It's Football Time in Tennessee: Vols vs. Virginia (9/2/23)

Recently: Tennessee finished the 2022 season 11-2 with an Orange Bowl victory over ACC champion Clemson. The Vols rose as high as #1 in the polls and flirted with a CFB playoff bid through season's end. Suddenly, "cautious optimism" was replaced by "championship hopes" as the ceiling for even the most realistic Vol fan. Whereas previous coaching staffs provided hope with little to no actual results, Josh Heupel and co. have delivered proof of concept ahead of schedule, and high expectations are now rooted in reality, not just hype.

The Cavaliers, however, were a bad football team in 2022. And I mean really bad, arguably one of the five worst Power 5 teams in the country. Virginia finished 3-7, with all three wins coming against teams in the bottom half of college football by just about every metric.

Previously on Vols vs. Cavs: Overall, Tennessee is 3-1 all-time against Virginia, most recently winning the 1991 Sugar Bowl against UVa. 

People always cite 2007 as the most bizarre college football season, and it was, but 1990 walked so that 2007 could run. Virginia started 1990 on fire, winning 7 straight and rocketing to #1 in the polls. The Sugar Bowl, hoping to set up a national championship game between UVa and the eventual SEC champ, offered the Cavs a bid before the end of October. Virginia went on to lose three of their last four games, including a 3-point loss to eventual co-national champion Georgia Tech, and dropped out of the top 25 altogether. 

Meanwhile Tennessee started the season (in Anaheim for some reason) with a 31-31 tie against the other co-national champion, Colorado. Tennessee had another tie later in the year against Auburn which would've cost the Vols an SEC title had Florida, whom Tennessee trounced 45-3 in Knoxville, not been on probation. Tennessee finished the year with an 8-2-2 record (including a 29-34 loss to top-ranked Notre Dame), the SEC Championship, and a Sugar Bowl bid against Virginia. Down 17-0 at half, Tennessee rode a flurry of scoring in the 4th quarter, capped by Tony Thompson's 1-yard dive into the endzone to give the Vols a dramatic 23-22 win. If you're too young to remember this game, or if you just haven't thought about it in a while, do yourself a favor and go watch the 4th quarter. It's a wild ride. 

THE FIVE FACTOR TRACKER: There are five metrics that are highly correlated to winning in college football: finishing drives, efficiency, explosiveness, field possession, and turnovers. This site will be tracking those five factors all season.

Tennessee Offense vs. Virginia Defense (2022 Stats)

Last week I published a video explaining how UT's offense fared with these numbers in 2022 with an eye toward 2023. You can see it here: 

Despite the team's overall record, Virginia's defense wasn't terrible. They did a very good job in 2022 of limiting scoring opportunities (T-10th nationally) and explosiveness (6th nationally). The good news for the Cavs is that UVa returns eight starters from last year's defense. The bad news is that their leading tackler, LB Nick Jackson (104 tackles, 11 havoc plays in '22) transferred to Iowa. Also gone are their top two pass defenders: Fentrell Cypress (14 havoc plays) and Anthony Johnson (17 havoc plays), who were also #1 and #2 in the ACC in passes defended last year. The biggest weakness for Virginia's defense in 2022 was creating havoc plays, and that's a bunch of havoc production gone in 2023. UVa will be looking to DLs Kam Butler and Chico Bennett, who combined for 10 sacks in 2022, to make up a lot of that production. [Update: as of Tuesday of game week, Chico Bennett is out for this game.]

Tennessee Defense vs. Virginia Offense (2022 Stats)

What if I told you that Tennessee's defense wasn't as bad as you think they were in 2022? They get criticized for giving up a lot of yards, especially passing yards. But if you want numbers that support a "bend but don't break" philosophy, look no further than the 81 scoring opportunities surrendered (bottom 10% nationally) paired with 3.16 points allowed per opportunity (just outside the top 10% nationally). So yeah, they allow opponents to drive inside the 40, but on average UT holds opponents to just a field goal each time. In every other factor listed here, the Vols hover right around the top 50% of teams. That's not ideal, but just around good enough when paired with an offense as prolific as Tennessee's. 

