Virginia Tech Football: The Battle at Bristol
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Virginia Tech will face the Tennessee Volunteers in the first big game of the Justin Fuente era on Saturday night in the Battle at Bristol. Both of these programs used to be among the best on the east coast, but in recent seasons they haven’t seen as much success.
The last four years of the Frank Beamer era did not go particularly well for the Hokies, coming off eight straight ten-win seasons:
Tech’s offense slipped (even further), recruiting fell off, and the program was stagnant. Tennessee has been even worse since 2008 before finally getting back on the right track last season:
This season was supposed to be the breakout year for Butch Jones’ program, but the Volunteers stumbled out of the gate against Appalachian State. They struggled offensively for the entire game before narrowly pulling it out in overtime when tailback Jalen Hurd fell on a Joshua Dobbs fumble in the end zone.
Tennessee has recruited well under Jones. From 2013-2016, the Vols classes were ranked #24, #7, #4, and #14 per 247Sports’ Composite Rankings, and Volunteer fans feel as if their team should win the SEC East this season. But how much have they really improved since last season? They should have a better idea after Saturday night’s game against the Hokies.
Likewise, Virginia Tech didn’t exactly set the offensive world on fire on Saturday against the Liberty Flames. Things went a lot better with Wyatt Teller in the game at left guard, but overall that wasn’t an inspiring blocking performance. However, it was also the first game of a brand new system, so you have to take that into account.
I thought both teams were pretty vanilla in their season opener. Both teams have a mobile quarterback, yet neither broke out much read option, if any. In fact, I don’t think Tech ran the read option a single time on Saturday, and from what Jerod Evans told the media on Tuesday, the Hokies are installing a lot more plays into this week’s game plan.
We’re only heading into the second week of the season, so we’re still learning about the Hokies, as well as their competition. Let’s take a closer look at the Tennessee Volunteers.
(Note: I apologize in advance if I got the years wrong for Tennessee players. The Tennessee game notes and their roster page are extremely different at times. For example, the game notes list defensive end Derek Barnett as a true freshman when he is actually a junior and returning starter.)
Joshua Dobbs and the Passing Game
Quarterback Joshua Dobbs (6-3, 210, Sr.) put up solid numbers for Tennessee last season.
Passing: 205-of-344 (59.6%), 2,291 yards, 15 touchdowns, 5 interceptions
Rushing: 146 carries, 671 yards, 4.6 ypc, 11 touchdowns
He is a dual-threat quarterback who proved to be very difficult to defend at times, and he was expected to have a good season heading into his senior year. However, he got off to a rough start against Appalachian State last week…
Passing: 16-of-29 (55.2%), 192 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: 9 carries, -4 yards, -0.4 ypc
Of his 16 completions against the Mountaineers, 12 were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Outside of the 67 yard touchdown strike to Josh Malone, he averaged only 4.5 yards per attempt on Thursday. That’s not good. He’s struggled to complete passes down the field during his entire career…that’s not just a one game thing. In 2015, Dobbs was just 2-of-16 on passes of more than 27 yards.
The term “student athlete” probably gets thrown around a little too much at some schools, but in the case of Joshua Dobbs, it’s a perfect description. He manages to balance being a Power 5 starting quarterback with the life of an Aerospace Engineering major. That’s hard to do, and you’ve got to tip your cap. It’s a shame that not more guys are like him. That said, he won’t be interviewing with Boeing on Saturday night. He’ll be facing an entirely different type of test: Bud Foster.
It’s going to be interesting to see what Foster dials up against a quarterback that has shown the limitations through the air that Dobbs has displayed. I’m not particularly scared of him when it comes to the passing game, but he does scare me in the running game (more on that later).
Josh Malone (6-3, 200, Jr.) is Tennessee’s most experienced returning receiver. He caught 31 passes for 405 yards and two touchdowns a year ago, and he was responsible for his team’s only big play through the air against Appalachian State. The rest of the Volunteer wide receiver corps is either inexperienced or not particularly impressive.
Josh Smith (6-1, 213, r-Jr.): Smith will line up in the slot quite a bit. He caught 23 passes last season and has 45 career receptions, though he was shut out against Appalachian State.
Preston Williams (6-4, 209, So.): Williams only caught seven passes last season as a true freshman, but he led the team with five receptions last week.
