SEC fans, how much do you know about some of your nonconference opponents? If you haven’t studied up yet, we’re doing a series this week that will look at some of the marquee nonconference games involving SEC teams in 2016 and the opponents that they will face.
Next up is Virginia Tech, who has an early showdown with Tennessee.
Opponent: Tennessee (in Bristol, Tennessee)
Date of matchup: Sept. 10
Offseason storyline: New coach Justin Fuente not only has to fill the huge shoes of Frank Beamer, he takes over a team that has a plethora of questions on both sides of the ball. So what will life be like without Beamer, who had 22 straight winning seasons and 22 consecutive bowl appearances? How will the young kid on the block, who had an exceptional track record at Memphis, fare under the bright lights in Blacksburg? I think most people in and around the program will agree there is some rebuilding to do after four straight 7-6 seasons. The Hokies have an open competition at quarterback, but many expect junior college transfer Jerod Evans to become the starter. While Fuente was pretty tight-lipped about the QB position this spring, there's no question that Evans has the most upside. Evans split first-team reps this spring and will have top offensive assets in McMillian (1,042 yards/seven touchdowns) and Ford (1,164 yards/11 touchdowns). Most of the rebuild will happen on defense, but having Ekanem back is huge. He might be the Hokies' best returning player and he's the only returning starter along the defensive line.
What's at stake for Tennessee: The Vols are the early, heavy favorites to win the SEC East. If not this year, then when for Tennessee? This game is huge from a confidence standpoint and this game will greatly mimic a bowl game with the incredible atmosphere expected inside gigantic Bristol Motor Speedway. There is a ton of pressure on this Tennessee team to win the East, and with the challenging start to the season, the Vols need to fly out of the gate in 2016. The Hokies won't have much to lose and will likely just throw the kitchen sink at the Vols. If Tennessee is going to make a statement in 2016, this is a game the Vols have to win. It won't have an impact on the physical standings in the SEC, but mentally, this one means a lot because everyone will be watching this prime-time game. This one is huge because everyone is expecting big things from the Vols and to lose to an unranked team before heading into the SEC gauntlet could take a toll on this squad. It's also a game to show us and the Vols where this Tennessee team currently is. Virginia Tech isn't an elite opponent this year, but it's a lot better than the traditional directional schools SEC teams love to feast on.