App State vs. Tennessee: Game Preview, Prediction and Players to Watch
Overrated or understated? We're about to find out a lot about the No. 9-ranked Tennessee Volunteers football team in Thursday's season opener against Appalachian State.
Though the Vols are expected to win with relative ease, the Mountaineers under head coach Scott Satterfield are a strong first-game opponent that should give a UT team expected to do big things an interesting test.
Few are predicting Appalachian State to repeat its 2007 feat of upending Michigan in the Big House, a victory Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples called "the greatest upset of them all." But just that game being on the program's resume is enough to make you do a double-take at the name on the schedule.
Especially considering this team is much better and now equipped with FBS talent.
Throw in the fact that current Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord held the same position with the Wolverines that year, and UT defensive line coach Steve Stripling headed the defensive line for Michigan, and it could give Tennessee fans the willies. Not the Vols coaches, apparently.
"That's so far in the past, I don't even remember all that," DeBord told SEC Country's Mike Griffith this week. "I'm here to talk about them this year."
There's plenty to discuss with the defending Sun Belt runner-up that has been selected as the preseason favorite. But do they have enough firepower to take down a talented Tennessee team? After all, a UT team that wasn't this good handled a Bowling Green team that was an equal early-season test a season ago.
The Vols would almost have to sleepwalk through Thursday for that to happen, right? There are just too many good players, too many veterans and too much experience in orange and white to let that happen. But Thursday may still give us a peak at what to expect from this potentially exciting year on Rocky Top.
Let's break down all you need to know.
Date: Thursday, September 1
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Place: Neyland Stadium
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Tennessee -20.5, according to Odds Shark.
Tennessee Keys to Victory
There has been so much preseason talk about Tennessee's speedy stars coming off the edges of its defense that it has everybody in Knoxville eager to see what all the fuss is about.
Even the Vols' coaching staff and players can't seem to make it through a week without gushing about Tennessee's front four. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs told Chattanoogan.com's Larry Fleming he believes the Vols have assembled the best defensive line in college football:
It's been a great opportunity for our offensive line to go up against the best defensive line in the nation in my opinion. You've got guys across the board that are solidified pass-rushers and solidified run-stoppers as well. It's been great for the youth of our offensive line to progress and grow and obviously for our older offensive lineman to continue to hone their skills. It's a constant battle every day and it's very competitive. That's definitely what we need to push each other to be successful.
Even though Appy State returns three offensive line starters, the Mountaineers shouldn't have the horses to stop players such as potential All-American Derek Barnett, senior Corey Vereen, senior LaTroy Lewis and former top-ranked JUCO player Jonathan Kongbo.
That's UT's two-deep, and it's not even counting former U.S. Army All-American Kyle Phillips or redshirt freshman Darrell Taylor, who has shown out during preseason drills.
Toss in outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and backup Quart'e Sapp, who'll get plenty of rushing opportunities, and it'll be tough for ASU to stop the Vols.
New defensive coordinator Bob Shoop will bring the house early and often, but how much will he have to show to disrupt quarterback Taylor Lamb and company? If the Vols can get away with being vanilla, that may be the best approach. But they need to turn up the pressure when they can.
Control the pace
Appalachian State is going to want to control the game with long possessions and with running back Marcus Cox on the ground, especially considering it returns a veteran line to go along with the 1,000-yard rusher, and Appy's top four receivers are gone.
It's going to be up to the Vols to get them off the field and keep them there.
Offensively, sure, the Mountaineers have nine starters returning from a defense that ranked 11th nationally a season ago, but they only faced one offense with the kind of talent UT boasts, and that was Clemson. The Tigers disposed of them easily, 41-10.
Satterfield compared the two foes this week and talked up UT as being better.
"In my opinion, starting the season, they are ahead of where Clemson was last year," Satterfield said on a Saturday teleconference. "The difference is, what Tennessee has coming back this year are so many proven players that Clemson didn't have last year."
With all those players, the Vols must display the talent discrepancy early and often. You can't let an unassuming team with a few good players of its own hang around too long. That's what happened in the Michigan win, said Satterfield, who coached quarterbacks in '07.
