NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The 12th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers are ready to see just what they can do in coach Josh Heupel's third season. They will start in an NFL stadium that essentially will be a home away from home while technically a neutral site.
The Virginia Cavaliers finally are getting back on a field to play. Saturday's opener for both teams will be their first game in 294 days. They're trying to move on from a shooting that left three players dead and ended their season early.
Virginia coach Tony Elliott says every day is a triumph as they start their second season together.
“Every day that we continue to wake up and come to work, put our best foot forward, that’s the triumph in all of this,” Elliott said. “And now we have an opportunity on a national stage to show just how resilient the human spirit is.”
The Cavaliers will be trying to channel the spirit of Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry. Running back Mike Hollins, wounded in the shooting, recovered by the start of spring practice despite needing several surgeries.
Tennessee will be joining Virginia for a moment of silence planned before kickoff with the Vols wearing a helmet decal honoring the slain players.
“It’s obviously a horrific tragedy that took place there on their campus," Heupel said. “They’ve had a long time to try and grow through that. We also recognize what happened.”
Virginia freshman wide receiver Suderian Harrison will wear No. 1 to honor Davis Jr., and kicker Will Bettridge will wear No. 41 to honor Perry. Both were teammates in high school with the players they will honor.
Defensive end Chico Bennett, perhaps the Cavaliers’ best defender, will continue to wear No. 15, which he shared with the third victim, Devin Chandler, last season. Bennett will miss the game with an injury. The Cavaliers also will wear patches to honor their lost teammates.
Elliott knows well the challenge his Cavaliers face in a Tennessee offense that spreads the field — and Tennessee can run, too. The uptempo Vols led the nation both scoring 46.1 points and averaging 525.5 total yards per game.
Joe Milton III goes into his third season in Heupel's offense replacing his roommate Hendon Hooker, drafted by the NFL’s Detroit Lions, at quarterback. Milton was the only FBS quarterback to throw at least 10 touchdowns without one interception after taking over when Hooker tore his ACL.
“Man, he’s a stud,” Elliott said. “He can run it, and he can throw it. He’s more of a throw guy first, but man, when he pulls it down, it’s pretty scary.”
START FAST, PLAY FAST
Slowing down the Vols has proven to be quite the problem. Under Heupel's system, they've outscored opponents 331-123 in the first quarter, scoring at least one TD in the first quarter of 24 of 26 games through the coach's first two seasons.
Part of the challenge for opposing defenses is just how fast Tennessee plays offensively. The Vols run an average of 2.94 plays per minute combined over the past two seasons, most in the nation. They also lead the nation averaging 1.72 points on offense per minute.
Monmouth transfer Tony Muskett will start at quarterback for Virginia. A three-year starter, he threw for 51 touchdowns with 16 interceptions in 23 starts for the Hawks. He's well aware there’s little comparison between the Coastal Athletic Association and the Southeastern Conference.
“It’s a defense that doesn’t have a lot of weak spots," Muskett said.
READY TO GO
Nissan Stadium is home to the NFL's Tennessee Titans, and the game is sold out. The Vols, at least as a program, should be comfortable in this stadium. This is the third time they have opened a season here, though this is the first time since 2015 when they routed Bowling Green.
Yet Tennessee is 3-2 at this stadium after two controversial losses in the Music City Bowl, the last a 48-45 overtime loss to Purdue to cap Heupel's first season.
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz Jr. contributed to this report.
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