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Show Me My Opponent: West Virginia

Welcome back. It’s been a while.

PEACE! HAHAHAHA


to go straight to the West Virginia side-of-ball previews, click below

offense
defense
special teams
conclusion/game prediction

Okay here’s the real intro I had to work it out of my system sorry. It’s been a few months, but it’s worth remembering: Tennessee did not hire Greg Schiano to be its next football coach. That alone is worth celebrating. They coulda hired Babar the Elephant and it would’ve been a greater success. THEY DID NOT HIRE GREG SCHIANO! As silly, ridiculous, and annoying as this fan base can be, there probably isn’t a fan base in college football that can organize and unite around a cause quite like Tennessee. How soon we forget that we spent most of October and November shuttling fans off to different cities to spread the gospel of Firing Butch Jones.

And now, finally, THANKFULLY, we can watch football again, with arms high and heart abandoned. Well, it’s the case here, anyway. Tennessee successfully navigated the offseason without committing any of the following deadly sins other programs have found themselves repenting for this offseason:

  • Enabling and protecting domestic violence (Ryan Thaxton removed from the team much more quickly than any UT-related DV case in my lifetime)
  • Protecting a known molester at the university
  • Chicken isn’t a nervous bird, it’s higher in protein than beef
  • Prostitution scandals
  • Firing the chancellor because she was doing the Megan Barry with the Vice Chancellor of Communications
  • Also the university is a corporatocracy run by the Haslam family and a gas station with bad coffee
  • Ah,

67% isn’t bad! That’s good, I think. Anyway, the football. Tennessee is somehow here for its 122nd (somewhat true; 114th at the Division I level) season of football. They have themselves a dang football coach. There are only six current or former coordinators in college football with multiple top five S&P+ finishes from 2014 to 2017. These include:

  • Brent Venables, Clemson (12-2, playoff run)
  • Kirby Smart, Georgia (13-2, 2nd and 26)
  • Dave Aranda, LSU (9-4 despite his head coach being Ed Orgeron)
  • Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma (12-2, playoff run)
  • Scott Frost, Nebraska (13-0 at UCF, national champions)
  • Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee (13-1 at Alabama, co-national champions)

Hey, that’s a pretty good group, and it looks like Jeremy Pruitt might be a pretty good coach. In fact, it looks like Tennessee backed their way into a good hire after fooling around with two disastrously poor options and also Mike Gundy for some reason. How about that? Can you believe?


Tennessee football’s offseason went about perfectly after April or so. Admittedly, I don’t know as much about West Virginia’s offseason because I don’t live there, but Dana Holgorsen aged 15 years since 2015. From this:

To this:

I mean, how do you explain that? He went from looking like a pretty good dude at age 44 to Mark Martin at 47. It’s completely nonsensical.

Holgorsen’s team made a lot of sense last year: they were good when Will Grier could play, and they were bad when he couldn’t. Grier went down with a season-ending injury in November at home against Tom Herman’s Texas Longhorns; WVU wouldn’t win another game. With Grier, they probably still finish only 8-5 or so instead of 7-6, but they were clearly better with him. At the time of the injury, WVU’s offense ranked 13th in S&P+ and the team as a whole was just outside of the top 30; they’d finish the season 63rd overall. Over the final three games, they played at an average level of what Maryland (the #114 ranked team of 130 in S&P+) did for the whole season.

Of course, it’s hard to blame Grier’s injury alone, because the defense was serious amounts of butt at times last year, especially late in the season. WVU had six 30th-percentile or lower defensive performances last year, and their late September to October stretch was basically entirely dependent on Grier and the run game to squeak out wins:

Sorry, but you don’t get to claim “injuries!” to me if you gave up 34 points and 571 yards to Kansas.

Of course, you can never fault a fan base for being optimistic. WVU brings back 12 starters and the quarterback from a team that started 7-3. They came pretty close to picking off one of Virginia Tech and TCU. It wasn’t a bad team; the last outright bad WVU team, in my mind, was the 4-8 2013 team. I’m just saying the following: backing it up statistically, show me the last great, or even very good, Dana Holgorsen West Virginia team. The 2016 team needed to go 4-0 in one-score games to get to 10-3 and lost to the three Top 25 teams they played by 17, 28, and 17 points. The 2015 team was actually better by S&P+ (24th vs. 29th), but went 8-5 because they went 2-2 in one-score games. (Surprise! They’re almost completely random and, with exceptions, rarely point to the long-term demise or success of a coach.) Even the Orange Bowl team got massively overrated in hindsight (what? You don’t remember a 6-3 West Virginia needing to beat Butch Jones, Pittsburgh, and a 5-7 South Florida by a combined seven points to get the BCS bid?).

