Tennessee vs Western Kentucky Preview: So Much, So Soon

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Butch Jones, Bobby Petrino, and a lot on the line.

Whenever whoever inked this game between Tennessee and Western Kentucky, I'm quite sure they didn't imagine it would have so many unique storylines that would lead to so much momentum on the line. The conversation about whether Austin Peay was the worst team to ever play in Neyland Stadium includes the last Hilltopper team we saw, four years ago on the business end of a 63-7 beatdown in Lane Kiffin's debut. That game still stands as the school record for yardage differential to the tune of 657-83 Vols.

Four seasons, four head coaches, and four years of bowl eligibility later it's a very different game. Tennessee has gone from Lane Kiffin through Derek Dooley to Butch Jones, a program in spiral that hasn't made a bowl game since consecutive Chick-Fil-A and Music City matchups in the first years of the last two guys. Western Kentucky moved from Dave Elson to Willie Taggart, and under his watch the program went from 0-12 in that 2009 season to 2-10, 7-5 and hung out to dry by the bowls, and 7-6 last year with a trip to Little Caesar's. So while the Vols were busy firing Derek Dooley, the Hilltoppers lost Taggart to upward mobility at South Florida (...sort of, considering the Bulls just suffered the worst FCS-on-FBS violence in the history of classification).

Enter Bobby Petrino, who got zero traction for the Tennessee job and most of the other major openings in college football last offseason, which is how a guy with a BCS bowl appearance three years ago ends up in the Sun Belt, non-Chizik division. The Hilltoppers were certainly on their way up under Taggart, as the won/loss record proves. But against BCS competition thus far?

  • 2009: Tennessee 63, Western Kentucky 7
  • 2009: South Florida 35, Western Kentucky 13
  • 2010: Nebraska 49, Western Kentucky 10
  • 2010: Kentucky 63, Western Kentucky 28
  • 2010: Indiana 38, Western Kentucky 21
  • 2010: South Florida 24, Western Kentucky 12
  • 2011: Kentucky 14, Western Kentucky 3
  • 2011: LSU 42, Western Kentucky 9
  • 2012: Alabama 35, Western Kentucky 0
  • 2012: Western Kentucky 32, Kentucky 31 (OT)
So until last week, you've got one overtime win against a bad Kentucky team, and nothing else within a single possession. They've been good against the Sun Belt - a four point loss to Arkansas State was their only blemish in 2011, and four losses by nine points or less cost them last fall - but in the big leagues, they haven't been close unless they were playing Kentucky.

Your mileage will certainly vary in determining just how big Kentucky's big time is, but the only glimpse we've seen of Petrino's 2013 Hilltoppers was their second win over a BCS foe, and this one was much more convincing. WKU beat Kentucky 35-26 on a neutral field in Nashville, with 487 yards despite going 2 of 10 on third down and turning the ball over twice. Glenn Logan from our SB Nation Kentucky blog A Sea of Blue told us on our podcast the game should've been a WKU blowout.

So yes, impressive, but again, Kentucky. The Hilltopper program continues to rise, and will leave the Sun Belt behind for Conference USA next season. But for now, all the noise Western Kentucky - and Bobby Petrino - have left to make this season is of the Sun Belt and service academy variety...except for tomorrow in Neyland Stadium.

Upperclassmen on Western Kentucky's roster - and there's a lot of them - have played in Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge. They've seen hostile environments before. But I'm not sure they've walked into one feeling like they could really win before. And after last week, with Petrino, you'd better believe these kids will walk into Knoxville feeling like they could walk out with a program-defining victory.

For the Hilltoppers and for Petrino, Saturday is very important. Winning the Sun Belt is nice and all, but Western won't have a bigger stage all season than the one that awaits them in Knoxville. And for Bobby Petrino, age 52? You know, assuming he doesn't want to live out his coaching days in Bowling Green, KY? This is a big chance to make national noise and perhaps ensure his Sun Belt purgatory is as short as possible.

But Bobby Petrino isn't the only coach with something on the line Saturday.

One week after decimating the Hilltoppers in 2009, Lane Kiffin took a world of momentum into a Week 2 date with the UCLA Bruins. I'm not necessarily trying to compare 2009 UCLA to 2013 Western Kentucky on the field - UCLA will generally get the edge given Western Kentucky has only been an FBS program for four years - but the vibe feels very similar. Namely, Tennessee fans will look across the sideline and think, "We're significantly more talented than they are, we're playing at home, our new coach is awesome, we should win this game."

As you know, we didn't. What remains one of the best Neyland crowds post-2004 was buried under the weight of three Jonathan Crompton interceptions in a stunning 19-15 loss. And Tennessee fans had to sober up, immediately.

