Since SEC expansion in 1992, Tennessee has opened the season with a major conference opponent seven times and what was considered to be a free win against a vastly inferior foe a dozen times. The rarest season opening opponent has been the high mid-major: only three times in the last 22 years have the Vols opened the year against a recognizably good team from a non-power conference, a dark horse capable of ruining the Vols' fun before it even gets started.
There are obvious reasons not to schedule a team like Utah State as your season opener. There's little reward for the power conference school, less hype and attention than a headliner game (though the Vols do have an exclusive Sunday night gig on the SEC Network) and less build-up throughout the offseason. But sometimes you don't know Utah State is going to become Utah State when these games are scheduled. The Aggies had losing records from 1998-2010, but under Gary Andersen and now Matt Wells Utah State is 27-13 in the last three seasons.
Very early lines on this game had the Aggies as a two point favorite, though most of the still-premature lines now have the Vols favored by as much as 6.5. If this holds, the Vols will be a trendy upset pick on opening weekend among the talking heads if not the general public.
Somewhere between brash confidence and Holtzian wisdom, many Tennessee fans are appropriately nervous about this one. We've been here before, to a degree, though there's a chance this Utah State team is the best mid-major foe the Vols have faced, season-opener or otherwise, in at least a decade. How have these nervous opening tests gone for the Vols before?
1995 East Carolina
The Pirates went 7-5 the year before and finished the 1991 season ranked in the top ten. The '95 Vols would eventually finish second in the nation behind the play of sophomore quarterback Peyton Manning, but in the opener the #8 Vols used defense in John Chavis' debut to limit Marcus Crandall and the Pirates and hold them to just a touchdown in a 27-7 Vol victory. The Pirates would finish the year 9-3 and ranked #23.
2000 Southern Miss
Maybe the closest comparison to Utah State, the Golden Eagles were actually ranked 22nd when they came to Knoxville to face a young and rebuilding Tennessee squad. Joey Mathews started but A.J. Suggs finished an ugly 19-16 Tennessee win. It looked a lot better the very next week, when Southern Miss went to Birmingham and shut out #15 Alabama 21-0.
2003 Fresno State
11-3 and 9-5 leading up to the 2003 season, the Bulldogs were a more serious threat because Tennessee was coming off its first truly disappointing season in more than a decade in 2002. But here again defense was the difference: the Vols held the Bulldogs to an astonishing 117 yards of offense, only allowing points on an interception return in the fourth quarter in a 24-6 Tennessee win. The Bulldogs would beat Oregon State the following week and again finish 9-5.
So each time we've spent the summer getting nervous about a strong mid-major foe, the Vols have taken care of business and gotten the job done. Two other, more recent games are worth mentioning even though they weren't the season opener, but when you start with an FCS foe it's usually the second game that really matters. If you're willing to consider Butch Jones' Cincinnati team a mid-major foe in 2011, you'll know we spent plenty of time being worried about that one too. The Vols were only 4.5 point favorites when the line opened, but ended up playing an offensive game so near-perfect it colored the way many of us, including me, thought about Derek Dooley's potential for a long time. That Cincinnati team went on to win a share of the Big East.
And then there was last year's game against Western Kentucky. Here's what we wrote about that one the week of the game:
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.
If the win over Cincinnati was near-perfect, the Western Kentucky game was near-impossible: five turnovers in six plays effectively buried the Hilltoppers, and any chance to use that game as a comparative study in the future.
There's a larger truth in the history: so far, every time we get worried about one of these the Vols have taken care of business, using superior talent and home-field advantage to put games away by the third quarter with the exception of the 2000 Southern Miss game, which the Vols still won. Tennessee has been tested by lesser foes like UAB in 2005 and beaten later in the year by Memphis and Wyoming. But at the beginning of the season, the Vols have gotten the job done.
But whether Utah State is the best of these mid-major foes the Vols have faced or not, so much of the outcome on August 31 will depend on how good the young Vols are. The Aggies went to Oklahoma in 2010 and lost by seven, to Auburn in 2011 and lost by four, to Wisconsin in 2012 and lost by a deuce, and to USC in 2013 and lost by three. Some of their roster won't have seen something like Neyland Stadium before, especially the season opening Sunday night edition which should be an amazing crowd. But the talent gap is much smaller than in the past, and even if it exists at all so much of Tennessee's talent is brand new.
This is a dangerous game, perhaps more dangerous than any of the other mid-majors the Vols have faced before. But because of where we've been and what we hope is to come, a win over Utah State would carry a greater reward than any of the other mid-majors the Vols have faced before, especially for the youth that will make up so much of this team's identity.
The answers are coming in just 27 more days.