- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Breaking down the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Thursday (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET) between Virginia Tech (9-3) and Tennessee (7-5):
WHO TO WATCH: Tennessee junior safety Eric Berry has been one of the best players in the country for the past two years and won the Thorpe Award this season as the top defensive back in the country. Under Monte Kiffin, Berry has been used a little differently than he was a year ago when he intercepted seven passes. He’s played a lot closer to the line of scrimmage in more of a linebacker role, and led all SEC defensive backs with 54 solo tackles. The reality is that he can play anywhere you want him to. The Vols will use him in man coverage. They will blitz him. They will let him roam. It's fitting this game is in Atlanta. Berry is from just a few miles down the road in Fairburn, Ga., and this will almost certainly be his final college game. He's expected to announce afterward that he's turning pro.
WHAT TO WATCH: Virginia Tech’s reputation on special teams is well-earned. Year in and year out, the Hokies are as good as anyone in the kicking game. Tennessee, meanwhile, struggled all season to cover kicks and was even worse when it came to getting kicks off. The Vols had four field goal attempts blocked (including one that would have beaten Alabama), not to mention an extra point and punt blocked. On top of it all, Tennessee lost its special teams coach, Eddie Gran, to Florida State. Lane Kiffin said it would be a game-time decision on who handles the Vols’ place-kicking. In other words, the Vols hope it doesn't come down to a kick.
WHY TO WATCH: The Vols (7-5) are trying to make their most convincing statement yet that they’re on their way back. Knocking off the No. 11 Hokies would be an impressive way to end Year 1 under Kiffin, who’s made a lot of noise off the field and created a lot of headlines with his mouth. But his team also played solid football for much of the season and was in every game it played with the exception of the 42-17 blowout loss to Ole Miss on Nov. 14. Kiffin and his staff appear to be recruiting at a torrid pace, and several high-profile prospects are either committed or have shown interest in the Vols. Ending the season with a win over a nationally ranked foe and getting to eight wins would be a huge momentum boost heading into the offseason and give Kiffin even more “street cred.”
PREDICTION: Both teams have strong running games and the kind of running backs who can take over the game in the second half. Senior Montario Hardesty has 1,306 rushing yards for the Vols, while freshman Ryan Williams has 1,538 yards for the Hokies. Giving Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin a month to prepare for a team is never a good thing, but Virginia Tech’s edge in special teams is difficult to ignore. Mobile quarterbacks have also given the Vols more problems, and Virginia Tech’s Tyrod Taylor has excellent wheels. After four straight losses to SEC teams, the Hokies are due. Virginia Tech 28, Tennessee 21.
2dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
3dTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney