Each of the last two seasons, the Tennessee football team opened their season against some of college football’s most difficult offenses in Georgia Tech and West Virginia.
Both contests took place at neutral sites, away from the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium and the game against West Virginia pitted their defense against a Heisman favorite in Mountaineer quarterback Will Grier. Those are a few reasons the Vols 2019 season opener versus Georgia State will be a welcome change.
The Panthers, who hail from the Sun Belt Conference, finished 2-10 last season in head coach Shawn Elliot’s second at the helm.
Despite that, don’t expect Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt to overlook them. While fall camp in early August is meant to prepare the team before actual game preparation, Pruitt had his team getting ready for Georgia State by practice No. 6.
“We will start getting into our game prep on Thursday,” Pruitt said. “We’ll work on our early-season opponent this week and we have done that all fall camp. Since day six, we have been working on some component of somebody.”
Here is a closer look at the Vols first opponent:
The Panthers are lead by a face that should be familiar to Tennessee fans in Shawn Elliot.
After former South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier resigned halfway through the 2015 season, it was Elliot the Gamecocks named as interim head coach for the remainder of the season.
“Shawn Elliot is a guy that I’ve coached against over the years,” Pruitt said. “A fantastic offensive line coach. When you watch this team play, you see the same things I’ve seen going against his offensive line.”
Elliot lead South Carolina into Neyland Stadium on Nov. 7, a game the Vols won late, 27-24. After having the interim tag for the last six games of the season, Elliot remained on Will Muschamp’s staff for another season before being hired by Georgia State for his first head coaching gig in 2017.
Elliot’s first season in Atlanta showed marked improvement, taking the Panthers from a 3-9 finish in 2016 to a 7-5 mark in his first season in 2017, but Georgia State took a step back last season however, finishing 2-10 overall. They do return 14 starters from that team, but coming to Knoxville in week one will be a tall task for what they hope is a bounce-back season.
Seven of Georgia State’s 14 returning starters reside on the offensive side of the ball, which also includes senior quarterback Dan Ellington.
As a junior, Ellington started in 11 of the Panthers’ 12 games and throwing for more than 2,100 yards and 12 touchdowns against five interceptions. He was also the team’s leading rusher with over 620 yards on the ground.
Georgia State returns a pair of running backs from last season in Tra Barnett and Seth Page who rushed for a combined 900-plus yards in 2018 and seven touchdowns. Barnett’s 551 rushing yards were a team second-best behind Ellington.
“On offense, they spread you out,” Pruitt said. “They’ve got a quarterback coming back, also their leading rusher. Tra Barnett is a guy that has breakaway speed. He can score at anytime.”
While the Panthers only won two games last season, their offensive line managed to help their rushing attack reach their highest average since joining the FBS level with Georgia State running backs averaged more 170 yards per game.
That line did lose four starters, however and Tennessee’s young but deep defensive line will look to exploit that, despite the unit not having a lot of in-game experience.
At receiver, the Panthers are set to return most of the group from last season, although they struggled and dropped from a production standpoint from the 2017 season. The unit also includes two SEC transfers in Christian Owens from South Carolina and Cameron Knight from Florida.
While the Georgia State defense had four returning linebackers in 2018, the corps struggled in most contests, relinquishing more than 500 yards per game. They do get back two of their top tacklers, including Ed Curney, who had 3.5 tackles for loss and Trajan Stephens-McQueen.
“On defense, their leading tackler, Ed Curney is back,” Pruitt said. “He lead the team in tackles. They’re all over the field when you look at the tape. It’ll be a tremendous challenge for us.”
Up front, the Vols running back room which will include Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan, will look to take advantage of a Georgia State defensive line that allowed more than 250 rushing yards a game in 2018. They do get back all but one starter, however, so the experience will be there.
The Panthers secondary will face Tennessee’s most talented and experience position group in the Vols’ wide receivers. Last season, Georgia State’s defensive backs allowed 240 yards through the air, a number that was actually an improvement from the previous season. Still, look for first-year offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to try and take advantage of.
Georgia State won’t present the challenge that previous teams Tennessee has faced right out of the gates have, but returning experience could present the challenge Pruitt talked about.
Elliot’s forte is his offensive line, and the Vols will play a lot of players on Saturday who do not have a lot of in-game experience. Ellington could also try and take advantage of Tennessee’s young secondary, which will be without 2018 freshman All-American Bryce Thompson.
Still, this should be a game where the Vols talent proves to be too much. Tennessee could struggle early breaking in Chaney’s new offense, but look for the Vols to get comfortable and hit their stride as the game wears on.