Key matchups: Vols’ season opener

Tennessee defensive back Shawn Shamburger reaches up to snag a ball during practice on Wednesday, August 22, 2018 at Haslam Field. (Jake Nichols/The Tennessee Journalist)

Following a tumultuous 2017 season and an even stranger offseason, the Tennessee Volunteers finally get the opportunity to reset this Saturday.

The Vols open the season in Charlotte, North Carolina against the 17th-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers.

West Virginia enters the season with a lot of momentum and even more hype, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

Senior quarterback Will Grier leads the charge for the Mountaineers. Grier, an early Heisman favorite for 2018, provides a spark for an offense already potent and loaded with talent.

Tennessee, meanwhile, enters the season with many question marks.

The Vols lost a record eight games in 2017 and, after those losses, endured a draining coaching search that ended with Jeremy Pruitt’s hiring.

Most media favor West Virginia in the contest. If Tennessee has any hope of upsetting the Mountaineers, the following key matchups will go a long way in determining the outcome:

Tennessee defensive backs vs. West Virginia passing game

West Virginia features an explosive offense with Grier at the helm, but he also has plenty of help in wide receivers David Sills and Gary Jennings.

Last season, Sills led the nation with 18 touchdown catches, while Jennings led the Mountaineers with 97 receptions for over 1,000 yards.

Tennessee, meanwhile, returns  little experience in the secondary.

Sophomore Baylen Buchanan will start at corner, alongside a freshman in either Alontae Taylor or Bryce Thompson. While Thompson and Taylor exhibit talent, whoever starts will have to step up his game early on in order to keep the Mountaineers at bay.

Tennessee run game vs. West Virginia rushing defense

One almost guaranteed way to deliver a win for Tennessee, as far as offense, involves ball control and a strong ground game.

West Virginia’s rush defense remained a weak point last year, allowing 31.5 points per game and over 200 rushing yards in each contest.

In order to capitalize on the Mountaineers’ weak link, Tennessee’s starting running back trio of Tim Jordan, Ty Chandler and Madre London will need to net many yards after contact.

Should they succeed, strong running game early in drives will open up passing lanes for the to-be-announced Vols starting quarterback.

Jeremy Pruitt vs Dana Holgorsen

Finally, the coaching matchup between Dana Holgorsen and Pruitt can play a factor. Holgorsen is a well-known commodity who had marginal success at West Virginia. While not recognized as an elite coach, he comes into the matchup with more experience, whereas Pruitt enters the game as a first-time head coach.

Pruitt boasts experience as an elite defensive coordinator. His teams won four national championships with three of those coming at Alabama under Nick Saban.

If Pruitt is the leader Tennessee fans hope he is, he should be able to at least match Holgorsen.

If not, the Vols will be in trouble.

Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 1. The game will be televised on CBS.

 

Edited by Jake Nichols and Lexie Little