#17 West Virginia
Location: Charlotte, North Carolina at Bank of America Stadium
Kickoff: 3:30 pm est
Announcers: Brad Nessler, Gary Danielson
The #17 West Virginia Mountaineers meet the Tennessee Volunteers in the opening game of the season in Charlotte, North Carolina at Bank of America Stadium. This will be the first meeting between the two schools.
First year head coach Jeremy Pruitt not only has a tough task in rebuilding a once proud Tennessee program, but must take on a ranked and experienced Mountaineer team to start his era.
Tennessee is lacking in experience, but they don’t fall short on talent. They have recruited well the past four years. They were ranked in the top five in 2015 among some of the recruiting sites, and in the years following, they have been in the top 20. After going 4-8 last season and a head coaching change, they still managed to be ranked around the top 20.
The Volunteers haven’t decided on a quarterback heading into the game, and announced the starter as “Jarrett Guaranano OR Keller Chryst.” Returning redshirt sophomore Jarrett Guarantano was considered a four-star dual threat quarterback coming out of high school. Jarrett played in nine games and started six, throwing for 997 yards (110.8 ypg), four touchdowns and two interceptions. His longest run was 13 yards and had -39 yards on the season.
Their other option at QB is grad transfer Keller Chryst from Stanford. Chryst is looking for a fresh start after losing his starting job after sustaining an injury last season. He was 11-2 as a starter at Stanford and was 5-2 in 2017. Most of that success came behind running back Bryce Love. Keller’s numbers don’t jump off the page, as he only threw for 137.4 yards per game, 8 touchdowns and four interceptions in 2017.
Both quarterbacks will be protected by first team preseason All-SEC left tackle Trey Smith.
West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorson said he doesn’t fully know what to expect from the Volunteer offense, but he does believe they’ll be multiple. That’s no surprise under a first-year head coach and a depth chart released by Tennessee that had seven unnamed starters on offense.
Besides Trey Smith, center Brandon Kennedy has been named the starter along the offensive line. Kennedy was the back up center at Alabama last year before suffering an early season foot injury that ended his season.
Tennessee has a trio of running backs listed as the starter, but none have had a lot of production. Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan and Madre London (transfer from Michigan State) will be trying to find holes in the Mountaineer defense.
Receivers Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings will look to get open against the WVU secondary. They haven’t put up a lot of stats but head coach Dana Holgorsen likes what he has seen on film.
The defensive side of the ball for Tennessee has more stability. They run a 3-4 style defense with a jack linebacker. The jack is essentially a hybrid of a defensive end and an outside linebacker, a pass rushing specialist that is expected to fall into coverage at times. That duty goes to redshirt senior Jonathan Kongbo (6’5” 254-lbs). He’s expected to have a big season after being the number one JUCO recruit in 2016 and had 29 tackles and 2.5 sacks last season.
Junior middle linebacker Daniel Bituli led the team with 90 tackles last year ranking him seventh in the SEC at 7.5 tackles per game.
Another spot for grabs is at cornerback. Two freshmen, Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson are vying for the starting role. Both defensive backs were four-star players coming out of high school last year.
The two safeties for Tennessee were second and third in total tackles last season. Nigel Warrior had 83 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and an interception last year and is on the Bednarik Award watchlist going into the season. Micah Abernathy had 81 tackles last season.
The Mountaineer offense is looking to improve on their top 10 offense performance in 2017 before quarterback Will Grier went out with an injury early in the Texas Game.
As one of the top Heisman candidates to start the season, Grier looks poised to have a big season with all the returning talent he has around him. The Mountaineers return receivers Gary Jennings and Bilitnikoff finalist David Sills. Jennings had 97 receptions for 1,096 yards and Sills 60 receptions, 980 yards and 18 touchdowns.
West Virginia also returns Marcus Simms who has become a starter after averaging 18.9 yards per reception last year. Add Alabama transfer TJ Simmons and second year receiver Dominique Maiden to the mix, and this might arguably the best receiving group in the country.
The Mountaineers have a stable of running backs, running behind a veteran offensive line, that all have potential for a thousand-yard season, but Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway will have the bulk of the carries.
The offense has been working on efficiency and patience in the off-season and they’ll need to take what the defense gives them against this possibly stingy defense.
The Mountaineer defense looks to bounce back after finishing 106th in total defense a year ago. They had a lot of questions on the defensive side of the ball coming into the 2018 season, but they have found some answers during fall camp.
They bring back a lot of talent this season. Linebacker David Long comes in as first team All-Big XII defense after accumulating 16.5 tackles for a loss in nine games last season. This will be his first opening game as a starter.
Safety Dravon Askew-Henry, now in his 5th year, has moved over to the spur safety position. It’s a great move for the senior, and with his size and athleticism, he will be a force at the line of scrimmage.
The secondary looks like they have three good corners to compliment the defense. Hakeem Bailey has impressed the coaching staff along with Derrek Pitts. While Tony Gibson has made it clear that defensive back Josh Norwood will be one of the best 11 on the field, he’s just not sure where he will lineup.
They added more depth along the defensive line, highlighted by transfers Jabril Robinson (Clemson) and Kenny Bigelow Jr, both making it on top of the depth chart. Ezekiel Rose returns for his senior year after an impressive five sacks in his first year in the program.
Gibson has stated that this is the fastest and most versatile defense he has ever had. There is some concern with depth at linebacker and Tony can mask the problem by using multiple formations. Although the base of the defense is the odd stack (3-3-5), there has been talk coming out of camp that he has used four down linemen.
With the offense looking to rewrite the West Virginia history books and a defense out to prove to everybody that they are legit, I expect the Mountaineers to win this game.
Defensive Coordinator Tony Gibson thinks Tennessee will try to control the ball with the running game and I think Gibson will come out with four defensive linemen to start the game.
The West Virginia offense will wear down the Tennessee defense with their size and speed. I expect the offense to be running on all cylinders and put up big numbers against the Volunteers.
Both teams will feel each other out to start the game but the Mountaineers will start rolling. West Virginia wins big 59-20.