"We caught them early, and our kids said, 'Oh man, we can play with these guys,'" Satterfield told 247Sports' Chris Hummer. "We caught Michigan on kind of a down day for them. They kind of woke up in the second half, but sometimes when you wake up it’s too late."
Hit some big plays
OK, so maybe this isn't a key to winning the game for the Vols, but it certainly should be a key within the framework of the season's needs.
If Tennessee's Dobbs can find Josh Malone or Preston Williams or another receiver a few times down the field for some chunk gains, it could really boost the passing-game confidence before the meat of the season.
Other than Dobbs being a senior, there hasn't been many reasons for DeBord to trust him flinging the ball everywhere, but this is an early opportunity to show he's capable. It's also a chance for Tennessee's young receiving corps to find a few stars.
This isn't the type of game where you want to get Dobbs, Jalen Hurd or Alvin Kamara banged up by overusing them running the ball. Getting some big plays through the air would be ideal on several different levels. It needs to be a wrinkle UT utilizes.
Appalachian State Keys to Victory
Lamb like a lion
Not to keep mentioning that 2007 Appy team, but dynamic quarterback Armanti Edwards led the Mountaineers to that gargantuan upset.
This year's junior quarterback Taylor Lamb is having an even better career.
Last year, he set the school record with 31 touchdown passes, and he'll be one of the best quarterbacks the Vols will face all season. It's going to hurt that the Mountaineers don't have a lot of top-shelf targets, and UT's secondary is one of the stoutest units on the team, but don't sleep on Lamb.
He's going to have to put up the best game of his decorated career for the black and gold to have a chance for another monumental upset. He'll likely take a beating, and he has to get up and keep making plays.
Lamb would have to experience a Baker Mayfield-esque performance for Appalachian State to make it a ballgame against the Vols. That isn't likely, but Lamb is a talented signal-caller, so the Vols can't take him lightly.
Rip off a big play early
There's no chance Neyland Stadium will be anything but electric. It's a Thursday night game to start a season that is perhaps the most anticipated campaign in a decade. The Vols are loaded with talent, and everybody is eager to see what the Vols have.
Nothing would suck the wind out of the stadium like a long Mountaineers touchdown to kick things off.
Considering this isn't an opponent the Vols know too much about, there's always that concern.
"There may be new schemes that you haven't seen or haven't prepared for, so you have to rely on your training, and you have to rely on your communication," UT head coach Butch Jones told the media this week.
"It's going to be a good test for our team," Jones continued. "I know we're excited to play, but before you can play, you have to make sure you're game-ready and you go through this phase right now of investing in victory each and every week."
A lapse like giving up a big play early can be just the thing to make a good first-week opponent a worrisome one. The Vols don't need to let that happen.
There are no smoke and mirrors to Appalachian State's success. A lot of people have familiarized themselves with Lamb and Cox, but the backbone of last year's 11-2 team was the defense.
The Mountaineers must replace a couple of stars, but nine starters return, and there are enough players around for the relentless, attacking style to make things difficult on a Vols offensive line that features a couple of unproven tackles in Drew Richmond and Brett Kendrick.
Appy State also boasted the nation's top-ranked red-zone defense a season ago, and if the Vols can't turn long drives into six points, that's going to pester them quickly. Tennessee will get some yards, but if you can't turn them into touchdowns, that's how teams hang around.
There won't be many household names for the Mountaineers, but that doesn't mean they don't have good players. The Vols need to be ready, and they need to capitalize on their drives.
Tennessee Players to Watch
Kongbo isn't a starter. He doesn't even have a definite position yet. But everybody wants to see what the 6'6" redshirt sophomore can do.
Though the UTSports.com roster lists him at 270, he's actually above 280 pounds now and could shift inside to help Tennessee's lack of depth on the interior, especially until Shy Tuttle returns to 100 percent and Alexis Johnson gets in playing shape.
He could shift inside in rabbit packages, anyway, especially with all the talent at end.
"That's a position right now, heading into the season, that we're very, very deep,” Jones told GoVols247's Wes Rucker. "And I trust all those guys."
