TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS (0-0)
vs. GEORGIA TECH YELLOW JACKETS (0-0)
Mercedes-Benz Stadium – Atlanta, GA
Kickoff: Monday, 8:00 p.m. ET
Line: Tennessee -3, Total: 56.0
Two nine-win teams from a year ago look for a signature win to open the season as #25 Tennessee battles Georgia Tech.
Tennessee didn’t live up to their preseason top-10 ranking last season, finishing 9-4 with upset losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt. However, for the third-straight year head coach Butch Jones won a bowl game, toppling Nebraska 38-24 in the Music City Bowl. The Vols have to replace top producers at QB, RB and WR, while the defense has a great deal of talent but was awful more often than not in 2016. Head coach Paul Johnson has brought Georgia Tech to eight bowl games in nine years, and ended 2016 with a bang. After a rocky 3-3 start, the Yellow Jackets finished with a 9-4 record by winning their last four games, including upsets at Virginia Tech and at Georgia, as well as a 33-18 win over Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Johnson’s triple-option attack lost its three top runners from last year, but running back talent remains and the offensive line should be solid. The defense has work to do up front, but brings back its secondary in full. These schools haven’t played each other since 1987. Georgia Tech is 5-1 SU & ATS against the SEC since 2014, but have a 2-6 SU & 1-7 ATS record in games with a line between -4 and +4 over the past two seasons. Tennessee is 5-0 SU & ATS in neutral field games under Jones.
Tennessee’s offense scored 34 or more points nine times last year and averaged 36.4 points per game (24th in the nation), but must replace most of their skill position production. Joshua Dobbs started 35 games at QB for Tennessee – now that he’s in the NFL, pocket-passer Quinten Dormady and dual-threat Jarrett Guarantano are vying for playing time. True freshman OG Trey Smith was the No. 1 recruit in the country last year, and he joins an experienced and deep O-line that should be a strength for the Vols. RB John Kelly (630 rushing yards, 5 TD, 6.4 yards per carry) ascends into a starting role as the only returning player who ran for more than 60 yards last season. WR Jauan Jennings (40 receptions, 580 yards, 7 TD) and TE Ethan Wolf (22 receptions, 247 yards) are the top targets in the passing game. Tennessee’s defense allowed 449 yards per game (95th in FBS) last season, and gave up more than 350 rushing yards four times. The defensive line has some depth, and former No. 1 junior college recruit DE Jonathan Kongbo is expected to have a breakout season after coming off the bench last year. LB Darrin Kirkland (111 total tackles, 4 sacks, 11.5 TFL in 21 career games), a 2015 All-SEC Freshman Team selection, will anchor the second level after missing five games with an ankle injury. Three starters return to a secondary that should be the strength of UT’s defense. S Todd Kelly (67 total tackles, 2 INT), S Micah Abernathy (66 total tackles, 2 INT, 3 TFL) and versatile nickelback Rashaan Gaulden (63 total tackles, 6 TFL) were the top three tacklers on the team last season.
Georgia Tech’s triple option racked up 258 rushing yards per game (9th in FBS) last year, but it was the second-lowest mark in Paul Johnson’s nine seasons as head coach. Three-year starter QB Justin Thomas and top RBs Dedrick Mills and Marcus Marshall are gone, leaving a 1,999-yard, 24-TD void in the backfield. Johnson is unlikely to name a starter under center before kickoff. A-Back Clinton Lynch was phenomenal in a limited role last season (905 yards from scrimmage, 8 TD, 11.2 yards per carry, 30.6 yards per reception) and should be the focus of the offense, while the B-Back job is still up for grabs with a stable of unproven-but-promising options for Johnson to choose from. The offensive line gelled well late last season and should be able to steamroll most opponents. Leading WRs Ricky Jeune (25 receptions, 427 yards) and Brad Stewart (19 receptions, 382 yards) both return. The Yellow Jackets defense did well to hold opponents to 24.5 points per game (39th in FBS) last season. Their pass rush was often non-existent, though DE Anree Saint-Amour (4 sacks, 4 TFL) has a chance take carve out a larger role after serving as situational substitute pass-rusher last season. DE KeShaun Freeman (4 TFL, 9 QB hurries) should also help improve the defensive front in his fourth season as a starter. Middle LB Brant Mitchell (71 total tackles, 3 TFL) returns to his starting role, and flashed big-play ability with 28 total tackles and two INT in the Ramblin’ Wreck’s final three regular-season games. The entire secondary remains intact, and could be a shutdown unit if the pass-rush improves. Twin brother CBs Lance and Lawrence Austin each had three INTs last season, and safeties Corey Griffin (82 total tackles, 5 TFL) and A.J. Gray (72 total tackles, 3.5 TFL) both have solid coverage skills and don’t mind coming into the box to deliver hits.