The Tennessee Volunteers have a very tough opener in week one against the Utah State Aggies. Originally, the game was scheduled on Saturday (August 30th) but the game has now been moved to Sunday (August 31st) which will bring a lot more attention to the game. Did I mention that the game will also be broadcast on the SEC Network?
Over the last few years, Utah State has become a very good “mid major” program. Under current Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen, the Aggies turned things around during Andersen’s third season posting a 7-6 record in 2011 and then went on to an 11-2 mark in 2012 before Andersen departed to take over for the Badgers. In 2013, the Aggies went 9-5 under first year head coach Matt Wells.
The Aggies have proven that they aren’t scared to step into big spots and play big teams. In 2011, they almost knocked off Auburn in the season opener (losing 42-38 after the Tigers pulled off multiple miracles). In 2012, they knocked off Utah in Romney Stadium and in the next week they barely lost to Wisconsin by two points. In 2013, they came three points from beating USC in Los Angeles. In their last game, the Aggies knocked off Heisman runner-up Jordan Lynch and the NIU Huskies. Utah State is used to playing tough opponents and they won’t shy away from a Tennessee team no matter how electric the atmosphere is in Neyland Stadium.
Butch Jones inherited the short straw from Derek Dooley and since that time he’s been working to get the Vols back to respectability and then back to challengers for the SEC crown. Jones and his staff took a lot of positive steps in their first rebuilding year. The high points of their season was hanging with Georgia and then knocking off South Carolina. But, the Vols still finished 5-7 proving that a lot of work is still to be done.
When you look at Phil Steele’s returning starters, Tennessee ranks second to last in the SEC (tied with Vandy and ahead of only Mizzouri). The biggest concern for the Vols are the places that you generally want to build your team from, the offensive and defensive lines. The Vols have zero returning starters coming back on either side of the line.
Tennessee may catch a break here because Utah State actually ranks 128th in the FBS (that’s dead last for those scoring at home) in returning starters but the Aggies are a team that over the last few years has proven they can overcome the odds and that they are not a team that is going to lie down.
This game could come down to the player behind center. For Utah State, they are hoping that star Chuckie Keeton will be fully healed from his October ACL injury. For Tennessee, they are still deciding who will be their starter. Tennessee ranked 13th in the SEC in passing yards per game in 2013, finishing behind Florida if you are looking for a marker. With a brand new offensive line, it will be very interesting to see who Jones chooses in this battle. Will he go with a vet like Justin Worley, or a younger talent like Riley Ferguson or Joshua Dobbs. The player under center could decide the victor and if Keeton is playing (and fully healed), you have to give the advantage to the Aggies.
Mark your calendars and call your cable companies (to get the SEC Network) because this is going to be a game that you will want to see. The positive attitude of the Butch Jones era in Tennessee will get it’s first real test after a rebuilding year in 2013. The SEC and Vols are going all in with Butch Jones and Tennessee in this game. Will this be the moment that the Vols thrust back into the thick of the SEC or will it be a setback for a team that has had so many in the recent past (not to mention a potential embarrassment for the conference on their own network)?
College football is over four months away and I am already excited to see this game and which direction Butch Jones has Tennessee headed.