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Tennessee vs Virginia Tech: Who Knows?

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The world’s largest football game has had years of anticipation. But with a new coach after 29 years in Blacksburg and plenty of questions after a week one escape in Knoxville, there are now even more unknowns than we thought we’d find in Bristol.

NCAA Football: Liberty at Virginia Tech Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

The certainty with Bristol is that it will break college football’s attendance record. Everything else is a mystery.

Walking out of Neyland Stadium on Thursday, I had visions of something like this for Saturday:

Obviously the Clawfense was a factor here too, but since last making a BCS bowl in 2011, Virginia Tech’s offense has ranked 97th, 107th, 108th, and 92nd nationally in yards per play. In that span the Hokies averaged 72.5 snaps per game.

Frank Beamer’s fingerprints will always be on the Hokies, but I think the most noticeable difference with Justin Fuente in game one was tempo: Virginia Tech ran 89 plays against Liberty, a number the Hokies reached in regulation only one other time (East Carolina 2014) in the last four years.

We came out of the App State game feeling best about Bob Shoop’s defense, but now we’ll see them against a team that ran 43.5% more plays in regulation. The Mountaineers often schemed to make Tennessee’s aggressiveness a weakness. Fuente’s Memphis teams ran more than 1,000 plays each of the last two years; I wonder if anything he saw from the Vols against ASU has him tempted to go in a slightly different direction.

In years past, given Virginia Tech’s offensive history and Tennessee’s performance on Saturday, perhaps we’d now be gearing up for ugly slugfests on consecutive weekends. Now, who knows?

Does Virginia Tech’s new tempo play more into Tennessee’s hands? Is this actually a more favorable match-up for the Vols than App State?

Our memories of Bowling Green were ultimately happy ones in a 59-30 Vol victory to open the 2015 season. Virginia Tech may not have the Matt Johnson-Gehrig Dieter combo that roasted the Vol secondary for 7 catches and 133 yards. But VT’s Isaiah Ford was one of just five players to catch 11+ balls this weekend, getting 117 yards and a score along the way. He had 11 touchdowns on 75 catches for 1,164 yards last year. Jerod Evans, the nation’s top JUCO dual threat quarterback, was the first Hokie to throw four touchdown passes in a single game in 12 years.

Now sure, they played Liberty. But much of what makes us feel better about the Bowling Green comparison is the way Tennessee’s offense functioned in that game. And what we saw against Appalachian State from largely the same group was a vastly inferior product. And I wouldn’t expect to say the same about Virginia Tech’s defense in comparison to the Falcons’ last year.

Will something closer to the Tennessee run game we remember manifest itself this week? Can we reasonably expect the offensive line to look better in this match-up? What’s the surest commodity in this game?