I hate to be That Guy, but sometimes you gotta be That Guy: I think Dana Holgorsen might be more lucky than actually good at coaching. Holgo has a lovely personality, has done good things, and college football would be far worse for wear without him in it. Personally, there are few coaches I root to be more successful. He’s hit the Mike Leach Pantheon for me at times. But we need to face facts, and facts aren’t kind: his highest-ranked S&P+ team at West Virginia ranked 24th (2015). His highest-ranked defense: 30th (2015). He’s 20-11 (.645) in one-score games, which is nice, sure. Nick Saban, to this date at Alabama, is 21-15 (.583). Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, prior to 2016, was 22-13 (.629). (He went 1-7 in 2016 and 2-1 in 2017.) Les Miles finished up winning two-thirds of close games at LSU. I’m not sure anyone would suggest Kelly, Miles, or Holgorsen are better at late-game coaching than Nick Saban.

Holgo’s record against Power Five teams with winning records at WVU is 14-31 (.311). (Butch Jones at Tennessee: 10-24, or 29.4%.) His record in one-score games amongst this group: 9-10 (.474). Looks a little less impressive than a random BCS win and multiple 10-win seasons, right? Let’s clarify something here: this is not saying that Holgorsen, or West Virginia, is bad. This is merely stating the case for why very few computer ratings have anywhere near the same belief in West Virginia as traditional media outlets do. Holgorsen was a pair of coin-flip losses away from not having topped 8-5 since his first year at West Virginia, and if 8-5 had happened in 2016, I don’t know if he still holds his job today.

And, with that, we should clarify something else: I’m not even sure Tennessee will be good. I’ve personally been on the 6-6/7-5 bandwagon all offseason, which is solid, but it’s not a certainty. I do think there’s a significant issue with computer ratings in having Tennessee 82nd on average, simply because (per Bill Connelly at SB Nation in a tweet I can’t find) computer systems largely don’t take coaching, or coaching changes, into account. They simply get factored into team-wide and program-wide ratings as a whole. So, yes, I don’t think Tennessee’s going 4-8 again, and probably not 5-7, either. But it’s hard to say that they’ll even be one of the six hardest games West Virginia has on its volatile schedule in 2018.

But, yeah: I think Tennessee’s going to be a lot better, and I remain very unconvinced by a lot of answers West Virginia is offering to major questions. Let’s explore them.


OFFENSE

A well-known quantity at the most critical position

This guy, again. Every now and then, I think about that fourth and 14 play. Not because I want to, or because it’s even the most painful of the close Florida losses for me (I swear, up and down, that 2014 Florida was worse), but because everything had to go wrong for it to happen.

  • Florida had to have a quarterback who mostly sucked for three quarters before predictably lighting it up in the fourth.
  • Florida also had to have a quarterback who’d play two more games before never playing at the university again.
  • Butch Jones had to kick an extra point up 12, which is further proof to me that Michigan public education needs drastic reforms.
  • Tennessee had to run a three-man front with zero blitzers on fourth down in case Will Grier…ran for the first down?
  • Will Grier ran for precisely zero yards that day.
  • Remember when they nailed Kelvin Taylor for a four-yard loss on first down and then they forced incompletions the next two plays
  • It was fourth and 14
  • Fourth
  • and
  • 14
  • yards

If we’re gonna talk about him, we gotta talk about him. Will Grier’s here, folks. Predictably, Grier was pretty excellent last year. He diced up defenses well, throwing 34 touchdowns in 10 games, 18 of them to David Sills, who we’ll get to in a second. Grier has one of the best downfield balls we’ve seen in college football in some time:

Grier was on pace to set Pro Football Focus’s record for deep passing yards in a season prior to the injury. Considering the competition he would’ve faced, I’m not sure he would’ve made it, but it doesn’t erase the fact that he’s really freaking good at slingin’ taters. A quick note: that link doesn’t say he was the best (Baker Mayfield, Mason Rudolph, and Ryan Finley rated higher), but he was elite, and that’s what matters. It’s hard to prognosticate who, exactly, will be Tennessee’s safeties for 60 minutes every Saturday (Nigel Warrior and Micah Abernathy, probably?), but they’ll have their hands full this Saturday. Warrior was excellent last year, but all eyes should and will be on Abernathy, who gave up the second-most yards of any secondary player in 2017. (Keep in mind that Abernathy graded out well in 2016 at 76.3 on PFF and was battling nagging injuries and Butch Jones.)

