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2021 Mid-American Conference Football Week 1 Game Preview: BGSU Falcons @ Tennessee Volunteers

Two teams meet, looking to return to glory. One is from the SEC.

NCAA FOOTBALL: SEP 05 Bowling Green v Tennessee Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game Notes-

  • Time and Date: Thursday, Sept. 2 at 8 p.m. Eastern
  • TV/Streaming network: SEC Network (A valid cable subscription is required to viewing.)
  • Location: Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee
  • Spread: Tennessee -35.0 (yikes!)
  • ESPN FPI: Tennessee 96.9%
  • All-time series: Tennessee won the only all-time meeting 59-30 back in 2015.

Thursday’s matchup between Bowling Green and Tennessee features two once proud programs, who are both looking to regain their footing.

The Tennessee Volunteers were among the best in the SEC at the turn of the century, but now enters the 2021 with their fourth head coach since 2017 and they are looking for just their second winning season since 2017, after finishing 3-7 a year ago in their shortened 10-game season.

The program had a messy off-season following a scandal which involved UT players reportedly receiving cash in McDonalds bags, prompting the firing of hot seat favorite Jeremy Pruitt. Enter Josh Heupel, a former National Champion at Oklahoma and a successful 27-6 record with UCF. He will be making his debut for the Vols when the boys from Rocky Top take the field, hoping to engineer a turnaround to respectability after the last decade or so of also-ran status.

The Falcons have nowhere to go but up... if you’re looking at it optimistically. The program finished 0-5 a season ago in a pandemic-shortened season and has not had a winning record since winning the MAC with a 10-4 mark in 2015. Loeffler is now just 3-14 in two seasons leading the Falcons after replacing Mike Jinks, who led the descent into basement-dweller status post-Dino Babers.

With the Falcons, any experience is good experience, as only 16 members of the Falcons roster have started a game for the Orange and Brown. Of those 16, at least two of them are currently injured in guard Sam Neverov and HB Trevon Raymore.

The Falcons have 71 freshmen on their roster, with an emphasis on fresh. A walloping 67.6 percent of the Falcons roster was in high school the last time the Falcons played a non-conference game back in 2019. It is all part of a plan by Loeffler and his staff to rebuild the Falcons without cutting corners with junior college transfers, who would off only a stop gap to the program’s problems.

This is a fine plan and all, especially since the Falcons are recruiting well, but the plan was seemingly hurt by a lack of practice and games reps last fall, as well as an interrupted spring campaign this year.

Bowling Green State University Falcons:

Matt McDonald returns at quarterback for the Falcons and they are hoping that a return to health for McDonald results in him playing like the passer who once starter over current Georgia QB JT Daniels in high school.

McDonald started five games a season ago. He completed just 54 of his 123 pass attempts, and had a one to six touchdown to interception ratio. He also missed this spring with injury.

Star tailback Andrew Clair is now in the Big Ten with Northwestern, and Bryson Denley is also gone. In their place, the Falcons look to standout freshman Terion Stewart of nearby Sandusky, Ohio, to continue his emergence as the lead back.

Stewart had 300 yards on just 37 carries with four touchdowns. His eight yards per carry average tells more of the story. Don’t be surprised if freshman Jaison Patterson flashes at running back for the Falcons as well.

The Falcons must replace most of their leading receivers from last year, including tight end Quintin Morris. To do that, they turned towards the transfer portal adding Austin Osborne from Washington, where before that he was a high school target of McDonald’s.

(BGSU’s leading returning receiver, Tyrone Broden, had just six catches for 97 yards and a touchdown last year to give you an idea of how inexperienced this roster is.)

A young Falcons offensive line will be tested as they enter the season with Sam Neverov, with 10 career starts, banged up. True freshman center Cade Zimmerly is expected to start at the center of the Falcon line.

On defense, the Falcons are marginally more experienced, but their defensive numbers a year ago also tests the theory of if all experience is good experience. BGSU was 0-of-5 at holding teams under 30 points a season ago, and they were by far the worst team in the nation against the run. Turn on their film against Kent State and you’ll see for yourself just how helpless that defense was.

