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Appalachian St. opens season at Tennessee tonight

By Steve Megargee

AP Sports Writer

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.

KEY MATCHUP

Appalachian State offensive line vs. Tennessee defensive line: Appalachian State returns three starters from an offensive line that allowed only 11 sacks last season. Air Force, Toledo, Georgia Southern and Ball State were the only Football Bowl Subdivision teams that yielded fewer sacks. But that group will have its hands full protecting Appalachian State QB Taylor Lamb from a deep Tennessee defensive front that features DE Derek Barnett, who recorded 10 sacks each of the last two seasons.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Appalachian State: RB Marcus Cox rushed for 1,423 yards last season, including a 103-yard performance against Clemson. His 4,088 career yards rushing rank him second among all active FBS players, behind only San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey.

Tennessee: RB Jalen Hurd ran for 1,288 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. The junior is 891 yards shy of the Tennessee career rushing record owned by Travis Henry, who ran for 3,078 yards from 1997-2000. Hurd’s 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame makes it difficult for one man to bring him down.

FACTS & FIGURES

This marks Tennessee’s first Thursday night regular-season game since a 41-3 victory over Mississippi in Memphis, Tennessee, on Oct. 3, 1996. The Vols haven’t played a Thursday home game since a 46-0 shutout of Kentucky on Thanksgiving Day in 1938. … Tennessee has its highest Top 25 position since being ranked eighth on Oct. 29, 2006. … Appalachian State has won 17 of its last 19 games. … Tennessee will be wearing helmet stickers honoring former Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt, who died June 28 at the age of 64.

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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