Head Coach: Kalani Sitake, 3rd year (20-19 overall)
2018 record: 7-6
Returning starters: 13 (6 on offense, 6 on defense, kicker)
All long-suffering Volunteers fans know just how difficult Tennessee’s early season schedule has been in recent years. It’s almost become a badge of honor — as well as a major point of contention, but we’ll save that discussion for another article. Following what should be a relatively routine week one victory the Vols will welcome in to Knoxville another team that isn’t afraid to play formidable opponents, anytime, anywhere. Since 2013 the BYU Cougars have matched up against numerous high profile programs including Texas, Notre Dame, Michigan, West Virginia, LSU, and Wisconsin. Although these two programs are no strangers to stiff competition, they certainly are strangers to each other. This will be the first time Tennessee and BYU will face each other on the gridiron.
BYU will certainly show up ready to play. Unlike the Volunteers in 2019 the Cougars won’t have an opportunity to ease their way into the season. BYU opens up at home against bitter rival Utah, a game that is always a knock-down, drag-out fight. The game at Neyland Stadium will kickoff at 7:00pm, which is great for fans hoping to avoid the heat of the day and enjoy some pregame festivities. However, it will give the Cougars an opportunity to adjust to Eastern time zone.
The respective fan bases have already found each other on Twitter, and this is pretty much how it’s going so far. So, we need this game to hurry up and get here already. Let’s dig deeper at what to expect from this much-anticipated non-conference match-up.
Coaching: As mentioned above the Cougars are led by head coach Kalani Sitake. He took over the program in 2016 after Bronco Mendenhall left for the head coaching job with the Virginia Cavaliers. Under Mendenhall the BYU program established a winning culture, which Sitake was able to sustain in his first season as the Cougars went 9-4. However, in 2017 the team took a major step back falling to a disappointing 4-9 record, largely due to offensive woes — let’s not talk about the Tennessee offense that season. Sitake made changes to his offense staff following 2017, including the installation of Jeff Grimes as offensive coordinator. Grimes had previously been coaching at LSU as offensive line coach where he was clearly influenced by Matt Canada’s system. Grimes brought the jet series to Provo, and with the help of a solid defense the Cougars were able to rebound to a 7-6 mark including a bowl victory. In all fairness it’s probably still too early to declare that Sitake is on the hot seat, but 2019 will be crucial for him to demonstrate that he has the program heading in the right direction
Offense: About halfway through the 2018 season true freshman quarterback Zach Wilson replaced incumbent starter Tanner Mangum. All he did in his first game as a starter was throw for 3 touchdowns, run for another, and lead his team to a 49-23 victory over Hawaii. Although he displayed the inconsistencies typical of a true freshman, as the season progressed he showed flashes of excellence. Wilson was able to put it all together in BYU’s bowl victory as he completed 18 of 18 passes for 317 yards, 4 touchdowns, and no interceptions. A shoulder injury kept Wilson out of spring practice, but he will be ready to go come fall camp.
On the receiving end of Wilson’s passes this season will be stud tight end Matt Bushman. At 6’5” and 240 pounds Bushman certainly looks the part of a future NFL tight end. His play on the field looks that way, too. Bushman was a freshman All-American in 2017, and has led the Cougars in both receptions and receiving yards over the past two seasons. He’ll be a match-up nightmare inside, as the Cougars also have size and athleticism at the receiver positions.
All of this returning skill will likely translate to a different type of attack for Jeff Grimes’ offense in 2019. Look for the Cougars to push the tempo, and lean more heavily on Wilson’s arm.
Defense: You can use one word to describe BYU’s defense last season: solid. They ranked 24th in scoring, 27th in rushing, 29th in passing, and 18th in total defense. It can be easy to dismiss these rankings as inflated and the product of an easier schedule as BYU is an Independent. But, think again. The Cougars faced seven teams ranked in the Top-50 in total offense — Tennessee faced six such teams.
BYU will lose a ton of production as both Sione Takitaki and Corbin Kaufusi — the team leaders in tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks last season — have moved on to the NFL. However, the Cougars are fortunate to return quite a bit of experience, particularly in their front seven.
The defensive line is anchored by massive nose tackle Khyiris Tonga. At 6’4” and 340-pounds Tonga isn’t just a gap-plugger. He recorded 4.5 tackles for loss last year — the most on the team not including Takitaki and Kaufusi — and added 2 sacks. Tonga will have help up front as Zac Dawe, Bracken El-Backri, Uriah Leiataua, Devin Kaufusi, and Lorenzo Fauatea all return and saw significant playing time last season.
Isaiah Kaufusi is probably the star of the linebacking corps. He finished third on the team in both total tackles and tackles for loss last season — again, behind Takitaki and Corbin Kaufusi — despite starting only 6 games for the Cougars. Joining him will be likely be Trajan Pili, Zayne Anderson, and Chaz Ah You. Although this group didn’t jump off of the stat sheet last season there is still a tremendous amount of upside here. Pili appeared in every game, starting 11 of them. Anderson started every game prior to being sidelined for the season with a shoulder injury. And, Ah You, who has returned from his mission, is a former 4-star recruit and the #2 ranked player in the state of Utah.
Outlook: SB Nation’s Bill Connelly projects Tennessee to win this game by about 10 points. While I’d love to believe that will happen, it just seems difficult to do so right now. Jim Chaney should prove to be a major boost for offensive production. However, Tennessee has a long way to go to adequately protect quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. Starting two true freshman offensive tackles against such an experienced defensive front is at least slightly concerning.
If Tennessee’s offense is able to put points on the board, and Neyland Stadium is rocking like it should be for a night game, Tennessee definitely has the ability to come away with a victory. A big non-conference win, and a 3-0 start, would have the Vols in great position to get back to a bowl game this year.
Up Next: Sept 14 vs Chattanooga