Game of the Week: Virginia Tech vs No. 17 Tennessee
Imagine two traditionally solid football programs that are firmly planted into the college football blueprint, reside just 200 miles away from each other, and are intersected halfway in between by one of the largest stadiums in all of sports.
The two teams involved, Virginia Tech and Tennessee, will be meeting in the regular season for the first time since 1937. This historic matchup will be held at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, TN, a stadium that at kickoff will have an estimated capacity crowd of 150,000, a figure that shatters the previous record for attendance at a football game of 115,109 set by Michigan in 2013.
While the two schools have battled over recruits for many years, the two have met just twice in the modern era. Both matchups came in postseason bowl games, with Tennessee coming out victorious in the 1994 Gator Bowl and Virginia Tech winning their 2009 Peach Bowl matchup.
Both teams come into this game having underwhelmed in week one of their respective gridiron campaigns. Tennessee came into their opener ranked ninth in the nation, then proceeded to struggle as they escaped in overtime to massive underdog Appalachian State by a score of 20-13. Virginia Tech turned the ball over four times in their clash with in-state FCS opponent Liberty, and did not have a clean performance despite the lopsided 36-13 score.
Both schools have had this weekend circled on the calendar as the hype has built around this record-setting game for a couple of years. Tennessee head coach Butch Jones acknowledged the hype of this huge event while also emphasizing the importance of staying focused at his press conference on Monday.
"The opportunity to break the world record for fan attendance at the game of football is a tremendous opportunity for these young men," Jones said. "It will be with them for the rest of their lives. But at the same time we can’t get caught up in any of the extracurricular items relating to this game.”
Virginia Tech fullback and team captain Sam Rogers summed it up in a basic, yet satisfying manner.
"At the end of the day, football is football," Rogers said.
The Volunteers of Tennessee are led into this matchup by two stars in their backfield. Senior quarterback Josh Dobbs is coming off of a season in which he compiled nearly 3,000 yards of total offense and 26 total touchdowns. Alongside of him is standout junior running back Jalen Hurd, a 6’4”, 240-pound bruising back that ran for over 2,100 yards and 17 touchdowns in his first two seasons.
This dynamic backfield duo is arguably one of the best quarterback-running back tandems in the nation, along with big names like Deshaun Watson and Wayne Gallman at Clemson and Baker Mayfield and Samaje Perine at Oklahoma. Virginia Tech’s defense brings back some solid players, but Dobbs and Hurd should be able to have success against the Hokies.
Being able to return this much offensive firepower, in addition to an experienced defense led by highly-touted NFL prospects like defensive end Derek Barnett, cornerback Cameron Sutton, and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, is why the Vols were picked to perform so well this year.
However, Tennessee is not the only team with players who will soon be suiting up on Sundays. A junior wide receiver for the Hokies, Isaiah Ford possesses a lethal combination of size and speed. He has racked up 1,900 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns in his first two years in Blacksburg, and had an astounding 11 receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown on 18 targets last week against Liberty.
All-American expectations have already been placed on Ford by Hokie fans everywhere. The potential man-to-man matchup between Ford and Tennessee’s Sutton is already being pointed to as the best individual battle in all of Bristol this weekend.
In addition to Ford, 6’7” tight end Bucky Hodges comes into his junior season with 13 career touchdowns and well over 1,000 receiving yards. He is currently one of the top five tight end prospects for next year’s NFL draft.
These two players are now moving from the old school, multiple, run-heavy Hokie offense of the Frank Beamer era into the new, flashy, air attack style led by first-year head coach Justin Fuente. Fuente has taught some incredible quarterbacks over the years, including current Cincinnati Bengals starting quarterback Andy Dalton at TCU, along with the Denver Broncos first-round draft pick Paxton Lynch out of Memphis.
Fuente’s offense ranked among the top 25 nationally in total yards per game, passing yards per game, and points per game a season ago. With the weapons that Virginia Tech returns, there’s no reason to believe that this newly implemented style won't benefit the Hokies. The weakest defensive unit for the Vols is the secondary, which could spell success for the Hokies while also forcing Tennessee to step up and perform better than expected.
Fuente also has the luxury of coaching alongside one of the nation’s most highly-touted defensive coordinators, Bud Foster. Foster’s group returns a whopping 10 players who were on the field for more than half of the defensive snaps last year, so don’t expect Foster to hesitate on the idea of blitzing and challenging Dobbs.
Despite the flashy, talented skill position players in this game, I expect the experienced defenses to do well enough to keep this game from becoming a shootout. This will definitely be one of the best atmospheres in all of college football this year, and I expect the game will live up to the hype. Tennessee will win in the trenches and do more to contain the opposing skill players than the Hokies will. Expect the Vols to earn back some of their swagger that they may have lost last week by earning a big non-conference victory over a solid Hokie team.
Prediction: Tennessee 30, Virginia Tech 21
Mitch Stewart is a freshman from Roanoke, VA majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.