Considering the rich college football history of both programs, it’s astounding that Saturday will be the first matchup of Tennessee and West Virginia.
The two schools, separated by about 400 miles along Interstate 81, will come together Saturday in Charlotte at Bank of America Stadium (3:30 p.m., WBTV) for a nationally televised season-opener. The Mountaineers enter this game ranked 17th in the preseason Associated Press poll, while the Volunteers are unranked and rebuilding under new coach Jeremy Pruitt.
This game is a near-sellout and the aftermarket for tickets has been brisk. Some story lines for an intriguing Labor Day weekend matchup.
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Quarterback Will Grier, who starred just north of Charlotte at Davidson Day School, chose to play another season at West Virginia rather than enter the 2018 draft. That makes him one of the top returning passers in the college game: A legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, and the national exposure from this game will play into whether he continues to contend for that award.
Grier started his college career at Florida before being suspended in 2015 for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. He transferred to West Virginia and excelled last season, completing 65 percent of his passes for 3,490 yards and a ratio of 34 touchdowns to 12 interceptions.
So much has changed since Grier left Davidson: He’s now married with a daughter. His precision as a passer and his size (6-foot-3 and 217 pounds) could make him a prized prospect in the 2019 NFL draft.
The hiring process to replace Butch Jones at Tennessee meandered in many directions, including a reversal on hiring Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano. Pruitt has been a defensive coordinator at Georgia, Florida State and most recently reigning national champion Alabama, so he knows how the top level of college football works. Now, Pruitt’s athletic director is Phillip Fulmer, who set a standard for sustained success as Tennessee football coach.
Mountaineers’ shaky defense
West Virginia found out just how badly they needed Grier late last season when he was knocked out of the Texas game with a finger injury. The Mountaineers lost their last three games (Grier was out entirely for Oklahoma and the bowl game against Utah) by an average margin of 19.3 points per game.
The Big 12’s wide-open offenses stress most defenses, but West Virginia looked particularly overwhelmed in the last three games of last season, allowing 39 points per game. The Mountaineers lost all three of those games.
Former Carolina Panthers quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke is the Vols’ running backs coach, after working with Pruitt last season as an analyst on the Alabama staff.
The Panthers drafted Weinke in 2001 out of Florida State. Weinke spent six years as a minor-league baseball prospect before moving on to college football. Weinke mostly backed up Jake Delhomme as a Panther, but he did once hold a team record by throwing for 423 yards in a 2006 loss to the New York Giants.
Weinke coached at the IMG Academy program in Florida before serving as quarterbacks coach with the Rams for two seasons.
Tennessee has never played at Bank of America Stadium; the Vols last played in North Carolina in 1961, a 22-21 loss to the Tar Heels.
West Virginia put on quite a show in its last game in Charlotte: a 31-30 shootout victory over the Tar Heels in 2008 in what was then called the Meineke Car Care Bowl.