Somewhat luckily for Tennessee, Grier’s best deep threat, Ka’raun White, graduated. He was in the top 20 nationally in yards gained on deep passes in 2017, and while Sills and Gary Jennings were right behind him, you’d still rather face two of the three rather than all three. As a whole, Holgorsen and Grier’s offense is a bit of a lovechild of the Hal Mumme Air Raid and a traditional Pistol zone-rushing offense. They’ll use short routes to set up deeper passes, and receivers like these can turn a short pass into a long gain quickly.

With this all in note, Grier still threw 12 interceptions in 10.25 games last year, and in the ten full games he did play, only two – East Carolina and 1-11 Baylor – were finished with no turnovers. Grier’s receivers, for all their positives, dropped 31 of his 388 attempts – an 8.0% drop rate, or what would’ve been fourth-worst among the Class of 2018 quarterbacks. Nine of those interceptions came on deep balls, also known as the Josh Allen Punt – they’re floaters, baby. Lastly, Grier completed just 34.3% of his passes under pressure, which ranked 37th of 40 2019 draft eligible quarterbacks. It’s not an impossible feat to stop him. It’s just a hard one that requires a 60-minute effort.

No more 1K rusher

Justin Crawford was the prototypical West Virginia back: not exactly notable in terms of size or recruiting, but he was pretty quick and got you the yards you needed and then some. Crawford averaged 5.58 per carry last year and 7.3 the year before that. He was very good, and now he’s on the Falcons (for now). Past him, it’s Kennedy McCoy, who fans claim is better (and so does PFF). McCoy was more of a red zone/change-of-pace back last year (got one more carry than Crawford did inside the 20) and he was okay (4.77 per carry, 7 touchdowns), but he wasn’t Crawford. Crawford had 35 gains of 10+ yards last year, or one for every 5.43 carries; McCoy was way behind at 16, or one for every 7.8. I’m not sold just yet, but I’ll hear it out. He’s probably getting 1,000 yards anyway, just because that’s what WVU running backs do.

You’ll see a bit of Martell Pettaway in this game as well, but probably not much; he was unimpressive in limited action last year (3.47 per carry) and has recorded a 20+ yard gain in one game in his career (twice against Iowa State in 2016). Neither back should factor into the passing game much; combined, the West Virginia running backs got 36 targets last year (about 7.5% of total attempts, or one out of every 13.3 passes), or under three per game. McCoy took in more than half of those, so he’s the designated “receiving” back, but don’t expect too much. The running back’s job, predominantly, is to run the ball and run it well. It’s imperative that Tennessee is able to limit McCoy (and Pettaway), though their focus should be and will be on stopping Grier and the passing game first. Last year, WVU ranked 107th in standard downs run rate and 111th on passing downs, so that’s fine. Just don’t let this be the reason you lose.

Honestly, possibly, probably…the most accomplished receivers Tennessee draws in 2018

The only other contender is Georgia, who Tennessee also plays in September. Fun!

That’s David Sills, who you first got to know nearly a decade ago, because Lane Kiffin offered him a scholarship at age 13 or something. Now he plays wide receiver, and it turns out that he’s insanely good at being a wide receiver. Sills tied the national lead for touchdown receptions last year with 18 despite not scoring in the final three games. And he was somehow this team’s third option, because Gary Jennings exists, too.

Jennings doesn’t make the deep ball headlines, because he’s not a speedy deep-ball guy. His job is mostly to stay within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage and gobble up as many passes as Grier will throw his way. On a team with three of the top 26 receivers in deep ball yardage in 2017, Jennings outpaced them all by far in total stats: 97 catches, 1,096 yards, a 72.9% catch rate, and 7.5 receptions per game. He led the Big 12 in three of those four categories amongst qualified receivers, but he’s probably the third-most well-known receiver on his own team. Crazy, isn’t it? Jennings only scored one touchdown in 2017, and he’s due for some serious regression to the mean in that category.

Lastly, the third excellent receiver: Marcus Simms.