Linebacker Darren Anders was the Falcons leading tackler a season ago with 55 tackles in five games, all of which were starts. Defensive end Karl Brooks started three games and had two sacks last fall, but started all 12 in 2019 with four and a half sacks. He also started eight games in 2018, adding experience.

Davon Ferguson joins the program as a senior transfer from Kansas at the corner position. While with Kansas, he had nine starts in 20 games and had 27 tackles in four games last fall in Lawrence.

A later add to the roster, Devin Taylor adds experience transferring in from Virginia Tech, where he started eight games last fall. Before that he was an FCS All-American playing in 35 games at Illinois State. Taylor was a high school teammate of Karl Brooks at Lansing Sexton.

Tennessee Volunteers:

The Volunteers are turning to a new coach in Josh Heupel. Heupel is known for his offensive acumen and prefers an up-tempo attack with a bit more balance than most up-tempo attacks.

While the Vols turn to a new coach, they also turn to a new QB in transfer Joe Milton. Milton, a transfer from Michigan, was 80 for 141 with four picks and four touchdowns for the Wolverines prior to his benching in Ann Arbor. A former four-star recruit from Florida, Milton will likely be the most physically imposing passer the Falcons see this season, standing at six-foot-five, 245 pounds.

Half back Jabari Small is a Doak Walker watch list selection, and had 26 carries for 127 yards as a true freshman last fall. He reportedly had a very impressive spring and training camp.

Hurt by transfers with the coaching change, the Volunteers will look to some transfers of their own to help as both junior college transfer Tiyon Evans and Mississippi State transfer JaVonta Payton make the two deep as co-starters at half back and receiver respectfully.

The Volunteers lost numerous players to transfer but also lost receiver Josh Palmer and guard Trey Smith to the NFL draft.

Cade Mays returns along the offensive line, and is a preseason first team all-SEC pick. He will likely be playing on Sunday’s next fall. His brother Cole, also starts along the UT line.

It’s certainly a new look for the Vols, as former Central Michigan football player Tim Banks takes over the defensive reins in Knoxville. Now one of the top coordinators in college football, Banks previously was also previously an assistant in Bowling Green around the Y2K era.

Keep an eye on Elijah Simmons at defensive tackle. He stands six-foot-two, 350 lbs., and will be lined up against a true freshman most of the night. His backup, Da’Jon Terry is a transfer from Kansas, who is himself six-foot-four, 325 lbs.

Such mismatches up front have to worry Scot Loeffler and company, as he has a QB coming off of a serious injury and a five-foot-nine tailback running behind a young line with a true freshman at center.

No position was hit as hard by transfers as linebacker for the Vols, and as a result, Tennessee added Juwan Mitchell from Texas, where he was their leading tackler last season.

Cornerback Alontae Taylor was a third-team preseason all-SEC selection, and is another Vol likely to play in the NFL. The former receiver has made 19 starts in 33 games. An exceptional student, Taylor is someone for McDonald to avoid. It is a very experienced defensive secondary for Tennessee.

(Of note, former Central Michigan recruit Kamal Hadden is on the Tennessee roster after stops at junior college and Auburn.)

Expected Result:

BGSU is 4-8 all-time against current SEC members and 0-1 all-time against Tennessee but this will be their first trip to historic Neyland Stadium.

Both teams wear orange, and both teams have problems has they seek to return to their past glory. Both team lost numerous players to transfers this off-season. The difference is that even SEC programs with problems are a different animal than that of MAC problems.

On the road, in the south, against an SEC school, from a historic venue with a young roster, and so on. The odds are not in the Falcons favor. For BGSU, a victory would be to keep the game within two scores and staying healthy to maintain whatever depth they do have at this point.

Look for the Volunteers to try and get enough of a cushion to not only empty their bench, but to keep their fans happy.

If 2015 BGSU with Matt Johnson couldn’t beat Tennessee, it doesn’t look good for this fall.