Kongbo is raw, and he isn't always where he needs to be, but he is uber-talented. There's a reason why he was the nation's top-ranked JUCO player and why teams such as Alabama, USC, Florida State, Oregon, Ole Miss and virtually everybody else wanted him.
He's a freakish talent, and Stripling has to find a way to use him. Everybody wants to watch him wreak havoc.
Another player to be excited about is Drew Richmond.
Just because he redshirted last year was no reason for UT fans to forget about him, and he showed everybody why this year. Though Richmond struggled a little in the spring, he worked hard this offseason and put together a pretty good fall camp to wind up starting at the all-important left tackle position.
Protecting Dobbs' blind side isn't as important as it would be for an immobile quarterback, but it's still huge, and Richmond will have a microscope on him. He needs a big first game to build his confidence and get him ready for the major opponents.
Remember, this will be his first game.
Richmond was a highly recruited lineman with offers from virtually everybody, and Jones was able to convince him to stay in his home state. After a redshirt year, he's now ready to contribute, and he could be a big piece of the team's future.
He's a big piece right now.
This spot easily could have belonged to receiver Preston Williams, who looks to be the dynamic pass-catcher Tennessee has been missing, but the bottom line is UT has to be better passing the ball.
That's why watching Dobbs is going to be something everybody should do carefully.
How crisp is he? Is he more accurate than a season ago in the short passing game? What is his rapport with the new guys? Does he lock in on a receiver, or does he spray the ball around to a lot of folks? How involved are the Vols' talented tight ends?
No matter how little Tennessee wants to show in its offensively game plan, you can't help but notice some nuances about players during their debuts. Yes, they'll be knocking off rust, and Dobbs will be no different. But the Vols need a confident signal-caller who doesn't mind stepping up in the pocket and firing missiles.
That wasn't Dobbs last year. It needs to be in 2016.
Appalachian State Players to Watch
What all needs to be said about Lamb?
For an encore to being the Sun Belt Conference freshman of the year in 2014, he set a school record for touchdowns and threw for 2,387 yards a season ago. Surprisingly, he ran for more than 400. Lamb isn't some statue back there, and the Vols need to be wary of that as they flush him out of the pocket.
Satterfield has built quite the program at ASU, even taking it a step upward as the Mountaineers made the usually difficult leap from FCS to FBS competition. He replaced legendary Hall of Fame coach Jerry Moore as the head man, and the Mountaineers are now a small-school power in a big pond.
Lamb is the biggest reason for the excitement in Boone, North Carolina, and it's why stages like Thursday's don't scare Satterfield's team.
"This team will be different from the years in the past," Satterfield told the Daily Advertiser's Tim Buckley. "They’re gonna set their new identity. But they do have high expectations, and they’re working extremely hard. So we embrace (the target). We don't shy away from it."
Cox may not be mentioned among the nation's top runners, but he will be a nice, strong test for a Vols defense that will ultimately face some of the best rushers in the country throughout the year.
The senior from Dacula, Georgia, outside of Atlanta, ran for 1,423 yards a season ago, establishing himself as a second-team All-Sun Belt runner and one of the top 25 backs in the country. At 5'10", 205 pounds, he's a bowling-ball player who can get loose on the outside, too.
He's eclipsed 1,400 yards in each of the past two seasons, so it's going to be difficult to slow down Cox. He rushed for more than 100 yards in the loss to Clemson last year and needs 717 yards to become the school's all-time leading rusher. He's basically Appy's version of Hurd.
It's why B/R colleague Brian Pedersen named Cox one of the non-Power Five players you need to know. The Vols already know all about him.
The Sun Belt's preseason defensive player of the year is a guy the Vols are going to have to account for on every play.
He'll try to make it consecutive top honors on that side of the ball for the Mountaineers, who boasted Ronald Blair a season ago before the San Francisco 49ers drafted him. Blair was the conference's defensive player of the year in '15.
