KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee football fans are understandably on edge with they historic “Battle at Bristol” fast approaching this week.
The preseason SEC East Division favored Vols needed a healthy dose of luck last Thursday to survive the upset bid of Sun Belt Conference member Appalachian State.
Indeed, if not for the Mountaineers missing an extra point and field goal the game might not have gotten to overtime, where Tennessee (1-0) pulled it out by falling on a fumble in the end zone for the team’s second touchdown of the night.
The Vols fell from No. 9 to No. 17 in the AP Top 25 poll as a result, and the drop would have been even farther had not a record number of Top 25 teams (seven) lost on college football’s opening week of play.
Next up is Virginia Tech (1-0), a blue-collar ACC program featuring one of the most sought-after young coaches in the nation in the form of Justin Fuente.
Here are five keys to this weeks game:
1. Josh Dobbs
Regardless of whether Dobbs had an unrevealed ailment that prevented him from running, or if Butch Jones just wanted to protect him, one thing has become clear: If Dobbs doesn’t run, he’s not an effective quarterback. Dobbs is an adequate thrower when the threat of run exists. The pressure of championship hopes and expectations should not be underestimated.
2. Tennessee offensive line
Jones suggested to media this week that this is a different team than last season, and thus to assume the Vols can run the ball as effectively might not be accurate. It’s a relatively experienced offensive line, but it was certainly not an effective one against a team it outweighed 50 pounds per man up front. Jones indicated there’s competition for playing time at each position after last Thursday’s uninspiring O-Line performance.
3. Virginia Tech hurry-up
Jones has stressed his defense will be on the field more than 80 plays, a giveaway that UT’s offense isn’t going to do anything to slow itself down and control the clock. The Hokies are only in their second game under Fuente, however, and the JUCO transfer at QB is only making his second start. The Vols have practiced for the hurry-up offense, so it remains to be seen how effective the Hokies will be.
4. Special teams
Former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer was known for excellent special teams play, and traditions like that don’t just go away. Tennessee had some of the finest special teams play in the nation last year — but like Jones said, it can’t be assumed that will carry over. Cam Sutton dropped a punt on the opening series last week that sparked Appalachian State’s upset hopes, and UT lost discipline in punt coverage resulting in a 45 yard return.
5. Handling the hype
It took Tennessee one game against a Sun Belt team to get knocked out of the Top 10, and now the Vols must handle being a 10-point favorite against an ACC team looking for a moment in the spotlight. A Virginia Tech win would put the Hokies in the Top 25 and make the nation take notice. Jones said Tennessee has to get a lot better in a hurry, and that’s no cliche.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee for SEC Country and lives in Knoxville