Tennessee knows what it needs to do to try to upset West Virginia, which enters Saturday’s matchup as a 9-point favorite against the Vols.
The Mountaineers are led by quarterback Will Grier and wide receivers Gary Jennings and David Sills V. Their presence, along with a solid group of linemen and running backs, could create major problems for Tennessee’s defense.
That’s why the Vols will try to run the football to keep their defense off the field. It’s their best bet to keep Grier and Co. from lighting up the scoreboard.
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Just look to last season. In West Virginia’s four losses that Grier started, opponents prioritized the ground game.
Virginia Tech, TCU, Oklahoma State and Texas all found success on the ground, running the ball an average of 44 times per game against the Mountaineers, who ranked 104th in the nation in rush defense.
Run the ball, control the clock and keep West Virginia’s offense off the field.
But can Tennessee pull that off? The Vols’ rushing offense ranked 113th in the nation last season, which means it will have to be a lot better if it wants to run well against the Mountaineers.
Tennessee’s offensive line, which returns only two starters, has to show it has enough strength and is ready to be more physical to make a difference up front, too.
The unit’s performance during fall practice indicates that the Vols are headed in the right direction. Following Tennessee’s team scrimmage on Aug. 18, coach Jeremy Pruitt said the offensive line “kind of dominated.”
That could cause concern for Tennessee’s defensive front, but it also indicates progress on offense. Plus, the Vols have a group of tight ends/H-backs to help block for their runners.
But that doesn’t mean it will be enough to outscore West Virginia.
The Mountaineers will have a chance to take advantage of a Tennessee secondary that will likely start at least one true freshman at cornerback and could play as many as three true freshmen at a time. Against a veteran group of receivers, that has to be a concern for Pruitt.
Tennessee’s defense also has to show it can get after Grier to make him uncomfortable. The Vols will try to disguise their defense to confuse Grier, and they’d love to pressure him and knock him to the ground.
“There’s nothing better than a good old-fashioned lick, either,” Pruitt said on his coaches show this week. “If you hit ’em a couple times, they seem to start watching the rush.”
Keep an eye on West Virginia’s run game, too. While the Mountaineers’ passing attack is getting a lot of attention (and deservedly so), they will try to run the ball against Tennessee to see if the Vols have enough depth in the front seven to hold up the entire game.
Here were there rushing outputs in four big games with Grier last year:
The pressure is on West Virginia, which enters the season as a popular dark horse to win the Big 12 and compete for a College Football Playoff spot. Let’s see if the Mountaineers are ready for the spotlight.
Final prediction: West Virginia wins the game, but Tennessee makes it interesting for four quarters. That makes the Vols +9 look like a good option.