Jauan Jennings (6-3, 205, So.): Jennings caught 14 passes and started six games as a true freshman in 2015. He was a quarterback in high school, so he’s still very raw as a receiver.
Other wideouts who are expected to see time are Tyler Byrd (6-0, 195, Fr.) and Marquez Callaway (6-2, 190, Fr.). They didn’t catch any passes against Appalachian State. In fact, only three wideouts caught passes against the Mountaineers.
Tech has to be wary of tight end Ethan Wolf (6-6, 245, Jr.). He caught four passes in Tennessee’s opener, and he might be their steadiest and most dependable player on the offensive side of the ball.
Hurd and Kamara
Tennessee has two very capable running backs. Jalen Hurd (6-4, 240, Jr.) is a big tailback, and he gets help from former JUCO back Alvin Kamara (5-10, 215, r-Jr.). They put up big numbers for the Vols last season.
Hurd: 277 carries, 1,288 yards, 4.6 ypc, 12 touchdowns
Kamara: 107 carries, 698 yards, 6.5 ypc, 7 touchdowns
Total: 384 carries, 1,986, 5.2 ypc, 19 touchdowns
People like to talk about Joshua Dobbs, and his running is certainly an excellent complement to the regular running game, but the key to beating Tennessee is slowing down Hurd and Kamara. If the Hokies can slow down or stop those two guys, then it’s unlikely Dobbs can win the game by himself. The Vols would have to take down the Hokies using defense and special teams in that scenario.
The Offensive Line
Here’s a look at Tennessee’s starting offensive line…
LT Drew Richmond (6-5, 301, r-Fr.): Richmond will make his second career start against the Hokies. He’ll face off against r-senior Ken Ekanem, who has 25 tackles for loss and 15 sacks in his career. That’s a matchup to watch.
LG Jashon Robertson (6-3, 305, Jr.): Robertson started 10 games a year ago before being injured. He was a freshman All-American in 2014, and he was named a preseason First Team All-SEC player in August.
C Coleman Thomas (6-5, 301, Jr.): Thomas has played and started at both center and right tackle during his Tennessee career.
RG Dylan Wiesman (6-4, 310, Sr.): Wiesman was a full-time starter for the first time in 2015. He’s the only senior on the starting offensive line, and he has experience at both guard spots. He would slide inside to center if something happened to Coleman Thomas.
RT Brett Kendrick (6-6, 318, r-Jr.): Kendrick started five games a year ago before suffering knee and elbow injuries.
Probably the most disappointing part of Tennessee’s win over Appalachian State was the performance of their offensive line. They didn’t get a lot of push, and at times Mountaineer defensive linemen were splitting double teams to get to Joshua Dobbs, showing more “want-to” than Volunteer offensive linemen in the process. I’m sure their pride has been challenged on the practice field and in the film room this week, so it will be interesting to see how they perform on Saturday night.
The Tennessee Defense Is Very Good
What scares me the most about this game is the Tennessee defense. This unit is big, athletic, tough and experienced. They finished #18 nationally in S&P+ defensive efficiency last season, and they could be even better in 2016.
Left defensive ends LaTroy Lewis (6-4, 256, r-Sr.) and Corey Vereen (6-2, 249, Sr.) have a lot of experience. Lewis is the starter, but Vereen ended last season with 8.5 TFL and three sacks in his final eight games.
Right defensive end Derek Barnett (6-3, 265, Fr.) is an excellent football player. Here’s what he’s done over the last two seasons…
2014: 20.5 TFL, 10 sacks
2015: 12.5 TFL, 10 sacks
Total: 33 TFL, 20 sacks
It doesn’t get much better than that. He’ll be a high draft pick whenever he decides to enter the NFL Draft. He’ll be going head to head with Yosuah Nijman, who is physically gifted in his own right, so that’s another interesting matchup to watch.
Kendal Vickers (6-3, 295, r-Jr.) and Danny O’Brien (6-2, 301, r-Sr.) start at defensive tackle. They aren’t huge playmakers in terms of tackles for loss, but they’ve gotten the job done. Tennessee’s most talented defensive tackles are the backups. Shy Tuttle (6-2, 311, So.) and Kahlil McKenzie (6-3, 325, So.) were both top 50 recruits, and in McKenzie’s case a consensus 5-star prospect.