The 2009 team had other opponents on the schedule we were braced for, including the Florida Gators in Gainesville the following week. This Tennessee team has some other opponents on the schedule we're braced for; no one is seriously suggesting victory at Oregon or Florida the next two weeks (...yet). Nonetheless, a loss to Western Kentucky in Butch's second game would derail the momentum he, his staff, and this team have worked so hard to build in the face of five years of frustration. Tennessee put 97,000 fans in Neyland last week and will hopefully put up a similar number this week. We're prepared to sleep it off after Oregon. But Western Kentucky is a game 100% of Tennessee fans look at and say, "We should win." And as such, for Butch Jones it falls into that category of not big, but important.

If the Vols lose the season isn't over and Butch certainly isn't doomed; a month after losing to UCLA Kiffin's Vols busted Georgia and South Carolina by 44 combined points and were one play away from beating the National Champions on the road. But Kiffin's team was more experienced and more talented with a softer schedule. Butch's team? We could use this one.

We could use it now, and we could use it in November. Beating Western Kentucky would help keep spirits reasonable even when late September and all of October get difficult, because beating Western Kentucky means the Vols can get to November with a bowl game still very much on the table without requiring perfection once we're done playing Top 10 teams.

And perhaps just as important as anything else on the line here is the intangible quality Butch Jones has installed in this program. We always knew it would be about wins and losses, of course, but what Jones has done for a program with so much recent turmoil and a fanbase so lukewarm to his arrival is still amazing to me. If the Vols fall to Western Kentucky, the future may still be fine, but the present will resemble the past we're trying to hard to get away from. Not just fans, but both 2014 recruits and the 2013 team are still believing in Butch Jones based on something other than wins in Knoxville. That hope is very vibrant but very young, and while it cannot be killed tomorrow, its growth can be stunted. Everyone wants to buy into Butch Jones' vision. We just all believe that vision includes beating Western Kentucky.

To do that, the Vols will need to be on the right side of two key questions of identity in this game. The Vols certainly appear to be about the business of using a dominant offensive line to push the ball down your throat. It, like everything else, worked against Austin Peay. The first team offense ran for 213 yards in the first half at 7.6 yards per carry. That'll do.

Will it work against stiffer competition? You can be impressed with Western Kentucky's performance last week, but you also have to consider Kentucky went for 216 yards on the ground, 6.8 per carry, with three 30+ yard runs. It was part of a balanced effort that included similar inexperience and uncertainty at quarterback, and the Cats still finished with 18 of 28 for 203 through the air as well. Plain and simple: if Kentucky can move the ball on them, I think we can too.

Much of Western Kentucky's identity was built around running back Antonio Andrews, the 2012 leader in all-purpose yardage at 3,166. But consider much of that number was sheer volume: Andrews was one of only seven backs to get 300+ carries last season, one of just 32 players to return 28+ kickoffs, and one of only 36 players to return 19+ punts. He got a lot of chances and turned them into a lot of yards, but in yards per touch - a stat Cordarrelle Patterson finished second nationally in - Andrews didn't rank in the Top 100. He did get off to a solid start last week - 20 carries for 99 yards, 3 catches for 37 more - and he had help in the form of Leon Allen (10 for 92) and Keshawn Simpson (8 for 34 and two scores).

But much of Western Kentucky's identity now, for better or worse, is Petrino, and on the field his presence was felt in the passing game as well. Brandon Doughty made his first start and went 27 of 34 for 271 yards and a touchdown, and those numbers include several drops from the receiving corps. That gave the Hilltoppers great balance as well - 216 on the ground, 271 in the air - and again, it could've been worse.

So what can Tennessee do to disrupt that balance? The Vols cannot allow Doughty to be comfortable enough to go 27 of 34, which raises the age old question of, "Can Tennessee get pressure on the quarterback?" UT only got two sacks last week, but the Vols were three scoops of vanilla defensively. With the training wheels off (and the possible return of Curt Maggitt), can Tennessee disrupt a Petrino offense, or will a shootout emerge invoking memories of the 2012 defense?

Whichever team is best able to impose their identity will come away with victory. And unlike last week - and perhaps unlike next week - we're going to learn a lot about Tennessee in this one.

It's a long way from now to November 9, which is the next time Tennessee will play a meaningful, reasonably winnable home game. The dates with Georgia and South Carolina will be exciting as the Vols chase The One Big Win. But right now Butch Jones needs the important wins, and this is the first one on the table. They'll have to go through a Western Kentucky team whose players and head coach should know how important this one is on their side as well. It's early, it's not conference play, and both head coaches will have plenty of other chances. But this is the first chance for Butch Jones and the best chance for Bobby Petrino. Between the lines, there's an awful lot on the table for both of these teams on Saturday.

Will Western Kentucky pull the upset, sending Tennessee back to the familiar and frustrating past Butch Jones has worked so hard to build from? Or will the Vols put down an important early brick to help solidify the notion that the past is the past, and Butch Jones is building toward a brighter future?

It's not big, but it's important. 12:21, SEC Network. Or even better, get your orange on and get to Knoxville, and see for yourself how much has changed.

Go Vols.
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