No. 9 Vols, Appalachian State eager to maintain momentum
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee and Appalachian State open the season Thursday attempting to build on the momentum each team established late last year.
The ninth-ranked Volunteers open the year with their highest Top 25 position since October 2006 after winning its final six games last season. Defending national champion Alabama and San Diego State are the only Football Bowl Subdivision teams with longer active winning streaks.
Appalachian State is coming off an 11-2 season in which it won it last four games. Now both teams try to continue those surges even after the natural roster turnover that occurs with each offseason.
''I'd say more than momentum, it builds confidence,'' Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. ''Our players expect to win. They understand the investment it takes to win.''
So do the Mountaineers.
Appalachian State has won 17 of its last 19 game and has a veteran offensive backfield featuring quarterback Taylor Lamb and running back Marcus Cox. The Mountaineers are relative FBS newcomers who made their first bowl appearance last season and beat Ohio 31-29 in the Camellia Bowl.
But they face a much tougher test Thursday, nine years to the day after they upset Michigan in one of college football's greatest upsets ever. Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield has compared Tennessee to the Clemson team that beat the Mountaineers 41-10 last season and went on to reach the College Football Playoff championship game.
''They have everything in place and, in my opinion, starting the season, they're ahead of where Clemson was last year,'' Satterfield said.
This represents the third straight year in which Tennessee has opened by facing a team from outside the Power Five conferences that had won a bowl game the previous season. Tennessee beat Utah State 38-7 in its 2014 opener and defeated Bowling Green 59-30 to start the 2015 season.
Tennessee only led Bowling Green 35-27 early in the third quarter before pulling away down the stretch.
''I feel like it was a lesson learned,'' Tennessee linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. said. ''This year we want to focus on being the best we can every week. .... Appalachian State was an 11-2 team last year, and we really need to focus on them.''
Here are some things to watch when Tennessee hosts Appalachian State.
SOLID RUNNING GAMES: Both teams return 1,000-yard rushers from last season. Cox has run for over 1,200 yards each of the last three seasons, including a 1,423-yard performance last season. Cox ran for 103 yards against Clemson a year ago. Tennessee's Jalen Hurd rushed for 1,288 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. The Vols have other running threats as well. Alvin Kamara ran for 698 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs ran for 671 yards and 11 touchdowns.
MORE HAPPY RETURNS?: Tennessee returns the nation's top kickoff returner and punt returner from last season. Evan Berry scored on three of his 21 kickoff returns last season and averaged 38.3 yards per attempt. Cam Sutton scored on two of his 25 punt returns and averaged 18.7 yards per attempt. Kamara also scored on a punt return last season. Tennessee's six combined touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns were the most of any FBS team since North Carolina had seven in 2013.
RED-ZONE ISSUES: Appalachian State returns eight starters from a defense that was particularly stingy in the red zone last season. Appalachian State allowed opponents to score on just 63.6 percent of their drives inside the Mountaineers' 20-yard line last season. Appalachian State gave up touchdowns on only 25 percent of opponents' red-zone possessions. No other FBS team gave up such a low percentage of touchdowns on red-zone drives.
PROTECTING LAMB: The Mountaineers' chances of staying competitive could depend on whether they give Lamb enough time to throw. Appalachian State returns three starters from an offensive line that allowed only 11 sacks last season. Tennessee's pass rush features Derek Barnett, who has recorded 10 sacks each of the last two seasons.
VOLS' NEW DEFENSE: Thursday's game marks the debut performance for new Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who held the same position at Vanderbilt from 2011-13 and at Penn State from 2014-15. Shoop takes over for John Jancek, who is now the South Florida safeties coach.
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