Last year, Law had 72 tackles, including 9.5 for a loss and four sacks despite missing the bowl game victory with a shoulder injury. Though he had a big season a year ago, Law has worked his way up through the Appy system the hard way. Injuries plagued him, as well as a coaching change.
Now, this is his year to lead the defense, he told the Fayetteville Observer's Bret Strelow:
I learned the same way (Blair) learned, coming through the program and going through the process of guys expecting more from you because of the way you carry yourself and the way you go out and play. Leadership is the biggest thing I’m trying to improve on. I’m just making sure I’m the best possible leader that I can be for this team.
He'll need a huge game on a huge stage for his team to win this game.
What They're Saying
Barnett is perhaps Tennessee's most disruptive player on either side of the ball, and he has developed into a vocal leader with the leadership to match his passion during this offseason.
He has a simple formula for success, he told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan. If he and his teammates do it, the Vols will accomplish big things.
"Be dominant," Barnett said. "If I'm dominant, everything will fall into place and we’ll win a lot of games, so my goal is to be dominant."
This game against Tennessee is a massive game for Appalachian State's football program, but it likely isn't the one with the biggest circle this season.
That would be when Miami comes to Kidd Brewer Stadium on Sept. 17, after the Hurricanes agreed to a home-and-home series with the Mountaineers. Games such as this one and the huge home test upcoming are the ones that could help define an already-proud program.
ASU athletics director Doug Gillin talked to Strelow about the program's strides:
The decisions before I got here, the decision to go and play FBS football, this kind of legitimizes it. When I talk to people, I ask, 'Would you ever have envisioned a (home) schedule with all FBS opponents on it? Would you ever have envisioned a schedule with the Miami Hurricanes coming to Boone?' We wouldn't have thought it would happen this quick. Maybe down the line, but not this quick, and our fan base is rallying around it.
There sure has been a bunch of buzz around the Vols throughout the offseason, but not everybody believes in the Vols.
Last year's last-quarter losses in big games make some media pundits unsure whether the program is ready to take a crucial step under Jones. CBSSports.com's Tom Fornelli wrote:
The Vols might be really good this season. They might win the SEC East. These things definitely fall within the realm of possibility. It's just, this is the same Tennessee team that hasn't beaten Florida since 2004 and hasn't won against Georgia in Athens since 2006. It's also 3-13 against ranked teams under Butch Jones, so while I see the potential, I'm still approaching with caution.
Jon Solomon added: "Despite all of the hype, Tennessee will lose just the right number of games to fall short of the SEC East title. I'll believe in the Vols when I see it."
Tennessee can't overlook Appalachian State. You've probably already heard that same sentence 15 times from 15 different places this week.
Don't worry Vols fans; they won't.
You can't have focused, determined, lead-by-example players on your team such as Dobbs, Barnett, Reeves-Maybin, Sutton, Hurd and Kamara and look past games like this. It just rarely happens.
There will be several games this year where the Vols must play their best games to win, but this isn't one of them. UT would have to play poorly and Appalachian State play a fantastic game for an upset to happen on Thursday night.
People can talk about all that talent Jones compiled on Rocky Top and the improving depth, but the biggest reason for UT's success this year will be the experience and leadership on the roster. There is plenty of it, and it should allow for some new playmakers to get their sea legs and begin to assert themselves in this game.
The early portion of the opener may be a little bit boring as the Vols plod down the field with the running of Hurd and Kamara, but that will eventually wear down the Mountaineers. Then, they'll be able to open things up, and Stoops' defense is going to be too strong for a team like Appalachian State in the interim.
The Mountaineers are a really good mid-major program, but last year's Bowling Green squad was exceptional offensively, and the Vols opened 2015 with a 59-30 win despite playing one of the worst defensive games of their season.
That same Falcons team beat the Ohio Bobcats 62-24, and Appalachian State needed a 17-point, fourth-quarter comeback to beat Ohio in the bowl game.
So, while ASU is a good team, it isn't one that should hang with the Vols. If they do for a long time, it's because of a UT lapse or because the Vols aren't as good as expected.
Tennessee will pull away in the second half and win comfortably.
Prediction: Vols 41, Appalachian State 17