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3 matchups, 2 players, and 1 prediction to watch for Virginia football versus Tennessee

Previewing Saturday’s season opener and what the Wahoos will have to do to pull off the upset.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 08 Louisville at Virginia Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Year two of the Tony Elliott era for the Virginia Cavaliers begins with a tough “neutral site” game against the Tennessee Volunteers. The game is in Nashville. As in, the capital of Tennessee. The Vols are borderline top-10 heading into the season. Virginia is…bad. The stadium is sold out. How many of those tickets went to Wahoo fans? Not many.

Tennessee finished 11-2 last year, with losses to Georgia and South Carolina. They beat a Pitt team that blew out the Wahoos, though they needed OT to do it. But they also beat Alabama, LSU, and Florida. They were far better than 3-7 Virginia last year, and they remain far better today. That’s why they are favored by 28.5, which frankly doesn’t seem high enough.

Of course, the end of Virginia’s season looms large in this game. First time back on the field for these guys since the shooting. You can bet the announcers will be talking about it. It’s going to be stressful and it’s going to be emotional. Focusing on the task at hand will not be easy for the Wahoos, and especially so against a far superior opponent.

Game Time: Saturday, Sept 2, Noon Eastern
Streaming: ESPN3

Three Players to Watch for Tennessee

Tennessee QB Joe Milton

Do you remember Hendon Hooker from his days at Virginia Tech? Hooker and Bryce Perkins battling in 2019? Hooker moved to Tennessee, put up video game numbers for Tennessee last year and was a Heisman candidate prior to tearing his ACL in November. Hooker and Milton both transferred to Tennessee at the same time (Milton from Michigan).

Well, Milton won the starting job heading back in 2021. Then he got injured, Hooker took over, and he didn’t look back. Milton isn’t as dynamic a runner as Hooker, but he might have the biggest arm in the country.

Come on. This throw is ridiculous. This is off his back foot. If anything, that is an overthrow. And that is Milton’s problem. He’s almost got too much arm. His accuracy down the field will determine how far he can go. If he gets it, maybe first round. If not, maybe back at Tennessee next year.

The Vols will throw downfield. A lot. Virginia will absolutely need to get pressure on Milton. Upset his timing, and the whole offense could fall apart. That’s the only chance Virginia has of slowing down this team.

Tennessee LB Aaron Beasley

The Vols weakside linebacker led the team in tackles and TFLs in 2022. He’s 6’1” 225, but played safety in high school and still runs like a safety. Maybe he’s a little small for a LB, and maybe that’s why he is back for a fifth college season. Against this Virginia OL, Beasley will likely be spending a lot of time in the Virginia backfield.

This is from last year’s Orange Bowl, against Clemson. Beasley had 12 tackles, 4 TFLs, and 2 sacks in the game. And a pass break-up. He is the leader of the defense, and he is a big part of everything they do.

Tennessee RBs Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small - OK, I’m cheating a little, but they have two backs who split time. Blame Josh Heupel, not me.

When they aren’t throwing downfield, the Vols will run the ball. Per PFF, Virginia was 94th in the country in rush defense. And Tennessee was 20th in rush offense. The Tennessee OL is a big, veteran unit. Again, it will come down to the DL. If they can keep the Vols running game in check, that’ll help keep the Vols offense down.

Two Key Matchups in UVA vs Tennessee

Virginia Secondary vs Tennessee Receivers

The Vols had the number one offense in the nation last year. They were fifth in passing and 26th in rushing. But their QB is in the NFL, and they had two WRs drafted as well. So there will definitely be some drop off in the passing game? Right? Right?

Sure, Jaylin Hyatt and his 15 TD catches last year is gone. But their second, third, and fourth leading receivers from last year return. And to replace Hyatt, they get Oregon transfer Donte Thornton. Thornton is also a sprinter and averaged over 21 yards per reception last year.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s secondary was one of the strengths of the team a year ago. As a team, they allowed just 6.6 yards per pass, which is outstanding. The good news is, Virginia returns three starting safeties from last year. The bad news is, they lost both starting CBs.

The new CBs are a former walk-on and a couple of grad transfers. Of those three returning safeties, one has moved to CB (he’s the former walk-on) and another is hurt. That means new faces in four of the five DB spots. Not a great position to be in against this WR corps.

Look at how open that guy is. Can’t have that.

Virginia OL vs Tennessee DL

To put it mildly, Virginia’s OL was not good last year. The team ranked 120th in sacks allowed and 101st in rush offense. Per PFF, the Wahoos were 120th in rush offense and 127th in pass blocking. A bad OL usually means a bad team.

The Vols defense was on the field a LOT, since the offense plays fast and often scored so quickly. They ranked 90th in the nation in total defense. But they were 35th in scoring defense, and they were 31st in third down defense. This was far from a bad unit, though PFF ranked them 91st overall (the Wahoos were 65th.)

The Tennessee DL is big, talented, and experienced. The Wahoo OL is none of those. Three incoming transfers have landed starting jobs, but two of them have never started a game before. The other two starters return from last year’s bad unit. Is that a good thing?

Keeping Muskett upright is a huge key to this game. Even if Virginia’s defense is perfect, the Wahoo offense will need to score some points. Can’t do that if the QB is on his back all game.

Any chance that Virginia has of pulling the upset will require the OL to at least hold its own against an SEC Defensive Line. Good luck with that.

One Prediction

One of these teams is a top ten team coming off an Orange Bowl win. The other won three games last year and must replace almost the entire offense, their leading tackler and both starting CBs.

One of these teams was the best offense in the nation. The other was one of the worst.

One of these teams is an SEC powerhouse with national championship aspirations. The other is hoping to make a bowl game.

Tennessee is favored by four touchdowns and that seems low. Vols roll.

Prediction: Volunteers 56, Virginia 14