ATLANTA — Butch Jones is feeling the heat on Rocky Top.
Heading into his fifth season as Tennessee’s coach, Jones desperately needs a breakout performance to show he’s got the Volunteers on the right track.
A loss to Georgia Tech in Monday’s prime-time opener at $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium would be a huge step in the wrong direction.
“It’s a great opportunity for our football team, for our football program, to go to Atlanta and play against a very, very good football team in a great environment, a great new stadium,” Jones said, trying to keep things positive.
While only the first game in a very long season, this will surely set the tone for both programs.
Georgia Tech wants to build on a strong finish to 2016 with another victory over a Southeastern Conference team. The Yellow Jackets went 3-0 a year ago against the SEC, including season-ending victories over Georgia and Kentucky.
“It’s a huge deal,” said Parker Braun, an offensive guard for the Atlantic Coast Conference school. “It’s another good opportunity to play an SEC team. We don’t get very many opportunities to do that, so when we do play a team from the SEC, it’s important to show what we can do on our side.”
Jones has done his best to shield Tennessee’s players from the chatter outside the program, which hasn’t won a conference title since its national championship-winning season in 1998.
“All of us want to win,” tight end Ethan Wolf said. “We don’t feel pressure that we have to go out and win for whoever. It’s all about us and it’s all about the work that we put in and how much we love to play this game. The pressure is not really as heavy as you’d think.”
The game was shrouded in mystery at the most prominent position on the field.
Both teams had to replace experienced quarterbacks — Joshua Dobbs at Tennessee, Justin Thomas at Georgia Tech.
Neither coach had named a starter.
“I want them competing,” said Jones, who will go with either little-used junior Quinten Dormady or redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano. “They may compete all the way through pregame warmups. I think that’s healthy.”
Four quarterbacks were listed as possible starters for the Yellow Jackets, though it seemed likely either Matthew Jordan or TaQuon Marshall would get the nod. Redshirt freshmen Lucas Johnson and Jay Jones were also competing for playing time.
“It will be one of those four guys,” coach Paul Johnson said coyly. “I promise.”
Some things to watch for when the Vols take on the Yellow Jackets in the second Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game of the Labor Day weekend:
Tennessee gave up far too many long runs down the stretch, which doesn’t bode well facing Georgia Tech’s challenging offense. The Yellow Jackets ranked 10th nationally a year ago with an average of 258.1 yards per game on the ground. It is imperative that the Vols stay in their gaps and don’t bite on the option fakes that allow the run-oriented scheme to break long plays. Not as big of a concern for Tennessee is having nobody on the roster with more 2 1/2 sacks a year ago. Georgia Tech averaged only 12.3 passes per game last season.
Missing in action
Dedrick Mills, who was Georgia Tech’s leading rusher and MVP of the TaxSlayer Bowl, was kicked off the team a couple of weeks ago for violating athletic department rules. He’ll be replaced by KirVonte Benson, who has never run the ball in a college game. Tennessee has its own worries. Offensive lineman Chance Hall went down with a season-ending knee injury, starting left tackle Drew Richmond was suspended for the opener, and linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. won’t play because of a knee injury.
Getting their kicks
Georgia Tech is one of only six FBS programs without a single player who has attempted a field goal or punt at the college level. Freshman Pressley Harvin III won the punting job, but Johnson has not announced who would handle the kicking duties: freshman Brenton King or sophomore Shawn Davis. Tennessee is in good shape at punter with Trevor Daniel, but its kicking situation was also up in the air with incumbent Aaron Medley facing a strong challenge from freshman Brent Cimaglia.
Vols on the ball
Tennessee’s new quarterback will have a couple of impressive weapons at his disposal. John Kelly rushed for 630 yards last season, including 515 over his final six games. Jauan Jennings had 40 receptions and seven TDs, including a Hail Mary touchdown reception as time expired to beat Georgia.
The Georgia Tech campus is less than 2 miles from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, so it would be logical to assume this is essentially a home game for the Yellow Jackets. But Tennessee has a much larger fan base, so there will definitely be plenty of orange in the sellout crowd of more than 70,000. For sure, this will have the feel of a true neutral-site game. There is plenty of historical significance, as well. Once bitter rivals in the SEC, this will be first meeting between the schools since 1987.