Let’s call a spade a spade. West Virginia should whoop Tennessee, and anything less than a convincing victory should be viewed as a disappointment, with fans questioning what the team’s ceiling is in 2018.
I’m not trying to bash Tennessee. I’m trying to illustrate the kind of team it is, and the picture painted isn’t one of Oklahoma or Oklahoma State, teams that West Virginia is hoping to jump this season for supremacy in the Big 12 Conference. The Vols are a markedly lesser compilation of talent.
I get that Tennessee played unmotivated last year and wanted to see head coach Butch Jones finally get the ax, but it was still a bad team that finished without a win in the Southeastern Conference. There sure wasn’t a lot of Rocky Top being played in 2017, that’s for sure, and West Virginia fans should expect to hear little of the fight song at Bank of America Stadium on September 1st.
Let’s talk about the Tennessee offense first.
Tennessee was 117th in the country last year in scoring offense. That was only better than three Power-5 Conference teams (Kansas, Rutgers and Illinois) and 12 teams in all of Division I. The Volunteers never found any continuity under center and played three quarterbacks last season. Primary starter Jarrett Guarantano, though a redshirt freshman, could only manage to pass for 111 yards per game on average, and he could only sling four touchdown passes on the season. That sounds like what Will Grier can do in a quarter. He’s no reincarnation of Peyton Manning.
In the run game, which finished 112th in the country last season, Tennessee did have a respectable running back in junior John Kelly, who recorded nine touchdowns on the season, while averaging 70 yards per game, but he won’t be returning to the team in 2018. Additionally, Kelly was the team’s third-leading receiver.
The West Virginia defense feels disrespected. It doesn’t want to feel like the achilles heel of the team, and this nationally-televised season opener in an NFL stadium can serve as a great confidence booster. Linebacker David Long Jr. is one of the best defensive players in the country.
There are some exciting players in the secondary. The new additions to the defensive line in the form of two transfers and four-star freshman Dante Stills is going to breed competition in this group.
This is exactly the type of benchmark game to see how far they really need to go to be ready for a road matchup two weeks later against NC State, who probably will be ranked.
Before we talk about the Tennessee defense, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Tennessee tarnished, to a certain extent, its national public perception last winter in the way the administration went about hiring and then not hiring Greg Schiano. Albeit, the coach the Volunteers eventually landed, Jeremy Pruitt, was deserving of the job, but I’m sure had Tennessee not been a national laughing stock, players like Kelly would’ve wanted to stay.
Where Pruitt will make an immediate impact is on the defensive side of the ball, where Tennessee has traditionally been a solid unit. He’s no Buddy Ryan though. We’re talking about a team that finished 83rd in scoring defense a year ago and was the second-worst team among Power-5 schools in rushing defense. The Volunteers only had 22 sacks on the season last year, which was good for second-worst in the SEC. Tennessee’s opponents scored on 90-percent of the their red zone drives. The Volunteers only recovered 15 turnovers. Plus, Tennessee’s best two pass rushers from a year ago are gone.
The 2012 West Virginia offense came into the season with a ton of talent and returning experience. One could definitely make the case that the 2018 West Virginia offense comes in with even more talent and experience than six years ago. Will Grier should be firing on all cylinders to arguably the most talented receiving corps in the country. When Tennessee drops back seven or eight to defend the pass, Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway should be able to, with an experienced line, run wild on the Volunteers all night long.
This isn’t the high-profile non-conference opener that 2014 was against Alabama. It isn’t even what last year was against a talented rival in Virginia Tech, but this matchup is still against an SEC school with a recognizable national brand. Plus playing at a neutral site, the home of the Carolina Panthers, on national television, makes for an exciting matchup. Not to mention it’s Will Grier’s return in his home state. There is no doubt that it should be all Mountaineers, all night long, with the score well in hand by the fourth quarter.
Prior to two years ago, West Virginia had really failed to win a season opener against a noteworthy Power-5 team in a long time, but Skyler Howard held the team back from setting the right tone to begin the season in a 26-11 win against Missouri that wasn’t truly dominant. If West Virginia wins and wins convincingly, it can do a lot to spark this team in the right direction. But if the Mountaineers don’t dominate, the expectations for the season may go up in flames.