Simms almost exclusively ran deep routes for West Virginia last year, which may be why he’s projected to be more or less fourth on the depth chart behind Alabama transfer TJ Simmons. He averaged about 4.6 targets per game last year and probably will get fewer this year, but keep an eye out for him, especially if he’s matched up against one of Tennessee’s more inexperienced cornerbacks.

Offensive line = solid, but with caveats

There’s a lot of “buts” with this offensive line. They only gave up 14 sacks with Grier at the helm (5 with backup Chris Chugunov, a Russian operative) and allowed 332 unpressured dropbacks (15th-most nationally), but they weren’t very good on standard downs (62nd-best sack rate) and struggled mightily to stay on schedule on passing downs (116th-best success rate). Justin Crawford ran for 1,000 yards, but WVU’s rushing offense ranked 118th in Power Success Rate (runs with two or fewer yards to go that achieved a first down) and 82nd in Opportunity Rate (carries of five yards or better).

They return four starters, and three of them rate at an 81 (80-84 is Very Good, 85+ is NFL-ready) or higher…but two of the three returning interior linemen rated at a 49 or lower, which is Very Bad. That explains why Holgorsen, even with 80% of the line returning and one of the best pairs of offensive tackles in the nation in Colton McKivitz and Yodny Cajuste, chose to bring in two JUCO offensive guards to shore it up, or try to. This is a giant sweet spot for Jeremy Pruitt and Kevin Sherrer in figuring out the following:

  • Can Tennessee can around WVU’s excellent tackles?
  • What ways can Tennessee get creative with the interior line and force their way into negative plays?
  • Could Tennessee actually get quite a bit of pressure on Grier?

It might be a weird game where Tennessee finds quite a bit of success in the run game (WVU will try and bounce the ball outside with McCoy, but Tennessee can and should have success slowing down the inside zone) but has to figure out how to get past the two offensive tackles. Blitzing Daniel Bituli and Quart’e Sapp often against interior linemen might help this.


Defense

This defensive line’s kinda butt, fam

The skinny: West Virginia runs a 3-3-5, has run a 3-3-5 for seemingly my entire life, and the 3-3-5’s success is very dependent on defensive linemen smushing the run at the line, getting in the backfield, and pressuring the quarterback without requiring a six-man blitz.

West Virginia does not have such a defensive line.

Last year’s defensive line ranked 106th in Havoc Rate (exactly what it sounds like), picked up less than half of WVU’s 24 sacks (11.5), ranked 84th in passing downs sack rate, and lost their best defensive lineman to graduation. No returning lineman ranked higher than 74.8 on Pro Football Focus, which is the lowest number of any team’s leading lineman in the Big 12. Here’s a direct quote from last season’s wrap-up from their 247 team site: “Not a single person on the team graded out as “very good” in pass rush.

Of this group, Donahue is the best rush defender (graded out over 80 on PFF’s scale). No other lineman hit that plateau, and West Virginia’s rush defense just left so much to be desired: 89th in adjusted line yards, 92nd in opportunity rate, 99th in IsoPPP (explosive plays). Donahue had eight run stuffs, or rusher gains of zero or negative yards. The median rushing performance against WVU consisted of a 190-yard day. The rest of WVU’s returners on the DL combined for four. Collectively, this isn’t a group that should terrify Tennessee fans, the coaching staff, or any players, especially considering WVU racked up nine of their 24 sacks against Delaware State and 1-11 Baylor (15 in other 11 games). They replace five of the top seven defensive linemen as a whole, by the way.

Linebackers: one true star and two big questions

Undoubtedly, David Long is one of the best returning linebackers out there, a true defensive force that anchored a solid LB group last year with since-graduated Al-Rasheed Benton. Long getting 65 tackles may not seem big, but 15 of those were tackles for loss and 28 were run stuffs at or behind the line of scrimmage, both of which led the team. By the way, those numbers include him missing four games. That’s insane! WVU’s defense will be anchored around him, and their hopes this year rely heavily on his back.

