1. Run. The. Ball.
I can’t stress this enough. The Vols must find a way to run the ball.
West Virginia’s run defense is garbage. It was almost worse than Tennessee’s in 2017. In their five losses, opponents averaged about 239 yards per game on the ground - including a dismal 313-yard performance against Oklahoma.
With the recent comments geared toward the Vols’ stable of running backs and the improved coaching along the offensive line, the Vols should have a good day on the ground offensively.
The most crucial - and obvious - element of this scenario is the fact that if Tennessee finds success on the ground, then they can chew up clock and keep the Mountaineers’ offense off the field.
2. Make Will Grier run for his life
This will be easier said than done, but if the Vols can surmount an effective pass rush, then it will offset the potential issues with the youngsters in their secondary.
The Mountaineers didn’t give up many sacks last season, however, and the fact that the Vols couldn’t field a pass rush at all in 2017 isn’t a good starting point. The hope is that Jeremy Pruitt will find a way to create pressure.
It’s guaranteed that the pressure will have to come from all over the defense, not just the defensive line. It’s not crazy to expect the linebacking corps to lead the team in pressures on Saturday.
If somehow by the grace of God J.J. Peterson can be ready in time, that would provide a huge boost. That is almost dead in the water at this point, but UT fans can dream, can’t they?
3. Effiency in the passing game
The Vols were anything but efficient in 2017 in the passing game. You can chalk that up to newly-minted offensive coordinator Larry Scott or Butch Jones’ scheme, but regardless of where you point the finger - Tennessee was awful.
So what changes in 2018? Well, a full offseason as the starter has Jarrett Guarantano feeling more comfortable than ever. Mix that in with the return of Jauan Jennings, the emergence of Marquez Callaway, the addition of Dominick Wood-Anderson, and the continued development of Josh Palmer, Brandon Johnson, Jordan Murphy, etc. should provide Guarantano with plenty of reliable targets.
It doesn’t have to be just receivers and tight ends, either. The Vols have Ty Chandler in the backfield who is a very effective receiver. Believe it or not, this offense has a lot of weapons.
Tennessee doesn’t need Guarantano and co. to ball out, but a decent air attack would help the ground game tremendously by bringing a balanced attack against a subpar WVU defense.
4. Use Ty Chandler everywhere
Chandler is the Vols’ most versatile player on offense and rightfully so. When John Kelly was suspended for the Kentucky game, Chandler’s ability was on full display to the tune of 155 total yards and two touchdowns. If it weren’t for a penalty, he would’ve added a kickoff return for a touchdown to that stat line.
UT will need to come out with a diverse, yet simple game plan on offense. They need to show enough looks to keep the Mountaineers on their toes, but they also don’t want to overload a young offense learning a new system.
Enter Chandler. Whether he catches passes out of the backfield, lines up out wide, or returns kicks, the Vols need to use him as much as they can. He isn’t the biggest back of the group by any stretch, but his athleticism and playmaking ability cannot be ignored.
5. Turnovers and penalites
This is about as basic as it can get, but it holds major weight in this matchup. The Mountaineers averaged around 2.4 turnovers per game and six penalties for 47.3 yards per game in their five losses.
They were also (-7) in turnover margin during such games, including a five turnover performance against Oklahoma State.
Pruitt comes from one of many of Saban’s ideologies and forcing turnovers and penalties while not falling victim to them yourself is one of the many lessons he brings to Knoxville.
An established ground game along with a couple of big turnovers could in turn force WVU into some penalties that will either kill drives for themselves or prolong drives for the Vols.