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Tennessee vs Appalachian State: A Challenging Season Opener, Again

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Here comes another really good mid-major in the season opener.

Michael Chang/Getty Images

College football previews are cranking up already at the mothership, where Monday Bill Connelly picked Appalachian State to win the Sun Belt.  If that happens it will be the second year in a row the Vols have faced a mid-major conference champion in non-conference play in what will already be the third year in a row the first game feels like a trap game.

Tennessee's aggressive scheduling history will stand against anyone in college football, but that's typically come from just the marquee opponent.  That part will continue in Bristol in week two this fall, facing Virginia Tech on the heels of home-and-home series with Oregon and Oklahoma this decade.  But under Butch Jones the Vols have been...well, unlucky may really be the best way to say it.  These things get scheduled far enough in advance that your mid-major choices tend to be more luck of the draw than anything else.  This year the Vols get Appalachian State and Ohio, a combined 18-6 last year before they played each other in the Camellia Bowl.  Next year the Vols get UMass (3-9 last year) and Southern Miss, 9-5 last year and 4-32 the three years prior.  There are no guarantees.

What have been safe bets, however, are that we'll spend a portion of the off-season fretting about a sneaky good season opening opponent, and Butch Jones will have the Vols more than ready to respond.

In 2014 Chuckie Keeton and Utah State came into Knoxville riding a wave of internet hype to face Justin Worley and a painfully young Vol squad.  Tennessee won 38-7.  Last year Bowling Green was a late replacement for UAB in a neutral site game in Nashville, boasting an offense that would end the year tied for 15th in yards per play.  They landed some punches, but the Vols eventually ran away 59-30.

Tied with Bowling Green in yards per play offense last year?  Appalachian State.  The Mountaineers were a Top 10 team in explosiveness and finishing drives, using a powerful rushing attack to win 11 games with the entire backfield returning.  From last week's Appy State preview at SB Nation:

Appalachian State ran the ball frequently, played at an average pace, and required opponents to make a lot of gang tackles. Three 200-pound running backs and a 200-pound quarterback combined to average 38 carries and 239 yards per game, and with them, the Mountaineers had one of the most devastating offenses in the country ... on standard downs.

On passing downs, the Mountaineers were, like a lot of run-happy teams, not particularly effective. They played it self with rushes pretty often, and Taylor Lamb completed just 52 percent of his passes on third-and-4 or more.

Unlike a lot of power-based attacks, however, Appalachian State wasn't necessarily reliant on efficiency. The 'Neers could gash you. Their 80 gains of 20-plus yards ranked 18th in FBS and second in the Sun Belt. This was a dangerous, explosive, powerful offense as long as it remained on schedule.

There's plenty of time between now and September 3 to discuss how the Vol defense can stop Appalachian State on 1st-and-10.  But in general, the biggest truth for Tennessee in dealing with these pesky season openers?  Even if 2016 Appalachian State > 2015 Bowling Green > 2014 Utah State, it's also true that 2016 Tennessee > 2015 Tennessee > 2014 Tennessee.  And I think the biggest distance there is between September 2014 Tennessee and September 2016 Tennessee.

Bill Connelly's preview ends with, "Tennessee is probably out of ASU's league (unless this offseason's drama catches up to the Vols)."  The idea that the Vols are above anyone's league, let alone an 11-win team returning this much experience, is still one Tennessee fans are getting used to again after going 40-47 from 2008-14.  Last year's 9-4 campaign and ranked finish was a clear step forward, and the Vols are finding themselves in conversations this off-season we'd almost forgotten how to have.

Appalachian State will be dangerous, there's little doubt about that.  But not only should the Vols be at their most dangerous in more than ten years, we've already seen Butch Jones have his guys fully prepared for games exactly like this.  Bristol will be a new experience for all involved and Tennessee still must prove itself against its biggest rivals in the SEC.  But the strong mid-major in the season opener?  This will be the third year in a row we've played this game, and so far Butch Jones has made sure the Vols passed.