Tennessee and Virginia are set to battle it out in Nashville on Saturday, kicking off the 2023 campaign for both programs. It’s a game that’s going to feature two teams on opposite ends of the spectrum — one that’s trying to rise to the top of the SEC and one that simply trying to find their way.
Virginia head coach Tony Elliott is well aware of the challenge that he’s up against.
“They’re good — they’re really good,” Elliott said on Tuesday. “And what they do is, people talk about the pace, but it’s as much of how they spread the field. If you watch them, their splits are a little bit unorthodox. They kind of go against convention when you start talking about the spacing, because they really, really push their wide outs wide to the sideline. But then what it does is it forces a defense to make a decision.
“Oh, man, we got the scout team going fast. Fast as we possibly can, and then coaches straining and pushing the guys to get lined up. So you try to emulate it as fast as you can. And then there’s components of what we do offensively where we have tempo. And so throughout the course of fall camp, when we’ve had our good-on-good work, we’ve put an emphasis on tempo.”
Josh Heupel’s unique offense has gotten Tennessee back up to speed quickly, shortening the time of the rebuild and throwing the Volunteers back into the mix with the college football elite. Tempo and wide splits keep things simple, and put quite a bit of stress on defenses trying to stop it.
Joe Milton is hoping to pick up right where Hendon Hooker left off in 2022, something he started back in December during the Orange Bowl.
“The quarterback man, he’s a stud,” Elliott said of Milton. “He can run it and he can throw it. More a throw guy first. But man, when he pulls it down, it’s pretty scary. Their backs run hard. Offensive line wise, I know they got a little bit of transition with a couple guys, but I anticipate that you’ll see a very similar group that’s physical.”
Speaking of physical, hopes are high for this Tennessee front seven defensively. They return Omari Thomas and Tyler Baron up front, while Arizona State transfer Omarr Norman-Lott is expected to make a big difference.
Tennessee must replace Byron Young on the edge, but Roman Harrison is a guy with plenty of experience, and the Volunteers are hoping some young, athletic pass rushers emerge as the year goes on.
Elliott was impressed with Tennessee’s overall size on defense.
“You can’t help but notice when they’re big, like they’re really big,” Elliott said. “When I look at the list, especially the inside guys, 320, 343, 310, 301, 310, right? That’s big on the interior. And they’re not just big, two-gappers, man. These guys can move. They can push the pocket, they can get off of blocks. They can disrupt the run game. And then you’re gonna have to double them, right? It’s gonna be hard to single block those guys. And then when you look at guys off the edge, (Roman) Harrison and (Tyler) Baron, man, they’re twitchy, they’re talented. They can get after the quarterback.”
Elliott went on to single out linebacker Aaron Beasley, who had the game of his career against Clemson. He’s back for more as a senior leader this season.
“And then I think the best player is Aaron Beasley, the linebacker,” Elliott admitted. “He roams around. He’s a great pass rusher, man. He’s a big guy. That’s a matchup problem on your backs. It doesn’t matter who your back is. Our biggest one is 215. (Beasley is) listed at 225, but he plays a lot bigger than 225. Very experienced, too. He’s a senior, played a lot of football.”
You don’t typically think of Beasley as a pass rusher, but we do know that defensive coordinator Tim Banks likes to blitz. We saw that against Clemson as the Volunteers really dialed up the pressure on then-freshman quarterback Cade Klubnik.
Elliott is very aware of that pressure, and expects plenty of it on Saturday.
“I think that they’re going to play, in my opinion, what I told the guys: Big-boy football,” Elliott said. “They’re going to line up, they’re gonna be in your face, and they’re gonna come after you with six. And then if they can’t, they’re gonna go seven and they’re gonna play zero coverage, and they’re gonna say, hey, let the best man win. That’s what I’m anticipating.”
Virginia will be breaking in former Monmouth quarterback Tony Muskett on Saturday, along with a handful of new contributors at receiver. Elliott is right — Tennessee is going to lineup and dare you to beat them. That approach was hit or miss in 2022, but more depth and experience at all three levels should help this season.
Tennessee remains a four touchdown favorite here. Kickoff is set for noon ET on ABC.