Virginia's offense, however, was putrid in 2022. That's an odd thing to say about a team whose QB set multiple school records, but the numbers don't lie. The Cavs created just 52 scoring opportunities last year, and averaged less than a field goal each time they got inside the 40. Their 39.6% success rate puts them in the bottom third of teams, and might very well be caused by the fact they gave up a sack, TFL, PBU, or turned the ball over nearly once every set of downs

So, they can only get better right? Well... looking at the 25 most explosive plays Virginia had in 2022, 23 of them were QB Brennan Armstrong either running or throwing on his way to setting the school's single-season passing record (4,449 yds) and becoming UVa's all-time leading passer (9,034 yds), as well as being the Cavs' leading rusher. However, Armstrong transferred to NC State after the season, and Tony Muskett, a transfer with 5,687 yards passing and 51 TD/16 INT in three years at FCS Monmouth, takes his place in 2023. Other transfers who look to be featured in Virginia's offense include WR Malik Washington (Northwestern) and RBs Kobe Pace (Clemson) and Cody Brown (Miami, FL). It's entirely possible that Muskett and the other transfers are a better fit for Tony Elliot's offense than what he inherited when he arrived at Virginia, and maybe the Cavaliers take a huge step forward. Can it be a big enough step to shock the 28-point favorite Vols? 

Prediction: The Cavs will be taking the field for the first time since mid-November when three Virginia players, Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry, were shot and killed. They will be the emotional favorites for not only thier own faithful, but also neutral fans nationwide, and were they playing anyone else, I'd be rooting for them too. And who knows? We haven't seen either of these teams play this season. There's a lot of question marks on both sides of the game, and if those questions get certain answers...

The reality, though, is that Virginia would have to be a lot better than they were in 2022 and Tennessee would have to be a lot worse. The Vols would have to be porous on the offensive line and Joe Milton would have to play the worst game he's had since coming to Knoxville. Virginia's defense would have to be at least as good as they were in 2022 despite losing their top tackler and top two pass defenders, and playing without their projected top DL coming into 2023. The Vols defense would need to regress from last year's form and all of the players who transferred into UVa's offense would have to be excellent. And I do mean "and." Every one of those things would have to happen for Virginia to win. Now it's not impossible. But it's a longshot. I don't bet on games and I'm not going to tell you to lay 28 points. But Tennessee should win this game in a blowout


Extraneous: The absolute #1 thing that pops into my mind when you say "Virginia" is the 1991 Sugar Bowl win against the Cavs, and not because of Tony Thompson's goaline vault into the endzone. It was UVa's helmets that burned their way into my 12-year-old mind at the time. They were bizarre in their simplicity: a white helmet, with no side logo, and an asymmetrical design in the center: a wide orange stripe with a smaller blue stripe next to it--but only on one side. This was novel to me because nearly every football helmet, if it has a stripe, has simply one central stripe riding the raised middle ridge that was a feature of the old Riddel model, or else a central stripe straddled by two additional stripes of an alternate color. If you wanna get buck wild, you might have a space between the center stripe and the flanking stripes that shows the color of the helmet. This has always been something that caught my attention because Tennessee is unique in this aspect too. Most helmet stripes do not have the girth, if you will, that the Vols' orange stripe does. It's one of the many aspects that makes us superior to the pencil-striped losers from, say, Tuscaloosa, for example.

In contrast, the Virginia helmet looked like a time-strapped equipment manager forgot to add the second blue stripe. And yet, it worked. It looked wrong, but right. Jazz musicians will tell you the notes you don't play are as important as the ones you do--and if that's true, Virginia's 1980s helmet was Count Basie. I think you can see pretty well what I'm talking about in this photo:

But not long after Tennessee defeated UVa in that Sugar Bowl, the Virginia football program hit a downturn, and the Cavs found themselves rebranding like many poor programs with little history do when times get tough. 

By the turn of the century, Virginia was wearing on their helmets the design element I count my most loathed design in all of football: the pointy stripe. You know, the stripe that tapers off the farther back it goes on the helmet? It was a staple of late 90's/early 00's NFL teams--the Titans used it, Baltimore, Carolina. Denver uses a reverse version, thick at the back and tapered at the front, like a mullet. I instantly hate any helmet design that uses the pointy stripe. And ever since Virginia--whose brilliantly simple, novel helmet of 1991 lived rent-free in my head for a decade--morphed into this bastardization of football headgear, the Cavs have been dead to me. To their credit, UVa's current helmet design pays homage to the superior two-tone stripe of the 80s, but they've lost the unique asymmetry of the original. The current version is milquetoast in comparison. If the Vols can hang half a hundred on the Cavs, (or the 'Hoos as their fans call them--like Auburn, Virginia cannot just settle on one nickname and run with it, another reason to root against them) then 12-year-old me will feel a little better about the helmet betrayal of years ago. 


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