Pitt Football Week 2 Matchup - Pitt Stacks Up Well Against Tennessee Volunteers

Vols HC Josh Heupel & AD Danny White / Credit: UT Athletics

 

The Tennessee Volunteers had a tough 2020 season.  They finished near the bottom of the SEC with a 3-7 record.  The Volunteers were bad defensively and they also had trouble getting much going on offense.  In their losses, the Volunteers scored less than 16 points per game, but gave up 35.

Unfortunately for the Volunteers, they also took a brutal beating from the transfer portal this past offseason.  Tennessee lost their 2020 starting quarterback, Jarrett Gurantano, to Washington State and both of their top rushers from last year, Eric Gray and Ty Chandler, to Oklahoma and North Carolina respectively.  The Volunteers also lost their top receiver, Joshua Palmer, to the NFL and their No.3 receiver transferred to UCF. 

New Offensive Weapons

Fortunately for the Volunteers, they did some recruiting from the portal of their own.  New starting quarterback, Joe Milton III, transferred to Tennessee from Michigan.  Milton played three seasons with Michigan, with 2020 being his most productive.  He started half of Michigan’s games last season before getting benched for sophomore Cade McNamara. 

The benching influenced Milton’s decision to transfer.  Milton was not terrible with Michigan, but he had difficulty getting the ball in the end zone, having just four passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown in six games played last year. 

Luckily, it doesn’t look like the offensive pressure will be entirely on Milton.  In the Volunteers game against Bowling Green last week, Tennessee had two players rush for over 100 yards.  With 22 rushes and 16 rushes, Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans rushed for 5.3 and 7.3 yards per carry respectively.  Evans, the, Volunteers new starting running back, transferred in this offseason from junior college.  Backup Jabari Small had 26 rushes in the 2020 season for 117 yards for Tennessee. 

Pitt's defensive front seven should be a great match against Tennessee’s run-first offense.  The one defensive issue for Pitt last week, even in a 51-7 rout of UMass, was the separation the Minutemen receivers found against Pitt’s secondary.  Luckily, as stated above, the Volunteers lost two of their top 3 receivers from last season.  One issue for the Panthers could be the deep ball, but Milton is not particularly great at accurately placing those for his receivers, which was UMass's problem as well.

Digressing Defense

Before the season even began, the Volunteers were looking weak on defense.  They were desperately searching for replacements for their top tackler, Henry To’o To’o, and top two sack leaders, Kivon Bennett and Deandre Johnson.  Similar to the offense, the Volunteer defense was brutalized by the transfer portal.  To’o To’o transferred to Alabama, Kivon Bennett transferred to Arkansas State, and Deandre Johnson transferred to Miami.  Additionally, top cornerback Bryce Thompson declared for the draft after the 2020 season.

Having to replace all of these top names, plus others who are missing due to various reasons, was already a tough test.  Combine that with new head coach Josh Heupel switching the defensive scheme and the Volunteers are in complete disarray defensively.  The only aspect of their defense that is expected to be better this season than last is their pass defense.  That is preferable as I would rather Kenny Pickett taking on the hardest part of the Tennessee defense than Pitt’s offensive line trying to stop an improved pass rush. 

Conclusion

Originally, I had Pitt losing this game.  From a 30,000 feet level, Pitt does not typically go on the road against Power 5 opponents and come out with a win.  Especially when it is only their second game of the season and they were not battle tested in the first.  UMass did not give Pitt much to work on nor did they expose many Pitt weaknesses.

However, after breaking down all of what Tennessee has lost, and who they have to replace them, I think Pitt wins this game.  Road games against Power 5 opponents, no matter who they are, will always be a tough task, but Tennessee has not figured it out on offense under Milton just yet and they have lost too much of their 2020 production defensively.  Perhaps a spoiler for our college football picks post on Friday, but I think Pitt wins by double digits in this one.

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