Now, the rest of the linebacker outlook isn’t so rosy. There’s a new starter in the group, and freshman Brendan Ferns (essentially the fourth LB last year) is missing the season with an injury. The other returning starter, a converted safety named Dylan Tonkery, is fine, but he was far less productive than Benton and Long (38.5 tackles, 6 run stuffs) and rated out as the team’s tenth-best defender prior to an excellent Heart of Dallas Bowl showing (6 tackles, 2 TFLs, and a sack). The third starter seems likely to be Charlie Benton, a JUCO transfer that beat out the other JUCO guy (from 2017) in Quondarious Qualls because Qualls (49.2 on PFF) tore his ACL in March. Benton is also a converted safety and it sounds like he was good in JUCO (55 tackles, 10 TFLs, 2 sacks). As any Tennessee fan will tell you, though, the jump from JUCO to FBS is the opposite of easy.

This secondary might also be kinda butt

I mean, it’s not as unthreatening to me as the defensive line, but passing lanes should be open. Here’s how PFF graded West Virginia’s projected starters on the depth chart:

  • LCB: Hakeem Bailey (45.0; ranked #22 of 23 qualifying defensive players for West Virginia pre-Heart of Dallas Bowl)
  • RCB: Derrek Pitts (71.8 in limited snaps; played some amount of time in 10 of 13 games, had a tackle in five games)
  • SPUR (strong safety): Dravon Askew-Henry (62.2; rated 78.6 in 2014 and 80.0 in limited action in 2015, did not play in 2016)
  • BS (also strong safety): Toyous Avery (75.6)
  • FS (free safety): Kenny Robinson (78.4)

Now, West Virginia’s defense was considerably better against the pass (33rd) than the run (68th) in 2017. That’s a good sign for their fortunes in Big 12 play, but by the same token, they still made a lot of errors. They ranked 113th in explosive plays allowed per play (IsoPPP), gave up 7.7 yards per attempt (8th in the Big 12), gave up more 40+ yard pass plays than all but four teams, and ranked 90th in opponent QB rating nationally. Also, they gave up 24 touchdowns through the air, which ties them for 104th-best nationally. A fair amount of this is due to the Big 12 being a pass-heavy league, but it’s not everything, and those PFF grades can back it up. Also, the Mountaineers lost their best secondary player by far (Kyzir White, 86.5) to graduation. Avery ranked in the low 80s in pass coverage and is therefore the best of the group; Robinson, the same with run defense. Of course, you’re probably not going to ask your free safety to play against the run too often.

On the whole, it’s…not great

There’s a decent and interesting argument to be made for a slight rebound on defense for West Virginia. At least one starter from 2017 won’t start in 2018 because he’s been supplanted by a previously-injured player. They return five starters, and Bailey (who ended up playing almost the same amount of snaps as the #5 secondary player) could count as a sixth. It’s hard to give up as many big plays on the ground (89 plays of 10 yards or more) as they did for a second straight year.

Then again, the Mountaineers lost their best defensive lineman (Lamonte McDougle), leading tackler (Al-Rasheed Benton), and best secondary player (Kyzir White) to graduation. To fill those holes, they either have to pick from a 47.5 PFF grade (Darius Stills) or a player that hasn’t played since 2015 (Kenny Bigelow) at nose tackle. They have Benton’s position filled by Tonkery, but Tonkery’s old position is now filled by a JUCO transfer that had one other P5 offer (Iowa State). White’s old position of SPUR is now filled by a guy who’s last full season of quality play was four years ago. They’re starting a cornerback who I’ve seen frequently described as “terrible” by West Virginia fans. Just one returning starter graded out above “good,” and three starters have grades of 62 or worse, plus Benton, who has no grade.

This isn’t to say that, suddenly, Tennessee’s offense will look like 2012’s. But: it should look competent and fine, and that’s probably enough to drop 400+ yards on a defense that gave up 400+ yards in nine of 13 games last year. It’s telling to me that West Virginia made a big deal of adding JUCO players, high-level transfers, and kept around half their starters…and Bill Connelly’s S&P+ gave them the exact same ranking of 96th as they finished with last year.


Special teams

Not terrible, not good

In short: Evan Staley won the place-kicker job halfway through last season and was fine (made 6 of 7 field goal attempts, all 16 extra points). However, he’s also the kickoffs guy, and just 34.6% of those landed as touchbacks (80th nationally). WVU as a whole ranked 119th in kickoff efficiency. Regardless of who wins this role for Tennessee, it’s a place where breaks can, indeed, be made, simply because these kickoffs should be returnable. Perhaps notable: of West Virginia’s four onside kick attempts last year, they recovered two.

