The word “impossible” is rarely ever true in college football, but several analysts are using that word to describe Virginia's chances of victory in its opening bout. The Cavaliers will kick off the 2023 season against the Tennessee Volunteers in a neutral site contest at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, although the stands will certainly be packed with Volunteer orange. ESPN analytics favor Tennessee by 87.5 percent, meaning an upset would be arguably the greatest win in Cavalier history. Second-year coach Tony Elliott and his crew will fight to turn tragedy into triumph however possible, as a strong performance —- even if the result is a loss —- would be the most memorable game of the Elliott era to date. Virginia will have to play perfect football to return home with a victory.
Virginia senior quarterback Tony Muskett versus Tennessee senior quarterback Joe Milton III
Obviously, all eyes will be on Virginia’s new starting quarterback. How he holds up against a respectable Tennessee front seven will be crucial to the outcome of what will be a tough battle. Completing over 50 percent of his passes with no turnovers and generating a few touchdowns would mark a solid start. The Volunteers will likely attempt to take away Virginia’s ground game first, requiring that Muskett carry offense on his shoulders. This is his opportunity to show what the 2023 Cavaliers are capable of. If offseason practices are any indication of how Muskett will perform in the regular season, Virginia should be both hopeful — and confident.
The Volunteers also have a new starter, Joe Milton III, formerly of the Michigan Wolverines. Milton III decimated Clemson in an Orange Bowl victory last winter and is looking to increase his NFL Draft stock in his first full season as the unquestioned starter after Hendon Hooker — who also spent time at Virginia Tech — was drafted by the Detroit Lions. Milton III is highly experienced and has incredible arm strength. Virginia will need to flash a disruptive pass rush to keep the veteran at bay. Milton III will likely aim to overwhelm the Cavaliers with constant deep passes and creative run plays, putting significant responsibility on defensive coordinator John Rudzinski — a situation that should be desirable for Virginia.
Virginia defensive backs versus Tennessee wide receivers
Disrupting the Volunteer passing game will be critical to maintaining a close contest. In his second year donning Volunteer orange, senior wide receiver Bru McCoy will likely be a key focal point of the Tennessee offense. The NFL departures of Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt make McCoy the presumed top receiver. At 6-foot 3 and 220 pounds, Virginia will need to find a solution to McCoy and sophomore receiver Squirrel White while also keeping an eye on the Volunteer run game. Virginia senior cornerback Tayvonn Kyle — checking in at 5-foot-11 and 181 pounds — will likely draw this difficult matchup. Another option could be fellow senior Malcolm Greene — who is 5-foot-10 and 188 pounds — but double teaming one or two specific options of an athletic Tennessee offense is a potentially dangerous tactic.
Fifth-year safety Antonio Clary is certainly limited — if not unable to play at all this week — due to a high ankle sprain, so junior Langston Long will have to man the defensive backfield alongside junior Jonas Sanker. Regardless of who gets the reps at safety, a long day is at hand against the Volunteers’ speedy receivers. Preventing Milton’s top tier deep passing ability will be a necessity. The Cavaliers were attacked through the air ad nauseum in 2022, and can make a statement by interfering with Milton’s season debut. At the same time, the safeties must assist in stopping a high energy Tennessee run game.
Keys to victory
First half offense
Tennessee only lost two games last year — one to eventual national champion Georgia and the other to South Carolina. Both opponents were able to score at least 24 points in the first half, putting the Volunteers in a difficult spot early. Virginia will need to do the same. Putting pressure on Tennessee’s offense would put the Cavalier defense right where they want to be. Virginia wide receivers need to create space for Muskett however they can.
No Cavalier turnovers
Given Tennessee’s ability to score quickly and their propensity to force turnovers — opponents averaged nearly two surrendered per game last year against the Volunteers — losing possessions is a sure way for the game to get out of hand quickly. Virginia struggled with untimely errors last year — Brennan Armstrong’s back-to-back pick-sixes against Pittsburgh come to mind — but a clean game with no fumbles or interceptions is arguably prerequisite number one. As seen last season, gifting away possessions is an instant scoreboard killer and a prime opportunity for the opposing offense, which Virginia cannot afford to give Tennessee.
Force turnovers defensively
The easiest way to overpower an opponent is to keep their offense off the field. Milton III was perfect last year in limited play with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions, but was rather turnover-prone in his last full season as a starter in 2020 for Michigan. Experienced Cavalier defensive backs must do whatever possible to return the football to Elliott’s offense. In Tennessee’s worst scoring output of 2022 —- just 13 points against Georgia — Hooker threw an interception and did not record a touchdown.
A memorable 2021 season for the Cavaliers feels long past, but Virginia can look forward to a clean slate for a new campaign. Elliott will have to generate some progress for his rebuilding program, and facing off against an SEC powerhouse is a promising diagnostic for how the season will go. A win would be near miraculous — but even keeping the score within a few touchdowns by covering the 28-point spread would go a long way toward a successful year.
All eyes will be on Virginia as the teams kick off Saturday at noon on ABC.