Tennessee vs West Virginia: Season Opener Preview
It is only forty-eight hours until it is officially football time in Tennessee again! Vol fans are feeling anticipation for the matchup against West Virginia ramp up as the 2018 Season Opener looms ever closer. Reports are beginning to come in that Charlotte is beginning to turn that very distinctive shade of Orange ahead of Saturday’s contest. With kickoff creeping up, we here at The All Vol Call In Show decided it was time to look at the Mountaineers, offer some keys to the game, and a prediction of the outcome.
The Mountaineers may play in the pass-happy, defense-optional Big XII, but their offense is legitimately good. West Virginia will trot out the Pre-Season First Team All-American Quarterback according to multiple outlets. Will Grier is a player that Vol fans are familiar with after his stint at Florida, however, Grier has made a true name for himself after leaving Gainesville. Once he arrived in Morgantown and was named the starting quarterback for the Mountaineers, Grier has been the focal point of Dana Holgorsen’s offense, from an impressive debut in a loss last season against a stout Virginia Tech defense, to posting gaudy numbers, even for the Big XII, right up until he was injured. West Virginia has some serious play makers on their offense, but this team goes as Will Grier goes. With Grier on the field, this offense can put up numbers as impressive as any team in America, without him, the Mountaineers saw the wheels come off their season once he went down. Grier excels at throwing the deep ball, and he has the receivers to go get them. While West Virginia is going to have plenty of plays designed to get the ball out of Grier’s hand quickly on short routes, he is at his best when he can take a deep drop and fire the ball long down field. The offense thrives on this big play potential thanks to Grier and his supporting cast.
West Virginia has a compelling case for having the best Wide Receivers’ room in the country, headlined by Kenny Sills. Sills has, like Grier, been named Pre-Season First Team All-American by several outlets. All the Mountaineer receivers are at least above average at tracking and reeling in the deep shots that Grier launches, but Sills is an excellent deep ball receiver. Sills is also capable of taking a six-yard slant and turning it into a sixty-yard touchdown, as are most of these Mountaineer receivers. There is a strong chance that the Mountaineers end this season with at least three different one thousand-yard receivers, with chunk contributions coming from guys further down the depth chart. This talented, experienced group for West Virginia will be matching up against what many feel is Tennessee’s most concerning group, their corners. The Vols could start this game with a pair of true freshman corners, with Alontae Taylor looking to have a starting spot locked down, and Bryce Thompson expected to at least see significant snaps. No matter how talented the Volunteer newcomers are, this is an extraordinarily tough assignment to draw for your first ever college game. Expect Grier and Company to go after the young corners early and often, provided they get the time to do so.
The guys getting that time for Grier are an interesting unit. The Mountaineers have one of the better pairs of Offensive Tackles in the country, and they look to be set when it comes to pass protection for Grier on the edges. However, the Mountaineers will be breaking in new starters on the interior of the line. How the inside of the West Virginia line holds up could be something to watch. The tackles will anchor this group, but between them is a major unknown for the team from Morgantown. If they can protect Grier and block adequately in the run game, this offense looks even more fearsome, however, should they falter as they did at times last season, the run game could suffer. Expect to see Tennessee attack the interior of this offensive line with Daniel Bituli and Darrin Kirkland as blitzers early and often. If these players struggle and Shy Tuttle can command a double team as the Nose Tackle in the Vols’ three down lineman sets, there will be lanes for the linebackers to blitz through to get pressure in Grier’s face quickly.
When the Volunteers have the ball, things look more encouraging. Much more encouraging in fact. There is no real polite way to say this, but the West Virginia defense was awful last season, and they were pretty awful at everything. Then they lost one of their best players and five other starters off that unit. Playing against some of the excellent offenses in the Big XII didn’t help the Mountaineer defense, but they were lit up in a big way even by some terrible teams, ending up in a shootout with Kansas, for example. The Mountaineers run a base 3-3-5 defense, essentially giving up an additional defensive lineman and replacing him with another Strong Safety. This helps in the pass-happy Big XII and makes for an unusual defense to prepare for. The Mountaineers also have a unique target body type for many of their players, with defensive lineman needing to hold up well against the run, and needing more size, but also expected to provide much of the pressure on passing downs and needing speed. The scheme is also inherently slightly less effective against the run than it is against the pass due to less players in the box and the smaller average size of players on the field. That size mismatch is something that the Vols are going to look to exploit on a defense that the Vols should expect to put up good numbers against.
