|No. 25 Tennessee, Georgia Tech debut new QBs in opener|
ATLANTA -- The stadium is brand new, but the rivalry between Georgia Tech and No. 25 Tennessee is decades old.
The two old Southeastern Conference members will meet on Labor Day in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic, the second college football game to be played in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday night.
Tennessee leads the all-time series 24-17-2. The teams haven't played since 1987, when Tennessee won 29-15. The roots for the series go way back. Former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Dodd -- after whom the Georgia Tech stadium is named - played quarterback for the Vols before joining the Yellow Jackets' staff.
"We're really excited to have the opportunity to display our program on a national level against a quality opponent," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said.
There are two main questions surrounding the Georgia Tech offense: who will start at quarterback and how will the loss of leading rusher Dedrick Mills affect the offense?
The Yellow Jackets, 9-4 in 2016, will have a new player under center. Three-year starter Justin Thomas graduated after leading the team to a pair of bowl victories. Thomas was the ideal man to run the team's option attack and was adept and making the right call from the line of scrimmage. He was an effective passer and durable player who missed only one game.
Johnson hasn't named a successor to Thomas and the mystery could last until the 8 p.m. EDT kickoff.
There are four players in the mix, led by Matthew Jordan, a run-first quarterback who started one game last year when Thomas was injured and led the team to a win at Virginia Tech.
Others in the picture include TaQuon Marshall, who took most of the snaps at No. 1 in the spring when Jordan missed time with a foot injury that required surgery, as well as redshirt freshmen Lucas Johnson and Jay Jones.
"I feel real good about that position," Johnson said. "I think we've got four guys at that position that I could call a game for and they're going to have the luxury of being surrounded by a bunch of guys that had experience and played a lot of football."
Johnson has also kept his cool in the wake of Mills, who led the team in rushing as a true freshman and was voted first-team Preseason All-ACC. Mills was dismissed from the team for violation athletic department regulations. He missed four games last year, three of them for breaking team rules. He has since transferred to a junior college.
"You'd like to have the best player, but I'm not going to rush home and get in a closet and shoot myself," Johnson said. "We've got guys that can play."
KirVonte Benson won the B-back job in camp and will make the start; he's smaller than Mills, but has game-breaking speed. True freshman Jerry Howard, an early camp sensation, will likely be the No. 2 player there.
Tennessee has a decision to make at quarterback, too.
Someone must step in and replace Joshua Dobbs, who was a fourth-round draft choice by the Pittsburgh Steelers. His predecessor will be either Quinten Dormady, a traditional pocket quarterback, or Jarrett Guarantano, a redshirt freshman with great mobility and a strong arm.
That means running back John Kelly and receiver Jauan Jennings are going to be the main building blocks for the offense. Kelly ran for 630 yards and five touchdowns and Jennings caught 40 passes for 580 yards and seven touchdowns.
The defense will be led by safety Todd Kelly Jr., who led the team with 71 tackles and has eight career interceptions. The special teams are in good hands with returner Evan Berry, who averaged 32.9 yards on kickoff returns, and punter Trevor Daniel, who averaged 44.6 yards and is on the watch list for the Ray Guy Award.
Tennessee got out of the gate with a 5-0 start last year, but the Vols endured a three-game losing streak and lost to Vanderbilt for the third time in five years. The 9-4 season looked good on paper, but wasn't satisfying to fans or coach Butch Jones.
"We still have a lot of improving to do," Jones said. "We still have a lot of dreams and goals and aspirations that are out there as a program."
This will be the second time Tennessee has appeared in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game, the first since beating N.C. State in 2012. Georgia Tech will make its first appearance in the contest.