KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Butch Jones promised last week that “first games are games of the unknown,” but it’s a pretty safe bet Tennessee fans are still not sure what to make of this season’s Vols.
Tennessee brings a 1-0 record and the No. 17 ranking in the nation into Bristol Motor Speedway for its 8 p.m. kickoff against Virginia Tech (1-0) on Saturday night.
The Hokies, with first-year head coach Justin Fuentes, also have some unknowns.
Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans is a junior college transfer who beat FCS Liberty last week, 36-13, but only after some early struggles.
As if the game didn’t hold enough mystery, a record crowd of some 150,000 will be on hand as the “Battle at Bristol” will be the first football game played on the inside of the NASCAR track.
Here’s how the teams match up, by position:
Virginia Tech: Jerod Evans is a 6-foot-3, 238-pound dual threat quarterback that Fuentes was originally recruiting to Memphis. Evans moves well and is coming off a four-TD performance — the first for a Hokies QB since 2004. Evans also had two fumbles in the game.
Tennessee: Josh Dobbs also had two fumbles last week, but unlike Evans, Dobbs struggled to throw the football and did not exhibit his ability to run the football. Rumors swirled the UT senior captain might be injury, but coaches have said he’s “100 percent healthy.”
Virginia Tech: Sam Rogers (5-11, 230) is the starter at tailback after playing fullback last season, but Travon McMillian had the most carries last week (13). Virginia Tech looks to split the carries up, and Fuentes’ history is to spread the ball around.
Tennessee: Jalen Hurd got plenty of carries last week, but he was unable to break a run longer than 13 yards on his 23 carries or average 4 yards per carry. Jones has said he’ll go with the hot hand this week, and the plan is to give Alvin Kamara more than the six carries he had last week.
Virginia Tech: Isaiah Ford might be the best receiver in school history, having set the single-season record for catches, yards and TDs last season. He’s had more than 500 yards receiving between the past three games. Bucky Hodges is a tough matchup at 6-7, 245, and Cam Phillips has been a proven No. 2 target.
Tennessee: Sophomore Present Williams had five catches for 45 yards in the first half last week but none in the second half, while Josh Malone had to wait until the second half to get his first catch. Josh Smith and Tyler Byrd could be more active out of the slot this week.
Edge: Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech: The Hokies returned four starters, including their best, left guard Wyatt Teller. Teller surprisingly didn’t start, but once he came in the team moved the ball and scored TDs on the first two drives he was in on. Yosuah Nizam is a first-year starter at left tackle. This group has had four offensive line coaches the past five years.
Tennessee: The most disappointing unit on the team in the opener, and the Vols’ coach have not denied it, saying all week they need more consistency up front. Center Coleman Thomas had a heavily-wrapped ankle, perhaps explaining his poor performance. But none of the linemen played particularly well in the 20-13 OT win over Appalachian State.
Edge: Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech: Ken Ekanem is a two-year starter at defensive end, and nose tackle Woody Burton (6-2, 280) has been solid up front. defensive tackle Nigel Williams has been the most vulnerable and could be pushed by Ricky Walker for snaps. Tim Settle (6-3, 328) is a big-bodied backup who will see playing time.
Tennessee: Teams have a plan for end Derek Barnett, but that should only be more tackles for interior linemen Danny O’Brien and Kendal Vickers. Junior college transfer Jonathan Kongbo could start if he moves inside. Senior LaTroy Lewis was a surprise starter over Corey Vereen last week at the other end.
Virginia Tech: Outside linebacker Mook Reynolds is only 6-0, 183, which is a telltale sign the Hokies’ 4-3 is really more of a 4-2-5. Tremaine Edmunds is a 6-5, 236 athletic specimen that Virginia Tech likes to get creative with. Middle linebacker Andrew Moutuapuaka needs to be more assignment sound.
Tennessee: The Vols didn’t seem to have the same energy once Jalen Reeves-Maybin was ejected for targeting. Darrin Kirkland Jr. missed a gap on a long run that led to App State’s first touchdown. Cortez McDowell played well in spurts.
Virginia Tech: Brandon Facyson (6-2, 197) is the Hokies top cornerback, having overcome knee and ankle issues in his career. Greg Stroman cemented his starting job with two interceptions at the other corner next week. Free safety Chuck Clark is the veteran in the secondary. Adonis Alexander is expected back after being suspended for the opening game.
Tennessee: Cam Sutton could be challenged by Isaiah Ford, but he’s the Vols’ best. Justin Martin was a quick sub in for Emmanuel Mosely last week. Micah Abernathy is coming off the best game in his career, and Todd Kelly Jr. is due a big outing.
Virginia Tech: Joey Slye is a reliable kicker, but he’s stilling looking for his first 50-yar make. Mitchell Ludwig is not as solid punting the ball, based on his shaky performance last week. Stroman has home run ability running back punts and kicks.
Tennessee: Kicker Aaron Medley and punter Trevor Daniel were very strong, but the punt cover team was not disciplined and allowed a 40-yard plus return, and Sutton inexplicably muffed a punt, leading to Appalachian State’s opening score.
Virginia Tech’s offense can do enough different things to get a couple of touchdowns on the board. This game comes down to Tennessee’s offense finding itself, and that starts with the offensive line and the run game. Josh Dobbs is not a good enough thrower to beat quality teams by exclusively passing the football.