Tennessee OL Javontez Spraggins. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics.
Tennessee opens up its 2023 season Saturday afternoon when it faces Virginia at Nissan Stadium in Nashville. The Vols are coming off a resurgent 2022 season that saw them rejoin college football relevance.
Expectations are low entering Tony Elliott’s second season as Virginia’s head coach after a 3-7 campaign a season ago.
Tennessee is largely healthy entering the season opener and is looking for a strong debut.
Here’s three keys to a Tennessee victory.
Control Offensive Line Of Scrimmage
Perhaps Tennessee’s biggest question mark entering the season opener is what its offensive line will look like and how it will perform.
Cooper Mays is questionable for the opener and if he doesn’t go Tennessee will have three new offensive starting offensive linemen and another (Jeremiah Crawford) starting in a new spot.
So there’s a lot of change on Tennessee’s offensive front, and Virginia’s defensive line it the strength of its team even with top pass rusher Chico Bennett Jr. sidelined with a knee injury.
Still, the Vols are more talented up front than Virginia is and should be able to at least win along the offensive line of scrimmage if they can’t outright control it.
If Tennessee wins along the offensive front, Virginia is going to have real problems slowing down the Vols’ offense. If the Vols have a strong offensive debut, the Cavaliers will struggle to keep this one competitive.
More Tennessee Football Content: See RTI Staff Predictions For Tennessee-Virginia
Get Joe Milton III Off To A Strong Start
This key is both literal and figurative.
Let’s go back to the 2021 opener against Bowling Green when Joe Milton III made his first start at Tennessee. Milton was shaky in that game early and than really struggled in the middle of the game as the Vols had to solely rely on their run game against an overmatched MAC foe.
That the literal need for Milton to start fast. Get Milton in a rhythm early and keep his confidence high. That’s the recipe for a lopsided victory.
But Milton starting fast is also a macro key for Tennessee’s season. Inside the Vols’ program there’s a great deal of confidence in the veteran Milton. But this is still his first season as a full time starter. Getting his season off to a good start will be a rallying point for the team to embrace their new quarterback.
A good start to the season isn’t everything for Milton but it’s no doubt important for him to keep his confidence high and to see early this season that he can excel against a power five opponent.
Make Tony Muskett Beat You
Virginia is overall overmatched against Tennessee but that’s particularly true for the Cavaliers’ offense against the Vols’ defense.
The Vols are much better on the line of scrimmage and have more athletes and depth than Tony Elliott’s team. And they need to show it in the season opener. Prove that they’re better on the line of scrimmage by taking away Virginia’s run game and show they’re athleticism by taking away the short pass and run.
If Tennessee does that they leave Virginia’s offense only one option— quarterback Tony Muskett beating them with downfield passing.
While the Vols’ pass defense is an expected weakness again this season, Virginia doesn’t have the quarterback play or receiving weapons to truly capitalize on it. Muskett, who transferred to Virginia from Monmouth this offseason, is a bit of an unknown.
But if Tennessee’s defense makes Muskett make big plays to have success in his first game against power five competition than they’re bound to have success.