Three Keys to the Game
#1 The Volunteer Offensive Line
This is an undersized West Virginia defense overall, one that will sacrifice a linebacker/lineman for an additional safety, and that struggled mightily to even slow the run down last season. Unlike Tennessee, who brought in a new coach and coaching staff, one being one of the most respected defensive minds in America, changed players to more natural positions, installed a new defensive scheme, and added several instant impact recruits to the defensive side of the ball, the Mountaineers stood pat with their defense. There are plenty of reasons to expect the Vols to be much, much better on defense, and everything points to a West Virginia unit that could actually be worse than last season. The Volunteers should be able to run the ball. In fact, the Vols should be able to impose their will and bully this West Virginia front. This is the best a Tennessee Offensive Line has looked entering a season in years. The big guys up front are just that, big, and strong, and much better coached than anything Tennessee has trotted out in recent years. If the Vol line can dominate and push West Virginia around, which they should be expected to do, the Vols can run the ball and control the clock. For Tennessee to have a shot to win the game, that must happen.
#2 Pressure on Will Grier
If the Volunteers can pressure, hit, and sack Will Grier, make him uncomfortable, they can win. If they can’t generate pressure on Grier, he and his receivers will pick Tennessee’s young corners apart and it will get ugly, fast. This is black and white. Grier’s numbers drop off a cliff if he is pressured, and while the Mountaineers have a solid ground game, it is dependent on success throwing the ball. This team goes as Will Grier goes. Jeremy Pruitt will be calling his defense this season, and he hangs his hat on defensive back play and manufacturing pressure from all over on opposing quarterbacks. Pruitt will have been preaching this to his players from the first day of West Virginia prep. The load here falls to Kongbo, Taylor, and newcomer Jordan Allen to generate pressure without bringing more than four against the Mountaineer O Line. Expect to see blitzes up the middle by Bituli, Kirkland, Sapp, and even Nigel Warrior or the outside linebackers looping in to attack the interior of the West Virginia line. This is the single most important key in the entire matchup.
#3 Young Corners vs All-American Receivers
Tennessee will have new starters at all the Cornerback spots whether they play their true freshman or not. They are almost certain to play at least two true freshman in their top three corners. These West Virginia receivers are a brutal assignment for any group of DB’s in the country, but especially for guys in their first collegiate start. Pruitt is known for his excellence in coaching defensive backs, and everything coming out of camp has been that Alontae Taylor looks the part of a number one corner from his first day in Knoxville. Still, West Virginia is going to get theirs, even if the young guys play well. That is just who the Mountaineers are. The corners must have short memories, learn from their mistakes quickly, and stay in the game. That is a lot to ask of guys in their first game in college. The good news for the Corners is Tennessee is loaded at Safety, and a big hit or two from Nigel Warrior or Todd Kelly could change the complexion of this game in a big way if the Mountaineer receivers start to hear footsteps. Also, see Key #2, because nothing will help these corners more than an effective pass rush.
So, how does it all go down? When things are said and done on Saturday, who is leaving Charlotte with a win? After looking at a lot of tape, waffling back and forth, and looking at more tape, the Vols leave Bank of America Stadium 38-28 winners. West Virginia is going to get theirs. Grier and Sills are going to take advantage of young corners and cash some of their mistakes in for big plays and scores. However, West Virginia is not going to be able to overcome an awful defense. The Vols should be able to control the clock with a big, physical offensive line and multiple talented running backs, particularly Ty Chandler, who should have multiple long runs with his combination of strength and game breaking speed. That physicality will allow the Vols to make the Mountaineers commit more defenders to stop the run, which is when Tennessee takes advantage of Guarantano’s big arm, great receivers in Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings, and some below average corners from West Virginia. When the Vols throw, look for it to be on deep plays going after big chunks of yards. If the Vols can pressure Grier, which Jeremy Pruitt should be trusted to manufacture with his schemes and the pieces he has in place, the Mountaineers become one dimensional and predictable. That allows the Vols to control the clock while scoring and hide their biggest weakness. Football has a few universal truths. The team that runs the ball best and plays the best defense usually wins, especially in close games. The Vols should have the better day running the football, they should be the more balanced offense, and they should have the better defense. West Virginia makes it entertaining and puts up yards and points, but ultimately limiting Mountaineer possessions and well timed sacks give the Vols the edge.