Despite all the new that will be on hand Saturday at 12:21, there are a few things we know for sure: the Vols will still run thru the T, Nick Reveiz is still short, and Eric Berry is still Eric Berry, son.
...that's about it.
Joel used the word "carnival" to describe it Monday night on the podcast, and he's right: there will be so much to see for the very first time, Vol fans may find themselves in sensory overload by the first TV timeout. Amidst the orange flood in Lane Kiffin's personal genesis, here are five key things we're watching for on Saturday afternoon:
The Fab Five
That's right: Jimmy, Jalen, CWebb, Ray and Juwan.
(Do you know that a google search for "Fab Five" pulls up a Texas cheerleader scandal before the Michigan basketball team?)
In years past, it seems like if we even had five freshmen who would be contributing right away, we'd be talking about both sides of the ball plus special teams. But Lane Kiffin's first class has combined with injuries to upperclassmen to produce five offensive skill players - Bryce Brown, David Oku, Nu'Keese Richardson, Marsalis Teague and Zach Rogers - who will be seeing significant action on Saturday.
Brown is the co-#1 starter at tailback, and as Rivals' overall #1 recruit, all eyes will be on #11 when he gets in the game (though in fairness, we haven't seen the fully armed and operational Montario Hardesty in about two years either, so I'm very eager to see what the senior can do as well). Oku could be the first Vol to touch the ball in '09, as he'll be returning kicks with Dennis Rogan.
Nu'Keese Richardson could also touch it first as the Vols' primary punt returner, who has also claimed the top spot on the WR depth chart and seen some camp action at quarterback in a package we're still trying decide what exactly to call. Teague and Rogers will see action alongside Brandon Warren and Quintin Hancock at wide receiver as well.
One big day from any of these guys would be special. Getting contributions from several of them would be even better.
The Defensive Line
They may not all be freshmen, but there's a possibility that all four starters could be seeing their first action in a brand new role.
Chris Walker was a backup end last season, was the most talked about defensive player not named Eric Berry in the spring, and will receive his first starting assignment on Saturday. Gerald Williams is slated to lineup on the other side, who was playing linebacker while Walker was being called "unblockable" this spring. Now Williams has been called the most dominant player on the line in fall camp. We've never seen either of these guys show anything like that at defensive end in an actual game...but we're ready and willing to have our hopes validated, early and often.
In the middle, Wes Brown has been moved from end to tackle, though his snaps will be limited due to the structural integrity of his knees. And if freshman Montori Hughes can hold off Dan Williams - who thought about turning pro last season - the Vols will have four brand new faces at each position from last season's starting defensive line. And where that would normally be a cause for great concern, this entire offseason it's been a cause for great optimism, based on their play in practice and scrimmages. Tennessee needs this defensive line to be more than good if the Vols are going to have the type of season they want to have. That type of performance can start with lots of time in the WKU backfield on Saturday.
Not Eric Berry
We know all about #14, and the new VolTron will be eager to show you more during breaks in the action on Saturday I'm sure. What we don't at all know about is Dennis Rogan at free safety, or just about everybody who is slated for action on the two deep at corner.
Brent Vinson has been banged up in camp, and has thus disappeared from the depth chart. Marsalous Johnson has seen limited action before at corner, but he's currently listed as the #2 option on the right side.
That leaves freshmen Mike Edwards, Eric Gordon, and Janzen Jackson, plus Anthony Anderson and Art Evans (Darren Myles is EB's backup. Have you ever seen EB come out for a play?). We've never seen anything from any of these guys before, and chances are before the year's out we're going to see lots from all of them.
I know Eric Berry can play. I don't know if any of these other kids can. We're all eager to find out...so any of them who get their hands on a ball on Saturday, we'll instantly feel a lot better about.
Sullins has been neck and neck with Josh McNeil since Kiffin opened practice back in the spring, so the news that Josh McNeil may never play football again isn't as devastating on the field as it is off it. But in a spot where the Vols have no quality depth to begin with, they'll also be counting on these three names to step into the fray immediately and protect...
Alright, so we'd all love to see 25 of 30 for 350 and a touchdown pass to each freshman on Saturday...but we don't need it.
What we need is confidence. Crompton sounds like he has it - he sounded better in Tuesday's press conference than I've heard him since this time last year, he's earned his own fresh start, and playing well - not great, just well - would be a tremendous way to build his own confidence, and silence those who are waiting for his first mistake to revisit old demons.
If our quarterback - because that's what he is - can limit poor decisions, not turn the ball over, and simply manage the offense and all those other cliches, Tennessee's offense will be much improved. Against Western Kentucky, a team that will start so many young players on defense, Crompton and the offense may have a chance to get off to a really good start.
Like any broken relationship, it's going to take plenty of time and more than one good moment to reconcile the two parties, Crompton and the fans. But he can take a huge, huge step in the right direction - both with the fanbase, and in the infinitely more important department of winning football games - with a good performance on Saturday.
What about you? What are you watching for as the season finally begins?