Is it safe to say we know less about this Tennessee team coming into the season than any we can remember?
We know Justin Worley on a handshake basis, hopeful but not overly expectant he'll finally earn a promotion with the fanbase this year. We know Marlin Lane but are more excited about a freshman, which you can copy and paste for about half the roster.
Two of the guys we're most excited about, and two of the most important players in this particular matchup, are just sophomores. Marquez North and Cameron Sutton earned their stripes (or lost their stripes, I guess, in Butch Jones' universe) as freshmen last year and could be among the very best players on this team for their entire Knoxville careers, two-thirds to three-fourths of which are still ahead of them.
We know Pig Howard, but got accustomed to life without him in the spring only to watch his story become Tennessee's most pleasant surprise this summer. We know Curt Maggitt and Brian Randolph, both of whom are now two years removed from ACL tears and will play very important roles. And we know A.J. Johnson, back one more time as the defensive glue.
That's eight names we feel like we've got a handle on. That leaves questions for 14 others and both kickers, and the answers in most cases will be freshmen, including the projected starters at tight end, right guard, and perhaps a corner and defensive end. The other three starters on the defensive line will be new. As will all five on the offensive line. Almost half of the second team will be true freshmen.
Utah State comes calling with quantifiable hype. "We're gonna rattle Chuckie Keeton!" Well, that would be the first time for a guy rocking a 69.4% completion percentage and an 18/2 TD/INT ratio when he got hurt last year. The gameplan isn't as simple as, "Force Keeton to make mistakes." He typically doesn't. On the other side of the ball is the nation's fifth best defense last season in yards per play allowed with most of its front seven back. Utah State has played major conference opponents on the road in each of the last four years and come away with a one possession loss four times. After six years, Tennessee is hopeful this is the team to turn things around. After five years, Utah State is hopeful this is the team to break through against the big boys.
But Utah State has questions too. This is Keeton's first game back from his own knee issues. Utah State is also carrying the burden of a brand new offensive line. And in Tennessee's biggest advantage, Utah State's secondary is very raw and facing a bunch of talent it's never seen before.
As I write this Texas A&M just put the worst beating on #9 South Carolina in the history of Steve Spurrier. The guy who replaced Johnny Manziel just broke his single-game passing record in his first start. Against a top ten team. On the road. In the third quarter the SEC's leading returning passer has thrown three interceptions and Ole Miss - the program some have compared Tennessee to in this rebuild - has seven points and is hanging on for dear life in the Georgia Dome. You never know until you roll it out there on the field and see what happens. No matter how many freshmen you do or don't have.
Some say Tennessee will go 5-7 again this year. But all of us are looking for progress. Bowl eligibility and the big win(s) that would be required to get to (at least) six. Speed and competitiveness. Hope.
Hope has produced the first season-opening sellout since the Phillip Fulmer days, a few thousand more than paid to see Butch's debut last year. We're a fan blog and it's always easy for us to say, but with so much uncertainty in any season opener and especially this one, Neyland Stadium can be an x-factor Sunday night.
But noise is the surest bet in this one, and from there it gets very hard to figure out. This season opener carries so much mystery and excitement, carrying the risk and reward of an opponent who can legitimately beat you. Guys like Jalen Hurd and Derek Barnett are likely to do some things that make us get out of our seat. They are also likely to do some freshman things.
I think Tennessee will win this game if Justin Worley can effectively distribute the ball to Tennessee's playmakers at wide receiver. That means making good decisions, but it also means the young line holding up long enough to give him time to do so. But no outcome would surprise me Sunday night; I'm not sure any of us know anywhere near enough about this team to be surprised by anything the first week.
The beauty of a situation like this is something we've said at this juncture a couple of times before: with the bar for success set so much lower than it has traditionally been in Knoxville, over the long haul this team has a chance to meet it and then, to what would be the absolute joy of everyone in orange, raise it. Every win would give life, especially this first one. Every step taken will feel new, because it will be for these players. 7-5 would be a celebration. Anything more would be a revelation.
When we've spoken of the low bar before, the Vols still simply weren't talented enough to clear it. Not in 2010, despite Derek Dooley's best coaching job. And not last year, when injuries and scheduling prevented Butch Jones' first team from reaching the postseason.
But this time, things are different. 2013 was about 2013, but you also knew it was about what Butch was doing in recruiting. 2014 arrives with that first championship-caliber class in uniform, bright-eyed and eager to make a difference.
I don't know how long it will take for the whole thing to explode, but the fuse is lit. Sunday night will either be a reminder of how far it has left to burn, or the first spark of something new.