The Vols-Pack matchup in the Chic-fil-a Kickoff Classic has a chance to become the most hyped game in the history of the gridiron (at least here at BTP). Recruiting and UNC scandal news trickles in, but baseball season is over and basketball season is a long ways off, so that means Vols-Pack all the time here on BTP. There are 70+ days until kickoff. I'm not promising 70+ previews, but there's a good chance you will know the Vols' backup placekicker like he is your brother by the time August 31st rolls around.
Steven dipped our toes into the pool recently with a link from Nooga.com that previews key matchups in the contest, but I think that's jumping the gun. Before we plunge ahead into the day-tight compartments of unit matchups, we should look back at the season that was for Derek Dooley and the Vols.
Last season was a season to forget for Tennessee, but it started well enough. The Vols thumped Montana, Cincinnati, and Buffalo en route to a 3-1 start. All the normal caveats about the reliability of comparing like opponents to make predictions apply, but the 45-23 romp over the Bearcats should be particularly disconcerting for State fans, as the Pack was pummeled by Cincy 44-14 in massive nationally televised letdown style. So, the Vols will win by 50. See you August 31st for the drunken cussing liveblog.
Or maybe not. UT's 3-1 start included a loss in the swamp in a reasonably close game. No shame in that. But the wheels came off in the Vols' 5th game of the season (or rather quarterback Tyler Bray's thumb was broken), and the Vols were embarrassed by the upper echelon of the SEC without Bray, losing 20-12 to Georgia in the game he was injured in, 38-7 to LSU, 37-6 to Alabama, 14-3 to the Ol' Ball Coach's Cocks, and 49-7 to road humpin' Bobby Petrino's Razorbacks. By the time its QB returned, UT was 4-6. The Vols won exactly one game in the SEC, and that win, against perennial cellar dweller Vanderbilt, took overtime. In the season finale, Bray couldn't rally the troops against a Kentucky team that was relegated to starting a wide receiver at quarterback. The 10-7 defeat broke a 26-game winning streak for UT against its border rival and put an exclamation point on a dismal season that put Dooley squarely on the hot seat after a 5-7 campaign.
So examining last season's UT club tells us one thing for certain: without Bray, UT is awful. The Vols averaged 28.1 points per game in games Bray started, but just 9.4 while he was on the shelf. I'm not suggesting the Pack put a Big Easy-style bounty on Bray, but knock him out of the game and your chances of victory increase exponentially. Of course even with Bray's talents-he completed 60% of his passes and tossed 17 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions-UT would have likely struggled against the meat of its schedule.
Offensively, the Vols and Pack seem to have a lot in common. Both rely on an excellent quarterback, but, like State, part of UT's struggles derive from a near total inability to matriculate the ball down the field via the running game. With 90 yards rushing per game, UT finished 116th of 120 teams in rushing offense, and it averaged less than 3 yards per rush on the season. Those numbers make State's 109th ranking and 105 yards per game seem like military academy numbers. I think we can safely assume that both teams will air it out on August 31st.
Mike Glennon should have plenty of time to throw, but don't expect him to make very many big plays down the field. If UT had a strength last year, it was a defense that ranked 36th in points allowed despite facing a top 25 schedule, having an offense that could not sustain drives, and an anemic pass rush. The Vols' generated just 15 sacks to rank 109th among FBS clubs. In contrast, the blitz-happy Pack tallied 40, good for 9th in all the land. It's certainly a contrast of styles, but despite their inability to pressure opponents, UT was successful on defense thanks to a bend-but-don't-break approach. Only 11 BCS teams were stingier at preventing plays of 10+ yards than the Vols.
This game should be a great barometer for both teams. Can the Vols, a team with SEC talent thanks to a 1.5 million dollar recruiting budget, get SEC results and save their coach's hide, or will the Pack start their season on the right foot for once en route to a top 25 finish and a run at an ACC title? We only have to wait 77 days and a few hours (as of this writing; see the countdown on the right sidebar of the front page for exact waiting time) to find out!