Every college football offseason seems like it takes three weeks longer than the one prior, but there may be no fan base more ready to put an offseason behind it like Tennessee’s this year. After the worst season in school history and a coaching search which was somehow worse than the season which preceded it, Tennessee gets a chance to start a new chapter under first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt.
The Volunteers will begin the 2018 season in a neutral site matchup against No. 17 West Virginia in Charlotte, N.C. The game will be the first-ever meeting of the two schools.
West Virginia enters this season No. 17 after a 7-6 (5-4 Big 12) record in 2017 and a seventh-place finish in the Big 12. Much of the Mountaineers’ projected success in 2018 is due to quarterback Will Grier heading into the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate with other great offensive weapons surrounding him.
While the offense will almost certainly put up gaudy numbers, West Virginia’s defense leaves quite a bit to be desired. The Mountaineers allowed 31.5 points per game in 2017, ranking 90th out of 130 FBS teams.
West Virginia will certainly have the advantage between the two teams’ offenses on Saturday, but the Vols may very well be the team with the better defense. If Tennessee can find a way to just contain Will Grier and the WVU offense, the Vols may be able to put up enough points to hang in there.
QB Will Grier — Grier will be either the best or second-best quarterback Tennessee faces this season, depending on what you think of Drew Lock. Last season, Grier completed 250 of his 388 passes (64.4%) with 34 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
The West Virginia offense will go as Grier goes, so probably the biggest key for the Vols will be to get to the pocket and make him uncomfortable.
WR David Sills V — As if having a Heisman candidate at quarterback was not enough to deal with for Tennessee’s defense, West Virginia returns WR David Sills V, whose 18 receiving touchdowns last season were tied for the most in the country. In addition to 18 touchdowns, Sills had 60 total receptions for 980 yards in 2017.
Sills and Grier will test the Vols’ secondary early and often on Saturday. The Vols will probably be playing at least one true freshman in the secondary between Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson, so it’s going to be up to veterans Nigel Warrior and Micah Abernathy to hold Sills in check.
West Virginia is going to score. Regardless of how well Tennessee’s defense is able to play, the Mountaineers are built to put up points.
If Tennessee is going to win this game, the Vols’ offense is going to have to play keep away by running the ball until WVU amply proves it can stop it. Possibly the weakest position group on West Virginia’s team is its defensive line, so if Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan and Madre London can get some push from the Vols’ offensive line, this may just be a strategy Tennessee is able to exploit.
As good as West Virginia’s offense is, its defense is probably that bad. And nobody really knows what to expect from a talented, yet beleaguered Tennessee team. So while the threat of the Mountaineers just torching the Vols through the air to the tune of 450 passing yards and 42 points is there, I think a much more likely scenario is a one-possession game into the fourth quarter.