It’s easy to worry about the interior of Virginia Tech’s offensive line against a talented and experienced group of defensive tackles. I would not worry about Wyatt Teller at all, but if he’s still in the doghouse, we don’t even know how many snaps he’s going to play on Saturday night. If the Hokies want to run the ball against Tennessee, they’ll probably have to find a different spot.
Moving to the linebackers, Darrin Kirkland, Jr. (6-1, 230, So.) was a Freshman All-SEC performer last season. His 66 tackles were the fourth-most in school history by a freshman. He’ll man the middle linebacker position against the Hokies, with Jalen Reeves-Maybin (6-0, 230, Sr.) at the weakside spot. Reeves-Maybin made a total of 206 tackles over the last two seasons, and he’s an excellent player. He also had 14 tackles for loss and six sacks in 2015. The Hokies will have to account for him on Saturday night.
Cameron Sutton (5-11, 186, Sr.) is an All-American cornerback who has started every game of his career. While Tennessee is known for recruiting highly-touted prospects with big offer lists, Sutton’s recruiting rankings were modest…
3-star by Rivals and Scout (#40 CB)
3-star by 247 (#27 ATH)
3-star by ESPN (#65 WR)
Three different publications listed him at three different positions, and they all agreed that he was a 3-star prospect. As we know, scouting is an inexact science. No matter where he was ranked then, Sutton is most certainly a 5-star prospect now, and he leads a secondary that will present the Hokies with one of their biggest challenges of the season.
RC: Emmanuel Moseley (5-10, 180, Jr.): 10 career starts
NK: Malik Foreman (5-10, 190, Sr.): 11 career starts
SS: Todd Kelly, Jr. (5-11, 208, Jr.): 6 career starts
FS: Micah Abernathy (6-0, 195, So.): 1 career start
Abernathy is the least experienced player, having seen time at nickel and free safety during his short career. This is a solid group, though there are no stars other than Sutton. They’ll present a tough test for the Hokies, and though we know that Isaiah Ford, Bucky Hodges and Cam Phillips are capable of responding, how will the younger Tech receivers fare, and how will quarterback Jerod Evans handle things against his first Power 5 opponent?
Junior placekicker Aaron Medley went 21-of-31 last season, but overall he’s made 16 of his last 18 attempts. He’s a veteran, though I would give the field goal kicking advantage to Virginia Tech’s Joey Slye.
Punter Trevor Daniel was eighth in the NCAA in punting average (45.7) last season, and had a whopping 22 punts of over 50 yards. The Vols have a big advantage here over Tech’s Mitchell Ludwig, who looked shaky in his first career start against Liberty.
Tennessee kick returner Evan Berry led the nation in kick return average last season, but Tech can take him out of the game if Joey Slye continues to put every single kick out of the back of the end zone. As good as Berry is, he can be neutralized by Slye’s strong leg.
Cameron Sutton ranked fourth nationally in punt return average last year, and for his career he is averaging 16 yards per return. The good thing is that all of Ludwig’s punts were not returnable last week, either because they were boomed inside the five or because they were kicked so short. I’m not sure what to expect out of him on Saturday night.
I think this will be a lower scoring game than most people expected before the season began, so special teams will be very important. Every hidden yard will matter.
I believe it was around 1999 the first time I ever heard the mention of a possible game between Virginia Tech and Tennessee at the Bristol Motor Speedway. When I went to a race there in 2006, I became convinced that a game could be played there, though it wouldn’t exactly be viewer friendly unless you’re watching the game on TV. Finally, the game is happening on Saturday night.
In a way, this game is 10 to 15 years too late. Here are the final AP ranking of Tech and Tennessee for each year from 1999 to 2007:
1999: Virginia Tech #3, Tennessee #9
2000: Virginia Tech #6, Tennessee #25
2001: Virginia Tech #18, Tennessee #4
2002: Virginia Tech #14, Tennessee NR
2003: Virginia Tech NR, Tennessee #16
2004: Virginia Tech #10, Tennessee #15
2005: Virginia Tech #7, Tennessee NR
2006: Virginia Tech #18, Tennessee #23
2007: Virginia Tech #9, Tennessee #12
It’s a shame the game wasn’t played in 2000, 2001, 2004…somewhere around that period. With the way Tennessee played last week against Appalachian State, and the fact that neither team has played its best football over the last four seasons, I’m not so sure a better name for this game isn’t “The Skirmish at Bristol.” I’m not sure either team has done enough in recent years to be entered into a full-fledged battle.
