Game previews for the first game of the season are always tricky. New teams, new players, new records, new hope. No matter the preview or the author, all pre-season game previews are some combination of reliance on what happened the prior season, what’s changed since then, and filling the gaps with educated guesses. Often, folks will engage in a little creative ambiguity about what part and how much of their opinion is based on each of those components.
I’m going to do essentially the same thing here in previewing Tennessee’s season-opener against West Virginia, but I’m going to try to be as transparent as air. I’ll look at last year’s numbers for each team without apology, and then consider the most important things that are new and different about each team this season before launching into some guesswork about how things might shake out Saturday at 3:30.
So let’s get to it. First, the predictions, and below them, the details:
Tennessee rushing yards: 120
West Virginia rushing yards: 160
Tennessee passing yards: 200
West Virginia passing yards: 340
Tennessee points: 28
West Virginia points: 33
The Vols averaged 117.4 rushing yards per game last year, while West Virginia’s run defense gave up 204.2 yards per game. That makes West Virginia worse at defending the run than any team Tennessee played last year. Good news for the good guys.
Vanderbilt was the next-worst at run defense, allowing 198.5 yards per game, but still held the Vols to only 55 on the ground. So, never mind that previous bit of good news. 🙂
Tennessee’s 117.4-yard average was nearly identical to Baylor’s (117.3), and they got 127 against the Mountaineers last season. Texas, which averaged 139.6 rushing yards per game racked up 233 yards. So maybe kinda sorta a bit of good news for the Vols.
On balance, it would seem that, not accounting yet for offseason changes to the team, the Vols’ expected rush yards would be somewhere around 120-130.
West Virginia rushing
The Tennessee defense allowed 251.3 rushing yards per game last season, while the West Virginia run game averaged 150.3 yards per game. The closest “not-as-good” comparison for a prior Tennessee opponent was Massachusetts, which averaged 135.3 yards per game on the ground, and they got 144 against Tennessee. The closest “better-than” comparison for a prior Tennessee opponent was Florida, which averaged 156.4 rushing yards per game and got 168 against Tennessee. With all of that, and again not counting for any offseason changes yet, that sounds to me like West Virginia’s expected rushing yards should be somewhere around 160.
Tennessee averaged 173.7 passing yards per game in 2017, and West Virginia allowed 241.4. The closest “not-as-good” comparison for a prior Tennessee opponent was Kentucky, which gave up 251.6 yards per game through the air, and Tennessee put up 242 against them. The closest “better-than” comparison for a prior Tennessee opponent was Indiana State. They allowed 235 passing yards per game, and Tennessee got . . . 235 against them.
That would suggest Tennessee should expect to get about as much as the opponent regularly gives in the passing game, which would make it somewhere around 240. That’s pretty far from the Vols’ average last year, though, so I’d back it off to maybe 200.
West Virginia passing
Here’s where it really starts getting interesting. Tennessee’s pass defense numbers weren’t bad last year, but conventional wisdom suggests that because the Vols couldn’t stop the run, its pass defense was never really challenged. Additionally, the Mountaineers’ numbers are based on three games without Will Grier. So, we’ll keep all of that in mind and adjust for it after we look at last year’s numbers.
The Tennessee pass defense allowed 161.7 passing yards per game last year. West Virginia got 309.3, which makes them better in the passing game than any team the Vols faced last season. They were only slightly better than Missouri, though, which averaged 308.6 yards per game through the air and yet only put up 226 against Tennessee.
Looking at it from the Mountaineers’ perspective, the closest “not-as-good” comparison for a prior West Virginia opponent was Virginia Tech, which gave up 199.8 yards per game through the air in 2017, and West Virginia rolled up 371 against them.
Not counting yet for offseason changes (this is the last time I’m going to say that), but accounting for Tennessee’s lack of run defense, all of that would seem to suggest that West Virginia’s expected passing yards this weekend should be somewhere around 340.
Tennessee averaged 19.8 points per game last season, and West Virginia allowed 31.5 against high-powered Big 12 offenses. The closest “not-as-good” comparison for a prior Tennessee opponent was Massachusetts, which is allowing 31.8 points per game, but Tennessee only managed 17 against them. The closest “better-than” comparison for a prior Tennessee opponent was Vanderbilt. They gave up 31.3 points per game, and Tennessee only got 24 against them. That would make it look like you should expect no more than 20 points for the Vols against West Virginia.
But West Virginia’s opponents most like Tennessee last year generally scored more than their average when the played the Mountaineers. Kansas, which averaged 18.7 points, got 34 against West Virginia, and Baylor, which averaged 24.3 points, got 36 against the Mountaineers.
With that additional piece of information, I’d say it’s not unreasonable to expect the Vols to get somewhere around 28 points.
West Virginia scoring
Tennessee allowed an average of 29.1 points per game last season, and West Virginia averaged 34.5. Massachusetts, which averaged 30.6 points, managed only 13 against Tennessee, but Georgia, which averaged 35.4 points, got 41 against the Vols.
West Virginia also generally outscored their opponents’ averages. Oklahoma State, which allowed an average of 29.4 points per game, gave up 39 to the Mountaineers, and Oklahoma, which allowed an average of 27.1 points per game, gave up 31 when they played West Virginia.
With that, I’d say West Virginia’s expected points should be somewhere around 31-35
Those are last year’s numbers, and these are new teams this fall. For West Virginia, quarterback Will Grier is back into the lineup after missing the last three games of the season, all losses. So, he’s important to his team’s success. Not only is Grier back, but most of his go-to guys return as well. He lost one receiver (Ka’Raun White), but has David Sills, Gary Jennings, and Marcus Simms, and the Mountaineers lost running back Justin Crawford (1,061 yards) but returns Kennedy McCoy (611 yards).
As for the Vols, who knows at this point? An entirely new coaching staff has entirely rearranged the furniture and is in the process of remodeling and remolding the entire roster. The assumption is that the prior regime’s primary failure was in developing the talent it had recruited onto the roster and that the new guys are the remedy for that.
In addition, Tennessee knows exactly what to expect from West Virginia, but the Mountaineers know next to nothing about the revamped Vols team. If they assume their own strength is also Tennessee’s weakness due to the youth and inexperience at cornerback for Tennessee, and if those corners turn out to be better than expected, it could be costly to the Mountaineers in both time and opportunity in an important game.
So, the 2018 version of West Virginia is probably better than its numbers from last year suggest. The 2018 version of the Vols could be anything, really. They could be much better, the same, or even worse as they transition to a new scheme. But I think that the safest assumption is that the recruiting rankings weren’t wrong, that the improved health of the team overall will matter, and that the new staff can develop their guys into their potential.
On balance then, I don’t think that there’s much reason to adjust this year’s expectations of the game very far from what last year’s numbers suggest.
Comparison of predictions to other models and Vegas
My method makes West Virginia a five-point favorite. The current line is 9.5-10. ESPN’s FPI gives Tennessee a 40.9% chance of winning.