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Tennessee-Virginia Preview: A look at the matchup with Cavaliers

Some clear strengths and weaknesses here.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Enough talk, let’s play. Tennessee heads to Nashville this weekend to get their 2023 season rolling, set to take on the Virginia Cavaliers out of the ACC ranks. We think we’ve got Tennessee figured out at this point, but what will the Vols be facing against Tony Elliott’s squad?

Frankly, it’s a team in rebuild mode. Bronco Mendenhall surprised the college football world when he retired two years back, and Elliott took the job just one year after Tennessee expressed some interest. Unfortunately for Elliott, the first year resulted in just three wins, and was marked by tragedy as three members of the football team were killed in an on-campus shooting. The University canceled the final two games of the year, leaving Elliott with a 3-7 record for his year one team. Elliott is now tasked with bouncing back and trying to get the momentum going in the right direction.

Questions everywhere for the Virginia Offense

Things won’t get easier for Virginia in 2023 after losing their starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong to the transfer portal. Though Armstrong struggled for Elliott in 2022, he threw for over 4,400 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2021. For whatever reason, it just didn’t work last season as Armstrong threw 12 picks on the year.

Needing a quick solution, Virginia turned to the FCS ranks and brought in Tony Muskett from Monmouth. Streaking the Lawn, SBNation’s Virginia site, had this to say on the new addition.

In eight games a year ago, Muskett threw for 1997 yards, with 17 TDs and 8 INTs. He completed 64% of his passes at just under 9 yards per attempt. Those are solid numbers. He was better in 2021, throwing for 2651 yards in 11 games, with 25 TDs and 6 INTs. He also rushed for over 200 yards last year, averaging 3.1 yards per carry (includes sacks). He’s not a running quarterback, and he isn’t as dynamic as Armstrong was. But he can make some plays on the ground.

The 6-2, 206 pound senior faces an aggressive Tennessee defense to start the year.

“Been a really good decision maker, threw for a bunch of yards, has good pocket awareness,” Josh Heupel said of Muskett. “Him being in week one, year one within their system, what are the new things that they do to try and put him in a position (to succeed)? We’ll find out on gameday.”

The Tennessee defense is coming off of a fantastic close to the year, shutting out Vanderbilt and holding Clemson to just 14 points in the Orange Bowl. They’ve gotten deeper too, although they must find a way to replace key pass rusher Byron Young. Veteran Roman Harrison is hoping to fill those shoes, along with some explosive young edge rushers eager to crack the rotation.

We know Tim Banks loves to blitz, so Muskett can expect to be under fire on Saturday afternoon at Nissan Stadium.

“A guy that has played really good football at a high level and has been a good decision maker,” Heupel continued on Muskett. “For us, we have to do a great job of handling the run game. We have to apply pressure. That can be from our pressure package, but it can also just be with our front four. We have to make him uncomfortable inside the pocket.”

Muskett will be throwing to an unproven group of receivers. Malachi Fields, JR Wilson and Demick Starling all return, but with very little experience. Northwestern transfer Malik Washington also joins the depth chart. Overall, this position appears to be a massive question going into the season for Elliott.

The Virginia Defense

For as much as the offense struggled, the defense was actually decent in 2022. Virginia finished the year ranked 49th in total defense, giving up just 24 points per game. The Cavaliers return plenty of pieces in the front seven, but defensive coordinator John Rudzinski will have to rely on a couple of new pieces in the secondary this season.

“They do have some new transfers, in particular on the backend,” Heupel said. “They have experience in their front seven. They are doing a good job against the run. We got to do a really good job of being dialed into our protections, our run schemes, make sure we’re targeting the right people. The question was brought up earlier, do our assignments, handle our assignments at a really high level, be really good in our communication and go execute.”

Transfers Malcolm Greene from Clemson, Sam Westfall from SMU and Tayvonn Kyle from Iowa State will be leaned on in the secondary, along with some untested depth behind them. Facing guys like Bru McCoy, Dont’e Thornton, Squirrel White and Ramel Keyton is a massive first challenge.

If Virginia is going to make any noise defensively, it’s going to come up front. Standout pass rusher Chico Bennett is a name to know after leading the team with seven sacks last season. Defensive tackle Aaron Faumui put up nine tackles for loss. Seniors Jahmeer Carter and Kam Butler finish off an experienced front four for Rudzinski.

UPDATE: Virginia DE Chico Bennett will not play Saturday.

“A lot of movement up front, a lot of stemming,” Tennessee running backs coach Jerry Mack said of the Virginia defensive line. “They got really good defensive ends. They do a good job pressing the pocket. So that’s going to be really important for us to make sure that, before we get out, we make sure there’s no extra trash hanging around the quarterback’s view, hanging around the quarterback for his vision. We want to do a great job of blowing things up as we use the term before we get out and actually get our pass route.”

A wildcard for Tennessee? The status of Cooper Mays.

It’s been nearly three weeks since we learned that Mays, the starting center and likely most important piece of the Tennessee offensive line, would miss time to a minor procedure. We still don’t have an answer on his status for Saturday, and likely won’t get one until gameday morning. Considering Virginia’s strength up front, not having him out there would be a potential concern.

“With Cooper, we’ll find out his availability as the week goes on,” Heupel said on Monday. “We’ve had two and a half to three weeks to give guys opportunities to play on the interior if he’s not able to go. I feel really confident in those guys.”

Veteran Ollie Lane would likely get the go in Mays’ place, which would obviously open up another void at guard. Addison Nichols, Andrej Karic and Jackson Lampley all could see time. Both tackle positions could also see rotation as Glen Elarbee tries to find that right combination before the trip to Gainesville.

Verdict: Too many offensive issues for Virginia

It’s not all that difficult to imagine Tennessee getting off to a sleepy start here. Noon kick, plenty of new faces, an offensive line full of unknowns. The Virginia front could make some plays to frustrate the Vols early on. But can they score enough points to hang? That doesn’t seem likely. They’re going to need some help on special teams or through turnovers, it would seem.

Tennessee remains a 28 point favorite here, per DraftKings Sportsbook. Kickoff is set for noon ET in Nashville, with ABC carrying the game.

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See for details.