Punting-wise, senior Billy Kinney is about perfectly average: 70th in punt distance average, gets 70% of his punts to either be fair caught or inside the 20, and punted about 5.7 times per game. Unfortunately for him, his coverage unit sucked: they gave up five returns of 20+ yards, which slots them at a tie for 121st nationally last year. They also ranked 107th in punt return average.

As for West Virginia’s own return game, all kickoffs and punts will be handled by uber-fast Marcus Simms, who was covered above. Simms didn’t grab a touchdown last year and is a bigger threat as a kick returner than a punt returner due to straight-line speed, but he did average 26.3 yards per return and took six for 30+ yards (three for 40+). Of all things to decide a game, I hope this isn’t it.


Conclusion & Game Prediction

Offensively, here’s what you can expect from Tennessee’s standard set and how West Virginia matches up:

Among Tennessee’s mostly standard 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, which Tennessee lined up in 77% of the time in the spring game), you’ll see a varying split of wide receivers. Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway will be the constants, and Brandon Johnson should get a significant majority of the slot receiver snaps, too. But there’s a lot of opportunity here to mix it up. Tennessee can try a lot with the (yes, somewhat unproven) weapons they’ve got: Tyler Byrd’s still very fast, so put him out wide and send him deep. Ty Chandler can play any skill position except quarterback, so try him in the slot for five snaps. Jordan Murphy will play, and the limited amount of information we got last year suggests a potential deep threat. Josh Palmer is still here, and he was pretty good within 15 yards last year. Toss him on a drive route. I have no idea if Cedric Tillman sees the field for more than a snap or two, but it’s possible.

The best matchup here, pretty clearly, is with whatever receiver draws Hakeem Bailey. Pitts may be a good matchup, too, but his grade in limited numbers suggests he’s at least okay. Bailey looks straight-up bad. In another universe where I have assumed Tyson Helton’s role, I send at least 10 of Tennessee’s ~30 targets to whoever is lined up against Bailey. Force West Virginia (or, likely, Askew-Henry) into having to help Bailey, which opens up spots on the rest of the field. And no, we’re not forgetting about Dominick Wood-Anderson, who will end up being the best offensive player if practice reports offer any serious truth. Whatever linebacker (or safety) draws him will have a whale of a battle to fight.

On the ground, I’ve mentioned WVU’s vast struggles against run offenses of any quality. They didn’t hold a single opposing offense below 100 on the ground last year, and, again, the median output for a run offense was 190 yards. I think people might be forgetting just how impressive Ty Chandler was at times last year; Tennessee may have a serious shot at 200+ on the ground. If they hit 200, they’re winning this game. I hate to be so forgiving towards an offensive line that was awful last season, but it was with a moron as their head coach. Will Friend coached two excellent offensive lines at Colorado State; if he can at least get this unit to be okay, he’ll have done well.

Of course, this all assumes that Tennessee can find other decent offensive linemen to play. Smith and Locklear were the only linemen to hit a 69 or higher in 2016; I’d imagine Helton draws a lot of plays their way. Everyone expects Brandon Kennedy to be good, but PFF doesn’t have any reliable grading on him and he never started a game at Alabama. Drew Richmond was awful in run blocking (though strangely graded out alright in pass protection); Ryan Johnson was pretty bad, too. West Virginia will correctly decide to blitz a ton on their sides, and it’s up to a pair of previously-underperforming players to find a new gear. That side of the line is the biggest threat to Tennessee’s success, not just in this game, but in 2018.

On defense, the new 3-4 look against WVU’s 11 personnel (they will also come out in 10 and 20 personnel frequently):

A quick note: Tennessee actually went with four-man fronts, including a Shoop-esque 4-2-5, the majority of the time in the spring game, as such (from Rocky Top Talk):

They’re likely to go with that a fair bit against WVU, but Tennessee will pull out a lot of fronts against WVU in an attempt to get to the backfield. I have a feeling a 3-4 overload like you see above will be the most-used formation.

WVU will also mix in a bit of Pistol with a fullback/tight end and they go with three-wide sets, too. Tennessee will have a matchup advantage on the inside of the line, as WVU is breaking in a new center and Isaiah Hardy was atrocious last season. Tuttle has shown an ability past this grade, and graded out as one of the SEC’s best run defenders in limited action in 2015. Along with that, Daniel Bituli was one of the SEC’s best run defenders last year, and Sapp was pretty good, too. Kirkland, Jr.’s uncertainty leads me to believe Sapp gets the majority of snaps Saturday.

