 2,422 yards and 30 touchdowns. Starting quarterback Matt Johnson went down early in the year with a season-ending injury, and back-up James Knapke filled in admirably, tossing 15 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions as a sophomore. Johnson had thrown for 3,467 yards, 25 touchdowns, and only 7 interceptions in 2013, and now the Falcons have two quarterbacks with extensive starting experience and an ability to throw the ball well. Catching those passes is a talented receiving corps headlined by sophomore Roger Lewis, who caught 73 passes for 1,093 yards and 7 scores as a true freshman last season. Receivers Ryan Burbrink and Ronnie Moore combined to catch 120 passes for 1,448 yards and 8 touchdowns last season as well.
But as good as Bowling Green's passing game was in 2014, their rushing attack was even better. Senior Travis Greene ran for nearly 1,000 yards as a junior last season while scoring 12 rushing touchdowns a season after amassing 1,594 yards on the ground as a sophomore. Greene had 5 games of 100 or more rushing yards last season and scored a touchdown in all but 3 games for the Falcons.
And the one phase the Vols will likely struggle in will likely be Bowling Green's strength this season. The Falcons return all five starters on the offensive line, and guard Alex Huettel is a two-time All-MAC selection for Bowling Green. While Tennessee's talented defensive line should still be able to penetrate Bowling Green's line, an experienced line is a good foundation for any offense and is still something the Vols' defense needs to plan for.
Tennessee's defense should get tested early with Bowling Green's offense, but the Vols can take solace in a handful of factors on the Falcons' offense. For one, only one of Bowling Green's projected starting receivers stands over 6-feet tall, meaning Tennessee's big defensive backs should be able to cover the small Falcon receivers well. Additionally, Bowling Green's offense failed to play effectively against higher-end FBS schools in 2014. The Falcons managed just 17 points apiece in games against Wisconsin and Northern Illinois last season, averaging a mere 279 yards of offense in those games and turning the ball over six total times in the two games.
Bowling Green won't be another opening week cupcake for the Vols when they begin the 2015 season. The Falcons won't be the challenge a California or UCLA has brought in the past, but they won't be an Austin Peay or Montana either. Bowling Green's offense should give the Vols a good test on defense right off the bat to begin 2015.