As part of our August preview, we'll be taking a look at each of the Vols' 12 opponents for the upcoming season. These previews will also give you a chance to show off your prophecy skills by predicting the final score in the comments, as we continue to evaluate fan expectations for Lane Kiffin's first season. We begin today with the season opener...
"Wait wait," you say...don't they also have that giant red muppet as their mascot? Who's equal parts hilarious and terrifying?
Ladies and gentlemen...the Hilltoppers.
With Western Kentucky becoming the 120th FBS school this season, this will be the first meeting between the Vols and the Hilltoppers, despite the two schools being only 220 miles apart (fun fact: WKU is actually in Bowling Green, the new home of Dave Clawson). The program is tradition rich on a smaller level; WKU won the 1-AA National Championship in 2002.
The Hilltoppers went 2-10 in 2008, with no wins against any FBS competition. They were game against Virginia Tech (27-13) and Ball State (24-7), but against the SEC they didn't fare well: Alabama beat them 41-7, and Kentucky won 41-3. Full 2008 WKU results.
The quarterback situation might get more interesting in practice this month: senior Brandon Smith was the backup last year and goes into camp with the job, but a handful of redshirt and incoming freshmen could make things more interesting, and hopefully more dynamic: the team struggled to score points all year in 2008 and the offense could use a spark. A clear sign of their struggles last year was the productivity of RB Tyrell Hayden, who ran for 1,134 yards in 2007...and 388 yards in 2008. 5'11" Jake Gaebler might be the team's best player at wide receiver, who caught 54 balls last year. Four starters return on the offensive line.
WKU runs a 3-4 scheme that lacks experience up front, with no returning starters on the defensive line and only one returning starter at linebacker, senior Darvis McBride. The secondary is intriguing with some players who used to play offense at one level or another, including Dexter Taylor, who had a surprising day running the football against Virginia Tech last year. The DBs should be led by Ryan Beard and Mark Santoro at the safety spots.
Best Case Scenario for the Vols
As the new kids on the FBS block, WKU is ranked 120th of 120 teams by Athlon and Lindy's, and 119th by CFN.com. They're not suppposed to do anything right away, though they're bringing in some of the Sun Belt's best recruits and could find success within that conference sooner than people think. But for now, they might be the perfect season opener for the Lane Kiffin Era. Even with the Vols' struggles last season, the talent gap in this contest could be so wide that Tennessee can do whatever it wants. So for the eternal optimists out there who are picturing 150 rushing yards from Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown, 3 TDs from Crompton and a shutout by the defense, you might get your wish here. Best case, Tennessee looks great everywhere in the season opener and puts a big, big number on the scoreboard. We walk out of Neyland Stadium talking about how nice Pasadena must be in January.
Worst Case Scenario for the Vols
Hope will be alive and well on all 120 campuses leading up to the season opener, including the home of the 120th best team. The key in games like this one is to make it clear, early and often, that the other team doesn't have a chance. If the Vols fail to do that and allow Western Kentucky to think they're in the game at halftime, the Hilltoppers won't go quietly. Worst case, Jonathan Crompton is still the '08 model and throws more INTs than TDs, inexperience presents itself at wide receiver, linebacker and in the secondary, and the Vols struggle all day. Even at our worst, I still think Tennessee has enough talent to get the job done here...but if it's ugly, it might be a sign of both things past and things present.
Game Importance Ranking: 8.2
The season opener is always a big game, and this one is amplified as the first game of the Lane Kiffin Era. Winning shouldn't be a big problem, but how will the Vols look? Anywhere the Vols struggle will be amplified by the quality of their competition, and likewise any blowout will have to be tempered...but since you can really argue that the Vols never once looked good in 2008, even in beating UAB and Mississippi State, a relatively complete performance from this team would be a breath of fresh air. Tennessee doesn't need to win 77-0 - though raise your hands if you think Lane Kiffin will be as opposed to running up the score as Phillip Fulmer was - but there will be plenty of opportunities to inspire confidence against the Hilltoppers, which is what the Vols need to do. This is a great opening opportunity for Kiffin and the Vols. The greater reality test will come seven days later.