KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s upcoming game against Virginia Tech presents an intriguing matchup, and not just because the teams are playing at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The No. 17-ranked Vols (1-0) kick off against the Hokies (1-0) at 8 p.m. in the “Battle at Bristol” with a record crowd of some 150,000 expected to be on hand.
But beyond the game’s hype and unique environment, there are unknowns at the quarterback position for each team.
Tennessee senior captain Josh Dobbs is coming off one of the worst performances of his career in the Vols’ 20-13 overtime win against three-touchdown underdog Appalachian State.
Virginia Tech, meanwhile, is being led by junior college transfer Jerod Evans. Evans, like Dobbs, is a dual-threat quarterback.
It would be hard to project how either will do in Saturday night’s environment.
Andy Bitter of the Roanoke Times has covered Virginia Tech for five years, and SEC Country caught up with him for a question-and-answer session on Saturday’s game.
Here’s what Andy had to say:
1. Can you give us your take on Virginia Tech’s season-opening 36-13 win over FCS-school Liberty?
AB: Virginia Tech didn’t look like a well-oiled machine offensively, but they came around. I think there were some first-game, jitters, just not quite clicking. But they got it going in the pass game. I don’t know if the run game was that sharp. But the pass game kind of jump-started it.
(Liberty’s) defensive line was ok, and I think they really stacked the box, and finally they started throwing up the jump balls. It was Liberty going all out and stopping the run. Virginia Tech would prefer to run it, but there just weren’t lanes there. I think the big thing offensively was to get a game with this system under their belt. It’s a brand-new offense with a new coach. Evans was making his first FBS start; there was a lot of uncertainty.
Defensively, they played really well, only gave up 160 yards, no big plays. Liberty scored 13 points, but one was on a 10-yard field after a fumble.
2. What’s unique about the Virginia Tech offense?
AB: I think eventually the tempo and the speed. That will be the biggest difference from what they were doing before. I don’t know that they got it cranked up against Liberty. It’s kind of a different mindset, how fast they want to go, a lot more receivers. There’s not really a fullback position anymore; it’s more of a H-back. After three decades of Frank Beamer and pro style, it’s a radical change.
3.What’s unique about the Hokies’ defense?
AB: They had some turnover in the offseason on the defensive coaching staff. Torrian Gray, the defensive backs coach, went to Florida, and they brought in Brian Mitchell to coach cornerbacks. Galen Scott is doing safeties and outside linebackers.
One of the things they were talking about was playing more zone and getting more eyes on the ball. Last year, they were so young, and it was so predictable what they were doing on defense that offenses picked them apart. I think they are back to trying to do more stuff to confuse people, bringing more blitzes. They had 10 picks all of last year, and three on Saturday. They hadn’t had a three-interception game since they upset Ohio State a couple of years ago. They looked like they were creating more disruption than in the past.
4. What are the keys to the game for Virginia Tech?
AB: I think defensively it will be to create the pressure that App State did. I was not impressed with Tennessee’s offensive line. This is more of a no-name group for Virginia Tech on the defensive line, but they can achieve more. They have good tackle depth and good ends, and they can create some pressure and problems for teams up front. If they can create the pressure, it negates what Tennessee likes to to with its skill players. The whole key is to rattle (Josh) Dobbs and force him into mistakes, and when Virginia Tech has been good, that’s what they’ve done.
5. Is there a “Battle at Bristol” mentality around Virginia Tech?
AB: “I think maybe it’s not as much as the fan base, but there’s something about playing Tennessee. They never play them, and it’s that Tennessee doesn’t want to play them. These schools are so close, but they never play. It may be an SEC attitude they’d rather play Oregon or Oklahoma, and they don’t want to deal with a middling ACC team.
But it’s not like it’s West Virginia — this fan base really hates them — but they’ll get up for Tennessee quite a bit. I’m not sure how much of it transfers to the players. A good majority is from inside the state, but mostly East Virginia, the D.C. area. The spectacle of the game should be great.”