8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Tennessee -3, Over/Under: 55
Old Southeastern Conference rivals looking to break in fresh, young Quarterbacks meet in the College Football Kickoff Finale at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, as the twenty-fifth-ranked Tennessee Volunteers battle the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. It’s been a while since these two programs met on the grid iron, with their last encounter taking place back in 1987 (a 29-15 Tennessee victory), and the Vols hold a 24-17-2 advantage in the all-time series. And if that wasn’t enough for you, former Tech Head Coach Bobby Dodd (whom the Yellow Jackets’ Home Field is named after) was a former Quarterback at Tennessee, further tying together their histories. Recent history though, at least for the Volunteers is one of unrest, for Butch Jones has quietly approached the fringes of the Hot Seat after back-to-back 9-4 seasons. Granted, that statement may seem outrageous, particularly given the fact that before Jones arrived in Knoxville, the Program hadn’t enjoyed as many as nine wins in a campaign since 2007. However, expectations for the SEC blue bloods are always (and often unfairly) sky-high, with the Fan Base desperate to get back into the National Championship conversation, which Jones’ charges haven’t quite reached yet. 2016 was a case in which a 9-4 record (concluded with a 38-24 victory over Nebraska in the Outback) may look solid to the naked eye, but the devil is always in the details; despite getting off to an inspiring 5-0 start, Tennessee went through a dismal stretch in which they lost three consecutive outings, while losing to unranked Vanderbilt in the Finale, the third time they’ve lost to their instate rivals in the last five years. Needless to say, that just won’t do. And it’s with that said that there is a very high probability that they won’t reach that threshold in 2017, as the productive and successful Joshua Dobbs (3,781 Total YDS, 39 TD) has taken his talents to the NFL (Fourth Round Pick to Pittsburgh), leaving Jones with a decision to make under Center. Throughout Training Camp the competition has centered around the likes of Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano, with the former being a Junior Pocket Passer and the latter being a more athletic, mobile playmaker. Look for both Quarterbacks to get an opportunity during tonight’s contest. With such uncertainty at the game’s most important position, look for the Offense to be firmly centered around the Running Game, where Jones will have to replace yet another Draft Pick, Alvin Kamara (988 Total YDS, 13 TD), whose versatility was major component of the Vols’ attack. Luckily, there is an experienced hand waiting to stand up as Junior tailback John Kelly appears read to carry the load, having rushed for 630 Yards and five Touchdowns on an impressive 6.4 Yards per Carry in limited opportunities. There also needs to be significant strides made on Defense, where despite sending four starters to the NFL this past Spring, still allowed a middling 28.8 Points per Game (70th Overall) on a disappointing 449.2 Total Yards, including 218.5 against the Run. First Round Pick Derek Barnett and his thirteen Sacks are no longer in Knoxville, leaving Jones to look to the likes of Senior Safety Toddy Kelly to lead the unit. The veteran Defensive Back has been very productive throughout his career, reeling in eight interceptions in three seasons, while leading the Volunteers in Tackles (seventy-one) and Interceptions (two) a year ago.
Meanwhile, Georgia Tech finds themselves in a very similar situation, as Paul Johnson and his Staff face the prospect of replacing a number of pieces on both sides of the ball, none more important than Quarterback. Like Tennessee, Tech was 9-4 in 2016, but that particularly record carried a very different connotation than that of their counterpart tonight; after going a miserable 3-9 the season prior, the Yellow Jackets overcame a three-game losing streak of their own to win six of their final seven contests, including upsets over Virginia Tech (30-20) and instate rival Georgia (28-27), before knocking off Kentucky (33-18) in the Taxslayer Bowl. Indeed, 9-4 carried a certain promise into 2017, but as we stated already, this Program must do so without the presence of a number of key contributors, chief among them Quarterback Justin Thomas (2,163 Total YDS, 12 TD) and Tailback Dedrick Mills (771 YDS, 12 TD). Thomas was everything Johnson could have asked for, providing a steady hand is steering Georgia Tech’s Option-centric Offense; the vested Signal-Caller missed just one start in his four-year career, going 22-16, with forty Touchdowns and eighteen Interceptions. At the time of this Post, the wily Head Coach has yet to name a new Starting Quarterback, with as many as four different contenders vying for the position. Matthew Jordan may appear to be the front-runner, seeing as how the Junior fits the mold of an Option QB, and started in place of Thomas in last year’s victory over the Hokies. However, TaQuon Marshall took the majority of the Starting Reps during the Spring while Jordan was nursing an injured foot, with Redshirt Freshmen Lucas Johnson and Jay Jones also in the mix. Whomever Johnson calls upon, it may well be until Kickoff before we discern whom that may be. As for replacing Mills, who was dismissed from the Program for a violation of Athletic Department Regulations, finding the next Bell Cow in the backfield shouldn’t be to difficult. After all, Mills did miss four games in 2016 due to suspension, and in this kind of Offense there are plenty of carries to go around. Look for KirVontae Benson and Jerry Howard to collectively fill the void, with both Tailbacks brining a different dimension from their predecessor, possessing game-breaking speed, which could spell trouble for a Tennessee Defense in the process of rebuilding.