The only proven fact about Tennessee and Pittsburgh heading into Saturday's showdown inside Neyland Stadium is that each has the ability to wax hapless teams from a year ago.
Bowling Green and UMass combined to go 0-9 last season, with the Falcons getting outscored by an average of 45-11 and the Minutemen 40-3. The Volunteers opened the Josh Heupel era last Thursday night with a 38-6 thumping of the Falcons, which was followed Saturday by the Panthers humiliating UMass 51-7.
"We've got enough tape on them to know who they are right now," Pittsburgh seventh-year coach Pat Narduzzi said Monday during his weekly news conference. "I don't think they held anybody out in that game, so we'll know where their speed is, where the concerns are, where they like to throw the ball and what they want to do in the run game. I think their offensive line is big and physical. They look like an SEC offensive line.
"It will be a bigger challenge than Josh Heupel's team at UCF as far as the O-line goes, and their backs are good."
Saturday's noon Eastern game on ESPN has been named the Johnny Majors Classic in honor of the late coach who guided the Panthers to the 1976 national championship and led the Vols to Southeastern Conference titles in 1985, 1989 and 1990.
"It's unique that Coach Majors had such a huge impact on both programs," Heupel said. "As a player and as a coach, his legacy lives on here at Tennessee. He's a part of the foundation of who we are. He's a cornerstone of it."
This will mark the first Pitt-Tennessee game since 1983, when the Panthers traveled to Knoxville and won 13-3, handing the Vols what became a rare setback in their eventual 9-3 season. The Panthers also whipped Tennessee 30-6 inside Neyland in 1980, when the only score by the Vols occurred via a Willie Gault kickoff return, so this will be the third meeting in series history.
It also will be the third encounter between Heupel and Narduzzi as head coaches, with Heupel's UCF Knights routing the Panthers 45-14 in 2018 before Pitt prevailed 35-34 the following year. Kenny Pickett, incidentally, was Pittsburgh's starting quarterback in those games and will start for the Panthers on Saturday.
Since 2015, Narduzzi has guided Pitt to 29 wins in Atlantic Coast Conference play, which trails only Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech during that time. Narduzzi spent eight years as Michigan State's defensive coordinator before coming to Pitt, and the Panthers are coming off a 2020 season in which they ranked 20th nationally in total defense and led all programs that played at least five games with 4.18 sacks per contest.
"They lost a couple of elite players off the edge from last year's defense, but they've still got a bunch of guys who can get after the quarterback," Heupel said. "They have multiple schemes to mess with your protections and create matchups to where they can get after the quarterback. You've got to do a great job of chewing up yards, because you don't want to be in third-and-long on these guys."
Pittsburgh's 97 combined sacks during the 2019-20 seasons were the most of any team nationally, and the Panthers had five sacks against UMass. The Panthers have been bowl-eligible during five of Narduzzi's six seasons, having opted out last year with a 6-5 record.
The Panthers produced two very striking wins last November, routing Florida State 41-17 in Tallahassee and drubbing Virginia Tech 47-14 in Pittsburgh.
"Pitt is as comparable of an opponent as anybody in the country," Vols sophomore outside linebacker Tyler Baron said. "On their best day, they can be as good as whoever."
Tennessee sophomore center Cooper Mays, who started the opener, remains questionable with the ankle injury he suffered early in that game.
"Coop is in the building today moving around," Heupel said. "As the week unfolds, we'll continue to get a better feel if he'll be at 100% for kickoff."
Heupel expects sophomore receiver Jimmy Calloway (undisclosed injury) and junior outside linebacker Byron Young (eligibility issue) to play this week after each sat out last Thursday. Heupel expects to hear from the NCAA this week regarding Young.
Heupel was UCF's coach late in the 2018 season when former Knights quarterback McKenzie Milton suffered a gruesome knee injury that resulted in artery and nerve damage. Milton, now at Florida State, played for the first time since that significant setback in Monday night's 41-38 overtime loss to visiting Notre Dame, helping rally the Seminoles from a 38-20 deficit.
"It's an unbelievable story," Heupel said. "Only he can do what he's done over the last three years — coming back from the early hours of that injury, just hoping that he was going to be able to keep his leg to a two-and-a-half to three-year rehab process to get back. It started with just wanting to be able to have a normal, functioning leg.
"He's special. Inside the white lines, he's got great command, great presence and has unbelievable play-making ability."
ODDS AND ENDS
Tennessee is 20-4 against nonconference opposition since the start of the 2015 season, losing only to Oklahoma (2015), West Virginia (2018), Georgia State (2019) and Brigham Young (2019) ... The Panthers are the first ACC program to visit Neyland Stadium since Duke endured a 23-6 Homecoming defeat in 2003 ... Pittsburgh and Tennessee have a combined 20 "super seniors," or players who chose to use the NCAA's extra year of eligibility as a result of the coronavirus, with 13 of those with the Panthers.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.