The Tennessee Vols will open the season against the West Virginia Mountaineers on September 1 at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Vols have won nine straight openers dating to a 27-24 overtime loss at UCLA in 2008. This will make the first meeting of Tennessee and West Virginia as well as Jeremy Pruitts’ first game as the Vols head coach.
In the 2017 opener at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Vols narrowly came out with a win over Georgia Tech just beating the Yellow Jackets by one point in double overtime. Bob Shoop’s defense gave up 655 yards of total offense, with 535 being rushing yards. The Vols came out of that game with just 369 total yards of offense. If Tennessee wants to leave Charlotte with a win, the defense will have to play a key factor against West Virginia.
This will likely be Jeremy Pruitt’s most important game of the 2018 season and by the end of the forth quarter we will know where the new coaching staff stands with rebuilding the Vols football program. As of now there are a ton of unknowns and it will be a tough test for the Vols to stop the No. 1 quarterback in the nation as well as their all-american receiver core.
Breaking down West Virginia
West Virginia quarterback Will Grier thrived under Dana Holgersen in his first season, throwing for 3,490 yards, 34 touchdown’s and 12 interceptions. Before breaking his finger in week 12 against Texas, Grier was second nationally in passing touchdowns and third nationally in passing yards in the 2017 season in eleven appearances. Tennessee fans may remember Grier from the 2015 Florida game when he hit a game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter against the Vols.
Also returning for the Mountaineers are receivers David Sills and Gary Jennings. The offensive line returns four starters, including both tackles, and talented Running back Kennedy McKoy who ran 125 times for 576 yards. If Jeremy Pruitt has a chance at winning this game he will have to play deep coverage and force West Virginia to run the ball.
Defense has to play big
Having to run this type of defense will hit on the Vols most vulnerable points. Having young and unexpereinced players at cornerback and the fact that Tennessee had a terrible time stopping the run in the 2017 season giving up over 3,000 yards rushing and being ranked at No. 125 for most rushing allowed per game at 5.43 yards per rush. If the Mountaineers have improved their rushing game this off-season it could get ugly quick for Tennessee.
The defensive front will definitely have to improve. The Vols were not working with much up front with most of their sacks in the 2017 season coming from the linebacker core. Only 27.5, out of 64.5 sacks came from the D-line. If Pruitt can create a strong D-line the defense has potential to be much more prominent. On the plus side the Vols have alot of experience returning on the D-line in seniors Jonathon Kongbo, Kyle Phillips, Shy Tuttle and Alexis Johnson.
Pruitt will be switching to a 3-4 defense that will put more emphasis on linebacker play. Darrin Kirkland Jr. will be returning from knee surgery and will be looking for a bounce back season. Daniel Bituli should be counted on to have another outstanding year. In 2017, he was the Vols leading tackler with 90 tackles (44 solo) including 3 tackles for loss.
The schedule doesn’t get any easier after the opener. With a conference stretch of Florida, Georgia, Auburn, Alabama and South Carolina which is tough for any SEC team. Tennessee’s first game will be a tell all as to how this rebuilding season will go for Jeremy Pruitt.
Offense will surprise you
I believe we will see a complete turnaround on offense with more explosive plays. Offensive line coach Will Friend has done well with the offensive line thus far. It should be one of the most improved position units on the field.
“I think fans will see a group of guys that will play hard, are going to know what to do, give their all for Tennessee, will compete every snap, every game for four quarters.”
The Vols have also added grad transfer center Brandon Kennedy from Alabama and JUCO offensive tackle Jahmir Johnson. If the offensive line can stay healthy, it should allow for the receiver core to shine. Ty Chandler could benefit as well, leading to a breakout season. The Vols will be adding JUCO tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson who will also be a key component to offensive play.
The Vols are projected to be a seven point underdog. I really do not know how to give a prediction on this game with so many unknowns. I’m going to say Tennessee will be trailing at the half 14-7. However, I see them coming back in the second half to win it in overtime by a field goal. If the coaching staff can make in-game adjustments, you will be looking at a totally different team. My prediction, Vols over WV 31-28. Remember, these guys are hungry and will be playing with a chip on their shoulders.