College football is back. Those are four words that fans across the country have been craving to hear for months. With a blank slate comes anxiety, curiosity and hope for those involved. As for the Tennessee Volunteer contingent, getting a healthy does of confidence early in the schedule is a necessity. Fortunately for Jeremy Pruitt and the 2019 Vols, that objective is well within grasp thanks to a three-game segment that features two non-Group of 5 schools and one FCS opponent. Saturday’s opener features the Georgia State Panthers from the Sun-Belt.
What Are The Odds?
The opening game of 2019 marks the second time these two opponents will square off (2012). Georgia State is an infant in football years. The largest university in Georgia will experience its 10th year with a football program, the eighth as an FBS representative.
The question of a victory should never be in doubt for Tennessee. Perhaps the most interest pertaining to the outcome will be based on the pockets of many new bettors across the country who can now legally wager on college football without punching a ticket via offshore accounts.
For those so inclined, the Vols’ 2018 record matched their record against the spread at 5-7. Tennessee fared much better as an underdog on the field and at the window. They had an ATS differential of +42.5 in upset victories over Auburn and Kentucky. The Vols also covered the spread against Georgia and South Carolina, giving them an ATS road record of 3-1. As for the cupcake portion of the schedule, Tennessee went 1-2 against the spread at home versus ETSU, UTEP and Charlotte. The one cover of the bunch came in a 56-point reckoning of ETSU.
The Panthers’ 2018 record also matched their ATS mark. Considering the Atlanta area is widely deemed as the Waffle House capital of the world, employees of the 24-hour breakfast establishment could probably dress their hash browns blindfolded far better than Georgia State covered its spread. The Panthers were an abysmal 2-10.
To Georgia State’s credit, it played North Carolina State, Memphis and Appalachian State in the non-conference portion of its schedule. Odds-makers saw those three contests in similar light to the one taking place in Knoxville at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. According MyBookie, the Panthers are currently a 26-point road underdog on Rocky Top.
A Dynamic Backfield
So what can the Vols do to make Saturday as comfortable as possible?
For starters, they will need to hone in on a backfield that can be dynamic in their own right. Quarterback Dan Ellington returns as Georgia State’s leading rusher and passer. The senior from Olive Branch, Miss. threw for 2,119 yards and 12 touchdowns in 11 games. He also added 625 rushing yards past the line of scrimmage.
His staple in the backfield will be senior Tra Barnett. The 5’10”, 185-pound running back capitalized on his carries in 2018 by averaging 5.1 YPA. He finished his junior campaign with 551 yards on the ground, adding 70 yards on 14 receptions.
Several players will likely touch the ball behind the line of scrimmage, and Ellington will be apt to extend plays with his legs. Look for the Panthers to be wary of a capable Vols defensive backfield and to attack a front that lacks identity. Georgia State rushed on 55 percent of its offensive plays last season, putting them inside the top third in that category involving FBS teams.
Much like Tennessee, the Panthers fell victim to inexperience and injury in 2018. This was especially true for Georgia State’s secondary. Five freshman saw action for this unit over the course of last season due to mass attrition. Opponents completed a whopping 73.4 percent (130th in FBS) of passes against the Panthers’ secondary. The vulnerable unit gave up chunks of field to the tune of 9.4 yards per pass (127th in FBS).
The Georgia State secondary should be healthier and more experienced, but it may not render those gains against what is one of the best receiving corps in the SEC, if not the country. Vols quarterback Jarrett Guarantano will look to feast and build off of his 62.2 completion percentage in 2018. The redshirt junior will have big targets in Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway, as well as guys who can stretch the defense like Josh Palmer at his disposal.
Tennessee will be no stranger to Georgia State coach Shawn Elliot. The former South Carolina assistant/interim coach will make his fourth appearance on the opposing sidelines in Neyland Stadium, only this time there won’t be a caveat with his coaching title. Elliott is 3-3 as an assistant against the Vols and 0-1 as interim HC.
The South Carolina native took over the reigns for half a season for the Gamecocks when Steve Spurrier stepped down in 2015. Elliott finished the campaign with a 1-5 record before returning as the offensive line coach in 2016. His 9-15 record at Georgia State includes the program’s only bowl victory, which came against Western Kentucky at the conclusion of the 2017 season.
This game will feature two head coaches that are trying to start a legacy while rebuilding programs towards prominence in their respective conferences. While the historical narrative may differ between the two, both schools find themselves in desperate need of rehabilitation. The former esteemed assistants who are pitted against each other on Saturday will have a chance to prove their restoration capabilities once things kick off this weekend.
For Elliott, it’s about bouncing back from a soiled sophomore campaign. For Pruitt, the Vols not only need to win, they need to be fluid and show maturation. A four-touchdown victory in Week 1 could very well indicate that progress has been made. At least some who are monetarily invested may think so.