For the third time in five years, the West Virginia Mountaineers open their season hunting for a win against an SEC foe. So far, the Mountaineers have split those season openers against the SEC, losing to number two Alabama in 2014 and defeating Missouri in 2016. This year, the Mountaineers face an unfamiliar foe in the Tennessee Volunteers. Notably, this is the first meeting between these two programs.
The Volunteers’ Recent Past
Knoxville has suffered a rough 12 months. Their beloved Volunteers finished the 2017 football season at 4-8, and 0-8 in SEC play. Fans would rather forget the coaching search altogether. Controversy followed their ultimate hire, Jeremy Pruitt. Over the summer, two Georgia alumni questioned whether Pruitt was fit to lead. For his part, Pruitt responded professionally to the criticism.
Regardless, the Volunteers look to bury the past and begin the climb back to relevance. That climb begins with a September 1 date with the West Virginia Mountaineers in Charlotte. And the Mountaineers can expect a fight from the Volunteers, who will be looking to prove that their 4-8 season was a fluke.
Pruitt will look to change the tone immediately. In fact, for all the question marks surrounding this team heading into the season opener, the Volunteers and their media share a singular message: while this team may lack consistency and experience in several areas, it is much, much deeper than it was a season ago. The real question facing the Volunteers, then, is how quickly that depth gels. Pruitt is also calling for increased toughness from the Volunteers.
The Volunteers’ Offense
Pruitt hired Tyson Helton to run his offense. Helton said that fans can expect to “see an offense that is an exciting offense, that is gonna pound it out, run the ball, and be a big-play offense.” Helton plans to build his pro-style offense around a power running base. Helton also plans to mix in plenty of deep throws, as he did during his tenure at Western Kentucky.
In the season opener against the Volunteers, the Mountaineers can expect to see a combination of graduate transfer Madre London from Michigan State and sophomore Ty Chandler soaking up a majority of the carries. Power back Tim Jordan may also factor into the Volunteers’ backfield. In short yardage and red-zone situations, fans should also expect Helton to deploy junior tight end Austin Pope as an h-back. Assuming the offensive line can gel, this should be a strong group for the Volunteers.
Tennessee’s best offensive playmaker, however, is junior x receiver Marquez Callaway. Last season, Callaway averaged 16.9 yards per reception and caught five of the 11 total touchdowns the Volunteers had through the air. Helton will also look for more consistency from Brandon Johnson, Jauan Jennings, and Josh Palmer. Led by Callaway, the receivers have made plays in limited opportunities. As a result, this position group should build momentum as the season carries on.
On the other hand, outside of pre-season all-conference selection Trey Smith, Tennessee has question marks across its whole offensive line. Last season, the Volunteers started 11 players at least one time. As a result, the line’s performance was poor, finishing 86th in rush success rate, 99th in adjusted line yards, and 125th in stuff rate. And, returning junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was sacked an incredible 26 times on 165 drop-backs (or nearly 16% of the time). Needless to say, Pruitt is looking for improvement from his offensive line.
Even if the offensive line can improve, however, Tennessee also faces questions at quarterback. Pruitt has not yet named a starting quarterback between Guarantano and Stanford grad transfer Keller Chryst. In fact, both are likely to see snaps in the season opener. It remains to be seen whether the unresolved competition will sharpen either quarterback or add to the consistency issues that have plagued both signal callers’ careers. If Tennessee gets consistency out of its line and out of one or both quarterbacks, then it should improve offensively almost immediately.
The Volunteers’ Defense
At first blush, Tennessee appears to be an unfavorable matchup for the Mountaineers’ pass-heavy offense, as the Volunteers ranked first in the SEC in pass defense. Tennessee, after all, gave up only 162 yards through the air on average. These statistics are skewed, however, because the Volunteers also gave up 5.4 yards per carry and 251.3 yards per game on the ground. Opposing teams ran the ball 46 times a game, accounting for 2/3 of the plays defended by Tennessee in 2017.
Simply, Tennessee’s supposed success against the pass was simply the result of smart scouting by opposing offensive coordinators. In fact, Tennessee gave up seven yards per attempt through the air, and a rating of 127.76, the latter was 61st in the nation. Given the attrition at cornerback, it is hard to predict improvement in this area.
Nonetheless, given Pruitt’s success as defensive coordinator for Florida State, Georgia, and Alabama, it is reasonable to expect the Volunteers defense as a whole to improve. That said, the Volunteers changed the base defense to a 3-4 during the offseason, and the adjustment to a new defensive base package with the limited practice time college programs receive has proven difficult for many programs in the past.
Pruitt has returning depth at several levels of the defense, particularly at linebacker. Tennessee returns two of its top four tacklers in Daniel Bituli and Quart’e Sapp. Darrin Kirkland, Jr., also returns from injury, and all three will provide solid depth at inside linebacker. Jonathan Kongbo and Darrell Taylor, both of whom are converted defensive ends, likely start the season at outside linebacker. Of this group, expect Kongbo to surprise, as he slimmed down in the offseason and appears explosive.
The Volunteers strongest returning unit from last season is safety, where Nigel Warrior and Micah Abernathy both return. Warrior is a disruptive, hard-hitting safety, and he is the best player on the Volunteers’ defense. His name will be called early and often. The Volunteers also return Todd Kelly, Jr., from injury. Freshman Trevon Flowers has also shown significant promise, lending depth to the position group. Flowers’ name has also been mentioned as possible depth at cornerback as well.
Cornerback remains the biggest question for the Tennessee defense. Shawn Shamburger is the lone key returner for this unit, though his ability to consistently make plays is unproven. Outside of Shamburger, Tennessee has Baylen Buchanan, who shows some promise as a junior. Tennessee will also rely on promising freshman Alontae Taylor, who transitioned from wide receiver during spring practice.
Meanwhile, Tennessee returns three seniors on the defensive line, in Kyle Phillips, Shy Tuttle, and Alexis Johnson. Despite the maturity, however, only one of the three starters finished in the top 11 tacklers for Tennessee last season. While the veteran group should develop consistency over the season, it is difficult to anticipate an immediate and dramatic improvement.
Despite the 4-8 2017 season, the Volunteers have had success in recruiting raw talent to play in Knoxville. Butch Jones was unable to bring these young men to play to their potential. Pruitt is inexperienced as a head coach, but his no-nonsense attitude may be what the Volunteers need to climb out from the SEC East basement. That said, the immediate expectations for the program remain low. The question marks are substantial. Pruitt’s seeming indecision at virtually every position calls to mind Jones’ biggest flaw.
Despite this, Mountaineer fans should expect to encounter a Tennessee program with a fresh outlook and a lot of desire to prove critics wrong. This is a feeling that Mountaineer fans, of course, know well. As a result, the Volunteers may keep this game closer than expected, at least through the first half. But expect the Mountaineers’ revamped defense, picked here to improve substantially this season, to provide an early and unexpectedly stiff test for the Volunteers’ power running game. And expect Will Grier to begin his season by punctuating the pre-season hype surrounding his Heisman candidacy. West Virginia wins this one 38-20, claiming its second consecutive victory in a Mountaineer season opener against SEC foes.