Tennessee moved to 1-0 with a 59-10 cakewalk over Ball State on Thursday night at Neyland Stadium. Now their toughest non-conference opponent awaits, and they have to go on the road to face them. Tennessee will repay the favor to Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon, finishing off their home and home series.
It’s one of a handful of swing games for Tennessee, and also one with early season top 25 ramifications.
“Big game for us, obviously,” Josh Heupel began with reporters on Monday. “First road test for us against a really good football team. Awesome opportunity, too, to recognize Coach Majors and what he did for both programs.”
This series was branded in honor of Johnny Majors, who coached both teams during his career. Pittsburgh overcame a first half deficit last season to beat the Volunteers in a wild one, 41-34.
“Really good football team in all three phases,” Heupel said. “I’ve faced them, I think, four times. This is the fourth time in five years. They’re tough, physical on both sides of the line of scrimmage. And do a really nice job. Will be a big test for us.”
Dating back to his time at UCF, Heupel is now 1-2 overall against Pittsburgh. Pat Narduzzi has been there for each of those matchups, although this season will be a little different. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple left for Nebraska during the offseason, and Narduzzi hired Frank Cignetti Jr. to replace him. The move likely takes Pitt to a heavier run approach, perhaps ditching some of the spread concepts from Whipple’s tenure.
“The structure of what they do offensively, a little bit different,” Heupel continued. “Played with an extra tackle at times last week. Some 12 personnel as well, running the football. Then their play-action shots come off of that. In recent years, with the quarterback that they had, they played a little more spread and were pitching it around a little bit more. So the tempo of the ballgame we’re going to see from them will be a little bit different.”
Still, new quarterback Kedon Slovis threw for over 300 yards in the opener against West Virginia.
Pittsburgh has been praised for their defensive front. In fact, it’s become a bit of a calling card for the program under Narduzzi. This season is no different, with Calijah Kancey, Habakkuk Baldonado and John Morgan set to carry the torch.
“This is a veteran group that plays extremely hard,” Heupel told the media. “They’re physically mature. They play with great technique. The structure of their defense, I don’t care what personnel group, what formation you’re playing in, they’re going to load it up and play with extra bodies in there. So they make it difficult to run the football. You guys know for us, offensively it starts with our ability to run the football. So that will be pivotal part of the football game.”
Surprisingly though, it was West Virginia showing off with a pretty solid offensive performance last week against the Panthers. The Mountaineers ran for 190 yards, powered by a couple of big chunk plays.
“They gave up a couple big runs, just mis-fit a couple of things,” Heupel said after watching. “But overall, they make it extremely difficult. Their front four are strong, physical, athletic. Their ability to get to the quarterback on normal downs, then on third downs too, they’ll try to scheme you up. They’re veteran on the outside. We’ve seen these guys a couple of the last times we’ve played them. It will be a big test for us offensively.”
Tennessee has opened the week as a seven point favorite, per DraftKings Sportsbook. That number has come up a few points, as has the total (now at 65.5).
Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday on ABC.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See DraftKings.com/sportsbook for details.