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December 29, 2009
CHICK-FIL-A BOWL: WHO GETS THE EDGE?
Tennessee rush offense vs. Virginia Tech rush defense: Senior Montario Hardesty finally got a chance to become a feature back this season and developed into one of the SEC's best workhorses. Hardesty has rushed for 1,306 yards and has averaged nearly five yards per carry. He ran for a total of 350 yards on 71 carries in the Vols' final two regular-season games. Virginia Tech's run defense has struggled at times while allowing 138.7 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry. The Hokies gave up 150 yards to Heisman winner Mark Ingram, 169 yards to Nebraska's Roy Helu and a combined 204 yards to the Georgia Tech duo of Josh Nesbitt and Jonathan Dwyer. Don't be surprised if Hardesty runs for more than 100 yards.
Tennessee pass offense vs. Virginia Tech pass defense: Perhaps no player improved as much over the course of the season as Vols QB Jonathan Crompton. After being mocked throughout last season and the first half of this season, Crompton came on strong late in the year. He threw 12 touchdown passes and only two interceptions over the last five regular-season games. But during this late-season surge, he hasn't faced a pass defense as good as the one he will encounter at the Georgia Dome. Virginia Tech ranks sixth in the nation in pass efficiency defense and has allowed only eight touchdown passes. CB Rashad Carmichael has picked off five passes this season.
Virginia Tech rush offense vs. Tennessee rush defense: In two of its final three regular-season games, Tennessee allowed Ole Miss' Dexter McCluster to rush for 282 yards and Kentucky's Randall Cobb to run for 101 yards. Now the Vols have the unenviable task of trying to contain Ryan Williams, who has rushed for 1,538 yards and ranks fifth in the nation at 128.2 rushing yards per game. Williams has rushed for 19 touchdowns and reached the end zone four times in each of the Hokies' final two regular-season games. Williams probably won't be quite that productive against Tennessee, but he should score once or twice. Williams isn't the Hokies' only rushing threat. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor has rushed for 344 yards and gained at least 60 yards on the ground in three of the Hokies' last six regular-season games. Worth noting is that McCluster and Cobb did a lot of their damage out of the "Wildcat," so it wouldn't be a surprise if Tech asks Taylor to run more than usual.
Edge: Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech pass offense vs. Tennessee pass defense: Virginia Tech isn't nearly as one-dimensional as it was last year now that Taylor has improved his accuracy and his receiving corps has gained experience. Taylor has thrown 13 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. Jarrett Boykin, Danny Coale and Dyrell Roberts are solid receivers. But just as the strength of Virginia Tech's pass defense could cause Crompton to cool off, Tennessee's outstanding secondary ought to give Taylor problems. The Vols have allowed a national-low five TD passes and have given up just two in the past seven games. Tennessee ranks eighth in the nation in pass efficiency defense and boasts one of the nation's top players in SS Eric Berry, who will be eager to deliver a big play in what is likely his last college game.
Tennessee special teams vs. Virginia Tech special teams: Virginia Tech has developed a reputation for big special-teams performances during Frank Beamer's coaching tenure. The Hokies have a solid kicking game again this season. Matt Waldron is 17-of-20 on field-goal attempts, though he hasn't made a field goal from beyond 41 yards. Brent Bowden has helped the Hokies rank 27th in net punting, while Tennessee ranks 83rd in that category. Tennessee's kicking situation is uncertain, as three guys were competing for the job in the days leading up to the bowl. Daniel Lincoln, Devin Mathis and Chad Cunningham are a combined 13-of-21 on field-goal attempts, including 1-for-8 from at least 40 yards. Four of the Vols' field-goal attempts this season have been blocked. Virginia Tech's Roberts is the nation's third-leading kick returner with an average of 34.5 yards per attempt, while the Hokies' Jayron Hosley is 23rd in the nation in punt-return average.
Tennessee coaching staff vs. Virginia Tech coaching staff: Lane Kiffin and his assistants have done a nice job turning things around in their first season at Tennessee, but this will mark their first bowl game. This is the 17th bowl for Beamer. The difference in experience between the two coaches is stark: Beamer owns a career record of 186-82-2, while Kiffin is 7-5. This game features two of the nation's top defensive coordinators in Virginia Tech's Bud Foster and Tennessee's Monte Kiffin.
X-factor: Virginia Tech DE Jason Worilds was one of the nation's top pass rushers by the end of last season, but he has been relatively quiet this season. Worilds had eight sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss last season despite missing the Orange Bowl with a shoulder injury; he has 4.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss this season. If Worilds recaptures his 2008 form, Tennessee could be in for a long night.
Tennessee will win if: The Vols need Crompton and Hardesty to build on their late-season momentum, and they need some consistency from their kicking game.
Virginia Tech will win if: The Hokies - who are playing in Atlanta for the third time this season - must run the ball effectively, put pressure on Crompton and hold Hardesty to less than 120 yards.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.