Tennessee football: Why Pitt’s win vs. WVU is encouraging for Vols

It was definitely a fun night for Josh Heupel and Tennessee football as they blew out the Ball State Cardinals 59-10 to kick off the 2022 season Thursday. However, lost in the shuffle is a huge advantage they gained by coasting to victory.

While the Vols didn’t have to dive deep into what they do in order to when this game, their opponent in 10 days, the Pittsburgh Panthers, had to do the opposite. Pitt needed everything it had to put away the West Virginia Mountaineers 38-31 at home.

Ranked No. 17 in the AP Poll and No. 16 in the Coaches Poll, Pitt was always going to be Tennessee football’s first first real test. Having to travel there was going to make it more difficult after losing to them in Knoxville last year.

However, adding to that difficulty was just how unknown this program is. They replaced Kenny Pickett at quarterback with USC Trojans transfer Kedon Slovis, and they lost star receiver Jordan Addison to USC. Ironically, WVU had J.T. Daniels, another transfer from USC.

Anyway, all of this meant that Pat Narduzzi had way more information on the Vols, who return a ton of talent, than Heupel had on the Panthers. Well, Thursday night changed that. Sure, Pitt got a quality win, but they revealed a lot more of what they’ll do this season.

West Virginia put up a huge fight as the Backyard Brawl was renewed and played for the first time in over a decade. Neal Brown’s team was actually up late, and with the game tied, they were driving to win it. A pick-six by Pitt is what made the difference.

Playing Pitt that tough in their house is enough to give the Vols encouragement considering the fact that WVU has not yet had more than six wins in a season in three years under Brown. WVU actually outgained them 404-384. They just had more penalties and one more turnover.

Those are basic enough reasons for Tennessee football to feel encouraged. However, on top of that, keeping the game close for so long, as mentioned, forced Narduzzi and new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. to show a lot more of their playbook. Heupel hardly had to show any of his, and you know they expanded it.

Then there is the hangover effect. That’s somewhat mitigated by a 10-day rest, but Pitt has to refocus for another big matchup immediately after winning a thriller. That’s hard to do, as the Vols have had this game circled since January.

Don’t forget that UT didn’t start Hendon Hooker against Pitt last year. It took a late fourth down stop in the red zone and Hooker’s one crucial mistake, an interception on the Vols’ final offensive drive, for them to hold on to a touchdown win.

With more experience and a full offseason, it’s not hard to see Hooker looking much better this year, even if the Vols are on the road. Heupel has beaten Narduzzi before, back at UCF, so Tennessee football has a great shot at winning this game. Thursday night’s shootout with WVU increases those odds.