CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tennessee has a first-time head coach and a quarterback mystery. West Virginia has Dana Holgorsen and a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Those represent two reasons why the No. 17 Mountaineers are 9.5-point favorites for Saturday’s opener at Bank of America Stadium.
Former Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt — part of four national championships with the Crimson Tide and a fifth at Florida State — takes in the challenge of rebuilding the Vols after a zany coaching search that ended with athletics director John Currie being fired.
Holgorsen enters his eighth season at West Virginia with a 53-37 record hoping Will Grier is the quarterback capable of finally delivering the school’s first Big 12 title. The Mountaineers are a trendy pick despite losing their final three games last year to finish 7-6.
“I think you have to start with the quarterback position, and (Grier) is very talented,” Pruitt said. “He can make all the throws, he can beat you with his feet, he can extend plays. He’s tough and has lots of experience.”
Tennessee’s quarterback conundrum may not be resolved for weeks. Sophomore Jarrett Guarantano, who started six games last season, and Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst are listed as co-starters.
“I think it’s going to be important for us — whoever our quarterback is — that we need to play the No. 2 guy,” Pruitt said. “You look at it all across the United States every year, people get hurt at quarterback. So you want the next guy to have some game experience.
“Heck, we may play both guys, so we’ve got to figure it out as we go.”
With Grier at the controls, WVU thinks it has figured out how to mix last season’s big-play capabilities with better possession-down efficiency. The Mountaineers scored 34.5 points per game but ranked among the worst offenses in the FBS on third down (34 percent).
“I don’t give a crap about big-playing people. If you’ve got good players, those are going to happen,” Holgorsen said. “I care about the efficiency aspect of it. Our third downs were garbage, and we were turning the ball over way too much.”
Grier threw for 3,390 yards and 34 touchdowns despite missing most of the final three game with a broken finger. He returned as a fifth-year senior after receiving a third- to fourth-round draft grade from NFL evaluators.
Also back is Grier’s favorite touchdown target, David Sills, whose 18 scoring catches tied for the national lead in 2017. Gary Jennings caught only one touchdown but topped the Mountaineers with 97 receptions for 1,096 yards.
With four starters returning up front, led by tackles Yodny Cajuste and Colton McKivitz,
“It’s sort of like the 2013 Texas A&M year, where they had a bunch of returning starters and the continuity was right,” offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said.
That Texas A&M offense, for reminders’ sake, finished among the nation’s top five in scoring, yardage and passing efficiency.
Tennessee’s cornerbacks are young, but the run defense should be improved from last year’s 4-8 finish. Eight of the top 11 tacklers return along the defensive front seven.
West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s unit has ground to make up too, after ranking 106th nationally in yards allowed (445.5). Reasons for optimism? Preseason All-Big 12 linebacker David Long, reinvigorated safety Dravon Askew-Henry, and graduate transfers Kenny Bigelow (USC) and Jabril Robinson (Clemson) joining the defensive line.
“I’m excited to watch them play,” Gibson said. “I feel comfortable. There are always what-if’s, and there’s always things going into the first game that you’re not real sure of, but I’m anxious to watch them play and watch this group of kids throw their bodies around.”