This year’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta pits the SEC’s Tennessee Volunteers against the ACC’s Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in what promises to be a tight contest. Kickoff at the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium is scheduled for 8:00 PM EST on Monday, September 4th, and will be televised on ESPN.
Considered SEC East favorites last year, Tennessee underperformed at critical times of the season on their way to a 9-4 finish. Much of their woes can be credited to the amount of injuries that piled up on the defensive side of the ball.
Coming into this year, the Volunteers must replace many of their offensive weapons, but have continued to recruit to the ability of many of the other SEC juggernauts. With that said, they’re predicted by many to take a step back this year as Georgia’s stock rises.
As for Georgia Tech, they finished the season with four consecutive wins, three against quality opponents. They also lose lead RB Dedrick Mills, who was dismissed from the team earlier this month. They have much to prove before they can be considered for another 9-win season like they had last year. Tennessee is currently a -3 favorite over them, with the over/under set at 56 points.
Life without QB Josh Dobbs has begun for the Tennessee Volunteers. Quinten Dormandy will likely get the majority of the snaps, but Jarrett Guarantano will get his share as well. Both have made great strides, but they won’t be Dobbs-like this early in the season. And swapping out QBs in this big of a game can often prevent either player from getting in-sync with the rest of the offense.
For Tennessee, Dobbs is only the beginning of what they’re trying to replace. Their number one wideout, Josh Malone, left early for the NFL, as did their starting running back, Alvin Kamara. Meanwhile, Jalen Hurd, who’d been an X-factor for some time in Knoxville, transferred to Baylor. They bring back a capable No. 1-wideout in Jauan Jennings, but he’s the only returning player who had over 250 yards receiving in 2016.
That may mean that the load will fall on Jr. RB John Kelly in the opener. With the passing game a big question, Kelly brings stability after showing out in several SEC contests last season. The Vols will need him to exploit Tech’s run-stoppers, who finished 10th out of 14 in the ACC against the ground attack. Another concern is The Yellow Jacket’s lack of pressure last year on opposing QBs, as they only compiled 18 sacks.
But they’ll be playing an offensive line that was ranked 102nd in sack yards allowed last season. Trey Smith, ESPN’s No. 1 recruit of 2017, will provide a lift, but there’s no certainties at these positions.
And on defense, Tennessee looks to be playing without their best defensive player, MLB Darrin Kirkland, who hurt his knee last weekend. Top that with the injury of DT Shy Tuttle, who is likely a scratch as well, and the defense may be a bit more vulnerable to the Georgia Tech option attack. After all, they were already 104th against the run last year.
The Yellow Jackets o-line don’t have to deal with a force like Tennessee had last year with DE Derek Barnett.
They will however have to run the offense without Mills, who was a preseason all-ACC pick. They have their own issues figuring out the QB to replace the graduated Justin Thomas, but they possess multiple threats in the backfield. Clinton Lynch had an electric 11.2 YPC last year, and J.J. Green is another explosive game-changer.
There’s a lot being said about how the Volunteers have not lost an opener since 2008, but they also have only played one power-five team (NC State) during that time. They nearly blew their opener against App. State last year, and Tech comes in having beaten three SEC East teams in 2016 (Vandy, Georgia, Kentucky), and is 4-1 ATS in their last five.
The Volunteers have more upside, but the Yellow Jackets aren’t the team Tennessee wants to try and work the kinks out on.