Each week the two sports editors and football beat writers, Josh Lane and Ethan Stone, will give their predictions and keys to Tennessee’s weekly matchup.
Let’s start the season off with Bowling Green.
Keys to the game
1. Let the quarterback shine
Joe Milton III needs his first start on Rocky Top to be a big one. Tennessee has suffered through long years of mediocrity at quarterback, and 2020 was one of the more egregious performances in recent memory. A Thursday night, prime time game against one of 2020’s statistically worst defense is the perfect time for a quarterback to assert himself.
Heupel needs Milton to steal the show. He has a new up-tempo offense and plenty of weapons, with speedsters like Velus Jones Jr. and Jalin Hyatt, at his disposal. A big day from Milton, even against a weak opponent, will go a long way to ease the nerves of the quarterback batter in the short term.
2. Establish the offensive line
One of the biggest disappointments from last season was the vast underperformance of Tennessee’s offensive line. The unit boasted 24 total stars, but was essentially a liability from week three on. Led this year by well-respected coach Glen Elarbee, the offensive line needs to be a major contributor in the Vols’ opener.
Against a Bowling Green defense that allowed 225 points in five games a year ago and has only one playmaker on the defensive side of the ball in all-Mid-American Conference (MAC) preseason selection — Karl Brooks — Tennessee’s line needs to allow its quarterback as much time as needed to let big plays develop.
Tennessee should be able to not only lock down their starters on the line but come out with a good feel of the rotation after the top-five offensive linemen.
1. Learn from recent history
Tennessee fans remember week one of 2019 all too well. Georgia State, 25-point underdog, waltzed right into Neyland Stadium and knocked off the Vols and second-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt like it was nothing. To many, it was the worst loss Tennessee has had in decades.
Now, Tennessee is getting ready to host Bowling Green as 33-point favorites. The Vols once again feature a young head coach looking to turn past misfortunes into a winning product on the gridiron.
First and foremost, Tennessee must learn from its past mistakes if it wants to take the next step that Pruitt could not. Tennessee, rebuilding or otherwise, is more talented than the Falcons. The key is not letting the players forget that. It seems simple, but ultimately, that’s why the game is played.
2. Showcase the high-scoring offense
The adage ‘easier said than done’ applies in a big way to the Vols’ first game under head coach Josh Heupel. Tennessee fans have been promised an up-tempo offense that scores points and wears out opposing defenses. The Vols have to be able to showcase the ability that was promised against a bottom-tier defense.
Bowling Green finished 2020 second to last in both points scored and points allowed. This is a team that the offense should be able to blitz — especially so if this high-scoring offense is as advertised. The defense will hold its own against a struggling Falcons offense, if the Vols can make them pay, a victory could be a matter of just showing up.
Spread: Tennessee -34.0
Vegas has this one going to Tennessee by a lot, and I agree 100%. Even if the Vols don’t play crisp football on every down — and they likely won’t, it’s the first game of the season — the Vols still lap Bowling Green on a pure talent level several times.
The Vols can’t go into this one expecting to win without trying, a la Georgia State two years ago. But, I don’t think they will. If nothing else, Heupel has the mindset of this team in the right place ahead of week one. I think it will translate, and the Vols will open the Heupel Era with fireworks.
Tennessee 42, Bowling Green 7
It has been 668 days since Bowling Green State won a football game. The Falcons exist on a plane entirely separated from that of the Vols at their worst, and Tennessee has nowhere to go but up.
It may be a sloppy performance, and that’s to be expected. However, the sheer size and athleticism of Tennessee should prevail in this instance. Bowling Green is just not built to compete with Southeastern Conference (SEC) talent.
The more interesting question, in my opinion, is this: What will Tennessee’s mindset be on Thursday night? Will the Vols expect a win or will they demand it? If it’s the latter, good things may be in store for the Volunteer faithful.
Tennessee 48, Bowling Green 10