Nevertheless, here we are. Better late than never. And though this game isn’t quite as big as it could have been had it been played ten years ago, it’s still pretty darn big. A victory for the Hokies could potentially be huge, though exactly how big it would be would depend on how the rest of the season turns out.
As I said earlier, I think this game is going to be lower scoring than most people would have predicted before the season. The Tennessee defense is very good, the Virginia Tech secondary is a lot better than it was a year ago, and both offenses have their limitations. I would not be shocked if the first team to 20 points won on Saturday night.
I think Tech can hang in there and potentially win the game, but I’m not going to pick them. Just look at their record in regular season neutral site games since 2004…
2004: USC in DC, Loss
2008: ECU in Charlotte, Loss
2009: Alabama in Atlanta, Loss
2010: Boise State in DC, Loss
2012: Cincinnati in DC, Loss
2013: Alabama in Atlanta, Loss
If I left any out, I apologize. I’ve tried to block them all from my memory.
Tech hasn’t been able to win any of these games in the past, so until they win one, I can’t in good conscience pick them to win on Saturday. I do think the Hokies will play a good game, and I wouldn’t be shocked at all if Bud Foster and Justin Fuente outcoached the Tennessee opposites. But Butch Jones has had four years to recruit, install his system, and build his roster through recruiting. Justin Fuente has had less than a year, and hasn’t even signed his first full recruiting class yet. If the Hokies pull this one off, then we’re ahead of schedule.
Prediction: Tennessee 24, Virginia Tech 20
Will Stewart’s Take: Composure. This game is so bizarre, held on a field in the middle of a half-mile oval racetrack, that it will challenge the composure of players and coaches from both teams. None of these players have ever, for example, fielded a punt in an open-air stadium with an enormous scoreboard looming over the middle of the field. None of these players have ever played a game where the fans will be so far away from the field. It’s hard to say what the unusual conditions will do to the focus of the players and coaches.
If you go by recruiting rankings, then Tennessee has an advantage over Virginia Tech, perhaps a sizable one, in terms of depth and athleticism. When that’s the case, for Virginia Tech it becomes important that you play smart, be opportunistic, and count on your best players to come through for you.
The start of this game is going to be an adrenaline rush, and the size and athleticism of the Tennessee players is going to be a big step up from Week 1. Survive the initial blast, settle down, and then it becomes a game of execution and strategy.
As I like to point out every year, I write my prediction after reading Chris’s offense-defense-special teams breakdown, but before reading his final thoughts and prediction. But even then, I noticed his comment about the game being a potential defensive battle decided by special teams. I agree.
I can’t wait to see what Bud Foster has dialed up for Joshua Dobbs and the Tennessee offense, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it looked like the game plan he unveiled against the inexperienced J.T. Barrett at Ohio State in 2014, which worked so well: load up to stop the run and pressure the QB, and make the QB beat you with his arm. If he does, then tip your hat and move on to the next game. If he doesn’t … then things get really interesting.
While I won’t discount the strength of Tennessee’s rushing game, I don’t see the Vols hanging 35+ on the Hokies, unless Tech has a complete meltdown on offense and/or special teams. For comparison, the 2009 and 2013 Alabama teams scored 34 and 35 points against the Hokies, and the 2013 game did include a VT offensive and special teams meltdown.
Offensively, the Hokies need to limit turnovers and take advantage of opportunities. On special teams, ST coach James Shibest will earn his money here, because if Tennessee is truly that much deeper and more athletic, it will manifest itself on special teams, a la Alabama in 2013.
I think both teams will be challenged offensively and will find it hard to get in a groove, but between these two teams, only one has a proven, consistent rushing attack: Tennessee. The Volunteers also probably have the advantage on special teams, especially in the punting game. I like VT’s chances, and I can see a path to victory, so it won’t surprise me if the Hokies win this. But I’m going with the team that has the advantage in the running game. It won’t be easy for them, though.
Will’s Prediction: Tennessee 23, Virginia Tech 17
Now tell us what you think will happen.