No. 17 Tennessee, Virginia Tech meet in 'Battle at Bristol'
Nobody knows quite what to expect when an anticipated record crowd settles in Saturday for No. 17 Tennessee's showdown against Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway, which has been temporarily converted into a football stadium.
Tennessee linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. acknowledges that ''it's going to be different'' playing in this setting.
''In my head, it's kind of hard to envision,'' Kirkland said. ''I'm definitely excited for the experience. It's kind of once in a lifetime.''
The uncertainty extends to the game itself.
Tennessee is an 11 +-point favorite but had to erase a 10-point halftime deficit to edge Appalachian State 20-13 in overtime last week. Virginia Tech won its opener 36-13 over Liberty to usher in Justin Fuente's coaching tenure while unveiling an up-tempo offense that bore little resemblance to predecessor Frank Beamer's run-oriented attacks.
Appalachian State's near-upset of Tennessee has created doubt about whether the Volunteers are as good as their preseason top-10 ranking. Virginia Tech still must show that its offense can have similar success against tougher competition than Liberty.
The only thing the players are sure of is that the unusual environment should create a memorable moment.
More than 150,000 fans are expected to pack the speedway for a matchup billed as the "Battle at Bristol." That would shatter the NCAA single-game record of 115,109 set in 2013 at Michigan Stadium for a Michigan victory over Notre Dame.
Both teams have emphasized the importance of maintaining focused and not getting distracted by the atmosphere at Bristol, Tennessee, located roughly halfway between the two schools.
''It's going to be an awesome experience,'' Virginia Tech running back Sam Rogers said. ''I can't wait to get out there. Obviously it's being hyped up as the biggest college football game in history, but ... we've just got to take it just like any other game. I feel like we wouldn't be a good team if we prepared differently for different games.''
Here are some things to watch when Tennessee faces Virginia Tech at the Bristol Motor Speedway.
UNUSUAL ENVIRONMENT: The sheer size of Bristol Motor Speedway means that assistant coaches working from the box will be much farther away from the field than usual. Both of Tennessee's coordinators and Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen typically work from the box, while Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster roams the sidelines. ''I don't think (working) from the press box is going to be a problem,'' Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. ''It's not necessarily the width from the field, it's the length in the end-zone seats, I think that's going to be the major issue. If I were calling a game from the end zone and the ball were on the other side of the field, that would be a disaster, but where we're going to be sitting, I think it's not going to be any problem at all.'' With most of the fans also farther away from the field than they normally would be Kirkland wonders if that could lead to less crowd noise than usual.
EVANS' ENCORE: Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College transfer Jerod Evans threw four touchdown passes without an interception in his Virginia Tech debut. Evans faces a much tougher test Saturday in his first game against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
WILL DOBBS BOUNCE BACK?: Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs was held to negative rushing yards last week took a punishing shot to the chest in overtime while reaching for the goal line, a play that led to teammate Jalen Hurd's fumble recovery in the end zone. Dobbs says he's feeling fine and will be ready to go Saturday, and Tennessee coach Butch Jones says the senior quarterback is ''100 percent healthy.''
REEVES-MAYBIN'S RETURN: Tennessee linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin is back to lead the Vols' defense Saturday after getting ejected from the Appalachian State game in the first quarter due to a targeting penalty. Reeves-Maybin topped Tennessee in tackles last season and tied for the team lead in 2014.
FUMBLING CONCERNS: Both teams must take better care of the ball. Virginia Tech had five fumbles against Liberty and lost four of them. Tennessee fumbled four times against Appalachian State, though the Vols only lost one.
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz Jr. in Blacksburg, Virginia, contributed to this report.
AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org