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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Bowling Green at Tennessee

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Preview: Tennessee Volunteers vs. Pittsburgh Panthers

Can the Vols move to 2-0 on the season?

Joe Milton and the Vols offense are going up against a tough Pitt defense this week.
| Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Tennessee Volunteers (1-0) and the Pittsburgh Panthers (1-0) are coming off a wildly successful opening week where both teams outscored their opponents by a combined margin of 89-13. Now, both teams are looking for a way to get to 2-0.

Neither team will racking up the scoring differential like last week, due to the massive step up in terms of competition. But at the same time, it creates a ton of intrigue between the two programs as game day approaches.

So, without further ado, let’s go ahead and dive into this week’s game preview.


Overview

  • All-time series: The Panthers have won the only two games of the series and average a 17-point winning margin throughout. This is the first time these two teams have met since 1983.
  • Largest margin of victory: Pittsburgh won the first matchup, 30-6, back in 1980.
  • 2021 offensive and defensive rankings: The Vols currently have the 33rd-ranked offense (108th passing, 8th rushing) and the 14th-best defense (51st passing, 10th rushing). They average 38 points per game and have allowed an average of six points per game. The Panthers have the third-best offense (4th passing, 33rd rushing) and the 13th-best defense (38th passing, 13th rushing). They average 51 points per game and have allowed an average of seven points per game.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Bowling Green at Tennessee
Roman Harrison and the Vols defense will be relied upon heavily against Pitt.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What To Watch For

  • A defensive battle: Both offenses put up points and yards last week, but a lot of that was due to the competition each team faced. The same can be said for the defenses, but it’s clear that defense is the strength of both teams after opening week. That could change as the year goes on, but that’s simply the case as of now. Don’t expect as many points and yards out of either team this week.
  • Joe Milton’s response to last week: He had some really good moments against the Falcons, but there were plenty of instances where the inaccuracy and poor decision-making showed up. It’s not going to get any easier this week, so it will be interesting to see how Milton answers the criticism from last week.
  • A multi-pronged attack from both teams: Heupel’s offense is known for big plays through the air, but the Vols ran it twice as much (50 attempts) as they threw it (23 attempts) last week and that number doesn’t even include Milton’s 14 carries. Regardless, Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small combined for 232 yards and two touchdowns on 38 combined carries. The Panthers, on the other hand, had six different backs combine for 161 yards and four touchdowns on 29 carries. I’d expect the same attack from both sides, even with Evans’ status currently in doubt.
  • Containing Kenny Pickett: Pitt’s quarterback looked really, really good against UMass last week. Even if it was UMass, it’s impressive when a quarterback can complete 73% of their passes, throw for a ton of yards and multiple touchdowns, and avoid turning the ball over. Pickett can also do damage with his legs - he is second on the team in rushing yards. Does Tennessee have what it takes on defense to limit Pickett’s impact?
  • Red zone offense: Tennessee was a perfect 5-for-5 in the red zone, scoring four touchdowns through the air and one on the ground. Pitt was effective in their 10 trips, as well. They scored seven total touchdowns and kicked one field goal, but came away empty after the other two trips. If this game turns into a defensive contest, then whomever scores the most touchdowns in the red zone will go a long way toward winning the game. It could decide the game, even.

Impact Players

Tennessee Volunteers

  • QB Joe Milton: Just like last week, this offense will only go as far as Milton does.
  • RB Jabari Small: He was easily one of the best players on the field last week and may be needed even more this week if Evans doesn’t play.
  • WR Jalin Hyatt: The Vols really need someone to be a consistent target for Milton and Hyatt has the best chance. Can he make some plays against the Panthers?
  • DE Tyler Baron: So far, he’s performing like he did during fall camp. That’s huge for the Vols pass rush.
  • LB Jeremy Banks: Banks looked pretty good and the stat sheet reflected his performance.
  • DB Theo Jackson: He was all over the place against the Falcons, recording a team-high 11 tackles -2.5 of which were tackles for loss- as well as three pass deflections.

Pitt Panthers

  • QB Kenny Pickett: He is accurate and he can beat you with his legs. It’ll be interesting to see how the Vols game plan for Pickett.
  • RB A.J. Davis Jr.: You can pick just about any Pitt back and put them here, but Davis is a threat on the ground and he is also a factor in the passing game.
  • TE Lucas Krull: The 6-foot-6 tight end currently leads the team in receiving and will be a matchup nightmare for the Vols linebackers and safeties.
  • DL Calijah Kancey: This dude can get after the quarterback and is the team’s best defensive lineman.
  • LB John Petrishen: Petrishen can play all over the field and a bloated stat line is usually the result. He finished last week’s game with a team-leading six total tackles that included two tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks.
  • DB Rashad Battle: He’s a very physical corner at 6-foot-3, 205-pounds and will be going up against a group of Vols receivers who largely underwhelmed during opening week.
Virginia Tech v Pittsburgh
Watch out for Kenny Pickett on Saturday.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Game Outlook

This is going to be a very, very tough game for the Vols. It won’t be easy for Pitt, either. Hence the small spread of 3.5 points in Pitt’s favor.

I wouldn’t expect many points in this game. Both defenses have enough talent and there are enough matchups in either unit’s favor for them to hold their own. If both defenses can shut down the opposing ground game, then things will get really interesting.

But that means the onus is on Pickett and Milton if that does indeed happen. Based solely off last week, one would be hard-pressed to think Milton outperforms Pickett if the two quarterbacks are locked into a “duel” with one another. However, Heupel’s offense is much more quarterback-friendly when it comes to what he asks his guys to do, so that will offset things a bit. How much exactly is unknown, though.

Therefore, the slight edge has to be given to Pickett and the Panthers. Good quarterback play will elevate a team and help win the tough matchups and right now, Pitt has the advantage there.

It will be close and I don’t think Pitt covers, but I do think Tennessee comes out of this game with a .500 record on the year.

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