The first of a handful of swing games is here — Tennessee will head north to face Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC). It’s a top 25 matchup, with the Volunteers sneaking into the AP Poll at No. 24, and the Panthers holding steady at No. 17.
Pittsburgh won this game in Knoxville last year in a wild one. Can the Volunteers take care of business this time around? Here are our staff picks.
Terry Lambert: Tennessee 38, Pittsburgh 30
I can’t get last year’s game out of my head. Tennessee was head and shoulders better athletically than Pittsburgh was, but Joe Milton couldn’t buy a completion down the field. The Volunteers instantly stabilized with Hendon Hooker, becoming one of the best offenses in the country. What does that game look like last year with Hooker running the show? It may not even be close.
It’s a new year and a new location, however, which means something. Pitt is no slouch up front on either side, and I fully expect them to give Tennessee some issues throughout the day. I’m just not sold that Pat Narduzzi’s squad can keep up for four quarters. We’ve got a big contrast in styles here, and I think the spread/tempo wins out.
Clint Eiland: Tennessee 42, Pittsburgh 31
The simple truth is: I think Tennessee got a bit better from last year, and Pittsburgh got a bit worse. Playing at Heinz Field will give them a slight energy boost (especially after a crazy win against West Virginia), but I’m not sure the Panthers have the weapons to keep up with Tennessee. The Volunteers will score plenty of points and provide enough resistance to cover the spread. I think the game will be close for the first 40 minutes or so, but Tennessee will seal the deal as it winds down.
Nick Carner: Tennessee 35, Pittsburgh 38
If y’all remember my season prediction from here, I’ve got the Vols finishing 7-5 (I’m the worst — I know). I mentioned several games that seemed like “swing,” games at the time, given that we hadn’t seen any meaningful football yet. Well, this is the first one of those games.
Tennessee managed 59 points without the guys totally clicking last week, but it’s not the offense that concerns me. Drawing on just what we saw in the Backyard Brawl, it seems like Pitt and new (again) offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti want to operate philosophically different from how Mark Whipple ran things with Kenny Pickett at QB last year.
Pickett’s replacement, USC transfer Kedon Slovis, attempted 24 passes against WVU last week. Pickett completed fewer than 24 passes in just three games last year. If the Panthers want to lean into that sorta shift, it might play to Tennessee’s favor, as I didn’t see anything last week from the Vols’ pass rush or the defensive backs that gives me confidence in either group’s ability to defend a proficient attack through the air. I prefer to see the UT LBs in run support than trying to guard WRs, RBs or TEs in space. But it was just the first game, so maybe none of that really means anything.
Tennessee needs to find a way to make Slovis uncomfortable without leavings its DBs twisting in the wind. Against WVU, Slovis went 14-19 for 228 yards and a TD with a “clean pocket,” via Pro Football Focus. But he got sacked five of the six times he was “under pressure.” The numbers from his time at USC reinforce this sentiment.
If the Vols can manufacture some duress, I like their chances. I just dunno how likely that is to happen.
Plus side: if nothing else, now we have the fact that I’m wrong, all the time, working in our favor.
Matthew Seese: Tennessee 47, Pittsburgh 39
The biggest key in this game is the Vols in the trenches. Pitt’s pass rush is improved and definitely better than Ball State’s, but Pitt’s O-line allowed constant pressure against WVU in week one. Slovis struggles under pressure, and slowing him down slows Pitt down entirely.
Hooker has to continue to play efficient, turnover-free football, and the rushing attack must continue to find balance and success in short yardage situations. It’s been the one Achilles heel of an otherwise superb ground game over the last year.
A receiver not named Cedric Tillman must break out in this game. Pitt’s secondary is nothing to write home about, and either McCoy or Hyatt are going to have to leave their mark on this game.