The last time WVU played Tennessee in football, the Mountaineers ...
Oh. Hold on. This seems hard to believe.
Yet there it is on page 183 of West Virginia’s most recent media guide. Those two schools sit but a mere 61/2 hours from each other but have never played in football. Not once since the Mountaineers began play in 1891.
WVU has played Tennessee-Chattanooga, yes. UT, no. On Sept. 1, however, the Volunteers and Mountaineers will meet in Charlotte, North Carolina, at Bank of America Stadium to open each team’s season.
So during spring drills, WVU wideout David Sills was asked if his team has studied the Vols.
He said yes. Sort of.
“We’ve watched Alabama film,” he said. “That’s where the Tennessee head coach came from.”
And indeed he’s correct. The one that departed, Butch Jones, once coached in Morgantown under Rich Rodriguez.
And the new Tennessee coach, Jeremy Pruitt, was the defensive coordinator at Alabama. In Knoxville, he’s been busy moving his team to a 3-4 defensive scheme from a 4-3 one. Meanwhile, his offensive coordinator, former USC quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton, has been switching to a pro-style attack from Jones’ spread. Helton helped develop NFL prospect Sam Darnold.
It all contributes to intrigue for West Virginia’s opener. It goes without saying both teams would love to write in a Power 5 nonconference victory on their 2018-19 resume. WVU would love to add a win over a Southeastern Conference team. Tennessee would love to add one over a Big 12 team.
West Virginia has been given 40-1 odds to win the national championship by LVSuperBook and 50-1 odds by Vegas Insider. Tennessee is down the list, probably because of its 4-8 record last season.
Keep in mind that WVU quarterback Will Grier has already played — and defeated — Tennessee as Florida’s quarterback back on Sept. 27, 2015. He completed 23 of 42 passes that day in Gainesville for 283 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Grier rallied the Gators from a 17-7 halftime deficit to a 28-27 win by hitting Antonio Galloway for a 63-yard score with 1:26 remaining.
Well, WVU should have a substantial edge with its passing attack of Grier and receivers Sills, Gary Jennings, Marcus Simms, T.J. Simmons, etc. That’s because although Tennesse technically had the nation’s third-best pass defense in 2017 (161.7), it’s because opponents didn’t need to pass. The Vols’ rushing defense was No. 126 nationally. And now, Tennessee’s starting cornerbacks and nickel back are gone. The Vols were ninth in SEC scoring defense for the third time in four years, although eight starters do return.
Of course, on the flip side, WVU’s passing defense was No. 90 last season while its rushing defense was No. 103. That’s before the Mountaineers suffered injuries and departures this spring.
What will prove most interesting, however, is how much Tennessee can take advantage of that. Although West Virginia’s defensive front is a major concern, the Volunteers’ offensive line is likewise an issue. Also, Trey Smith, just a true sophomore, but already considered one of the SEC’s top offensive guards, missed spring drills because of a medical condition.
There’s also some uncertainty concerning Tennessee’s trigger man. Yes, Jarrett Guarantano returns with a year of experience pocketed at quarterback. But the Volunteers scored graduate transfer Keller Chryst from Stanford, who appeared in 23 games for the Cardinal and had an 11-2 record as a starter, albeit with star backs Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love. Chryst lost his starting job last November to sophomore K.J. Costello.
He is, though, a pro-style QB that should fit Helton’s system. Also, Tennessee’s receiving corps is solid. The Vols, however, have to replace NFL-bound running back John Kelly, who has been compared to Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints. The coaches in Knoxville, however, do appear to like sophomore replacement Ty Chandler.
Anyway, it’s early, but it’s interesting.
And there’s only 144 days from Tuesday until game day on Sept. 1.