MORGANTOWN — Prior to last football season, the hype surrounding the WVU football program’s season opener, at FedExField, against Virginia Tech, was huge.
Both teams were ranked in the preseason top 15, and it was the first time in 12 years the bitter rivals met on the gridiron. At a neutral site with two rabid fan bases that don’t like one another, there was a feeling of renewed vigor and hatred.
This season, however, will have a little bit of a different vibe. Now just three months away from the season opener, the Mountaineers will again play at a neutral site, this time against Tennessee, in Charlotte, N.C., at Bank of America Stadium.
Despite being separated by 334 miles as the crow flies, WVU and Tennessee have never met in football — a stark difference from the 52 meetings the Mountaineers and Hokies had before last year’s game.
The Volunteers have a history of winning — 10th all-time in wins for Division I programs, with 833. They’ve claimed six national championships, and if we want to play that game with how many are actually legit and not in the stone age, Tennessee won it in 1998 with a 13-0 mark under head coach Phil Fulmer and quarterback Tee Martin.
But this is where the issues arise with Tennessee: It is not the same program is was 20 years ago. The days of Peyton Manning, Jamal Lewis and Peerless Price are long gone, the program has been in flux since the mid-2000s, and things have been really rocky on “Rocky Top.”
Fulmer won 10 games in 2007, but since then, the Volunteers have yet to get double-digit wins. They won more than seven games just twice, in 2015 and 2016.
Fulmer agreed to step down after a 5-7 season, in 2009. Tennessee hired Lane Kiffin, who bolted after one season to take the head coaching job at USC. Kiffin was replaced by Derek Dooley, but in three seasons at the helm, Dooley did not have a winning season. Enter Butch Jones, who appeared to swing things in a positive direction, but after back-to-back 9-4 seasons, Tennessee took a major step back with a 4-8 2017.
Dooley was fired before the season ended, in 2012, as was Jones last season. In all, since 2007, the Volunteers have had six head coaches, including two on an interim basis.
The Mountaineers are catching Tennessee in a time of major transition, and while the program has a rabid fan base with rich history, this isn’t the SEC powerhouse it once was.
Which brings me to my next point: WVU has to win this game. Jeremy Pruitt comes from Alabama, where he was the defensive coordinator, to be the new head coach. He could be the perfect fit in Knoxville, but it’s going to take time to rebuild.
There are major holes at every position besides linebacker. Tennessee will need to replace its starting quarterback, running back, three offensive linemen and top receiver.
Pruitt’s specialty is defense, and he inherits a group that was last in the SEC in rush defense, allowing 215 yards per game. In the secondary, the Volunteers were third nationally in passing yards allowed, but they lost their top four cornerbacks.
Last year’s season opener for WVU was a toss-up in a rivalry game with a lot of emotion. A loss wouldn’t derail the team, and it proved not to.
This year is a different story. With major expectations, the Mountaineers cannot afford to lose to a team that is a shell of its former self.