Now, on the outside, things are different. WVU has one of the best offensive tackle combos out there, and Tennessee may be heavily reliant on blitzes to get serious pressure from the outside of the line. Nigel Warrior could see quite a bit of action as a blitzer, too. Both Kyle Phillips and Alexis Johnson graded out alright last year, but they’ll need to be better than “alright” to get to Grier.

And, lastly, your biggest fear, as expected: covering these wide receivers. WVU will have a matchup advantage with both Sills and Jennings no matter who they line up against, and Simms may be able to say the same, too. (We know very little about TJ Simmons as of yet, so I anticipate Alontae Taylor goes up against him for at least the first quarter.) 40% of Buchanan’s 2017 snaps came in the final two games of last season, so his grade is based on a small sample size, but he wasn’t impressive in 2016, either. For Tennessee to have any meaningful success in this game, Micah Abernathy absolutely needs a return to 2016 form. Tennessee may be able to answer all of these questions and it might still not matter, because Will Grier really is that good.

And yet, I still feel like even their offense might be getting too much steam. West Virginia did post four offensive performances of an 86th-percentile or better, which is awesome for every team. Now, here’s the part where I tell you those performances were against East Carolina (#123 in S&P+, dead last in defense), Delaware State, Kansas (#125), and Baylor (#106). Their best performance against a top 100 team was their 46-35 win over Texas Tech – 400+ yards and a 75th-percentile outing. Still good, yes, but again, that’s against the 88th-best defense in the nation. If Tennessee’s defense is even among the top 40 nationally this year, this might go a little different than we think. Or maybe I’m an idiot. That’s probably the case.

(Other quick notes: you’ll see WVU come out in a couple weirdo formations Tennessee won’t see again this season. This is Diamond/”Full House” on the NCAA series, this is the rare 21 personnel set, and they use Trips on LSD sometimes.)

Okay, anyway, you came here for a score prediction. I think Tennessee wins this game if they do the following:

  • Slow the pace to a crawl. West Virginia hasn’t won a game against a Power 5 team with a winning record since 2011 when they can’t hit 70 or more plays (five straight losses).
  • Limit big plays. In their six losses, West Virginia had the same amount of 20+ yard pass plays (20) as Tennessee did in eight. In their seven wins: 37.
  • Win the turnover battle, or at least don’t lose it. West Virginia went 1-6 in games where they lost the turnover margin last year. Simple!
  • Also run the ball a lot. WVU’s run defense was terrible in both wins and losses, but they gave up 232 yards per game on the ground in their six losses. They gave up 367 yards on the ground to KANSAS. KANSAS.

In an ideal world, Tennessee’s run/pass split is something like 60/40, or even 55/45 on Saturday. If it hits 50/50 or worse, you’re gonna have a bad time. West Virginia’s opponents averaged 73 plays per game last year; imagining Guarantano (or a combination of Guarantano and Chryst) dropping back 35+ times makes me want to vomit. 30 or less, and you’ve probably done a pretty good job. I also think Guarantano gets a few designed runs in this game too; no more than six or so, but no fewer than two or three.

Lastly, I’ve thought for a while now that West Virginia -10.5 is pretty wild. Almost no computer metric believes West Virginia is a Top 25 team; all the buzz seems to be coming from more traditional outlets. Likewise, I don’t think Tennessee is going to finish in the low 70s/high 80s, because these same metrics don’t usually factor in coaching, which alone may bump Tennessee up 20 spots this year.

Even then, those metrics believe pretty strongly that -10.5 is insane. Here’s a cross-section of six different sources and their spreads on this game: S&P+, ESPN’s FPI, Sagarin Ratings, Atomic Football (the highest-rated non-ESPN and non-Vegas predictors since 2015), @CFB_Professor, and the CFB Matrix numbers combined with the Massey Consensus for a marriage of talent/coaching numbers and actual 2017/2018 projections. This gets the best possible view of all viewpoints of a game: pure statistics, statistics regressed to recruiting numbers, talent and coaching-heavy metrics, etc. All believe Tennessee at least covers the spread.

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Even the pure numbers (S&P+ through Atomic) believe in a Tennessee cover and a loss of 3 to 8 points. Desperately, I want to pull the trigger on the upset here. But also, I like hedging my bets. West Virginia 31, Tennessee 27.

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