We open our 2015 season preview today, looking at each opponent from a Tennessee perspective. Up first: The Clawson Classic.
The Taxslayer Bowl will matter for another 117 days, and then it will vanish with the quickness. In its place will be the first taste of Team 119, all the pomp and circumstance of a season opener with a special Music City flair.
We all feel much better about Tennessee than we did this time last year, when hope was far less tangible. The Vols should be better this season. Should we be just as worried about their season opener as we were last year?
Lots of words were spilled about Utah State in the weeks and months leading up to the 2014 season opener. The Aggies represented the rarest of Tennessee openers: instead of the major non-conference foe (week two this year) or the cupcake appetizer, Utah State was just the fourth high mid-major the Vols had opened their season with in the last 22 years. Tennessee is now 4-0 in those games, and they were especially convincing against the Aggies; so much build up for Chuckie Keeton and so much unknown about the Vols made last year's 38-7 starter worth a little more.
This time around it's Bowling Green, reigning MAC East champs for the second year in a row and winners of at least eight games in each of the last three years. They don't have an internet darling Heisman dark horse at quarterback, but they do return 10 starters on offense now in their second year post-Clawfense. (I promise this is all I'm going to say: last year Wake Forest averaged 3.38 yards per play. The next worst team in college football was SMU, who played most of its season without its head coach and still was 20% more effective than Wake at 4.08 yards per play. By this metric the 2014 Demon Deacons are the worst college offense of this decade. Give him time.)
It will be easy for Tennessee fans to treat Bowling Green like they're UAB, the guys we were supposed to see in Nashville week one before the Blazer program was disbanded (the fine folks at Underdog Dynasty have done great work on the UAB situation). But Tennessee certainly traded up in strength of schedule, even if with few other choices and at the last minute.
These games usually get scheduled so many years in advance, it's hard to purposefully get a high mid-major on your docket. I don't think the Vols were planning on Utah State striking as much off-season fear into the hearts of some fans as ended up happening. If you look at who the Vols have scheduled for their two non-major/non-FCS games the next two years, you find a pair of bowl eligible squads in 2016 (Appalachian State & Ohio) and a pair of 3-9 teams in 2017 (Southern Miss & UMass). You get what you get.
In Bowling Green, the Vols will get a full speed ahead Dino Babers squad, who spent four years on Baylor's sideline and it shows. Last year the Falcons ran 1,103 plays, fourth most in college football and a per-game average of 78.7 snaps. The Vols went at a 75.1 snaps per game pace and, as you know, return every starter on offense except the former walk-on lineman who played on a torn ACL. So prepare yourself for fireworks.
The Falcon defense wasn't anything to write home about last year (5.98 yards per play allowed, 98th nationally), so the easiest assumption is lots of points for the Big Orange. The real test will be for Tennessee's defense, with or without freshmen defensive tackles and a question mark at middle linebacker. If the Vol offense can minimize mistakes, the outcome should eventually take care of itself. But an experienced offense like Bowling Green's could cause some problems for Team 119's defense in their first night out.
There won't be any pleasant surprises on September 5; a close game would be considered a disappointment, a blowout Tennessee win fuel for the idiot optimists' fire. In six losses last season Bowling Green gave up an average of 45.3 points, so a big number from the Vols wouldn't be surprising but would feel extra meaningful because it's the season opener against an opponent with a pulse, and everything will weigh a little more. Still, whatever the Vols do outside of lose to Bowling Green will, like the Taxslayer Bowl, cease to matter because Oklahoma will come knocking seven days later. The 2015 Vols won't be judged by what they do against Bowling Green any more than the 2014 Vols are judged by what they did against Utah State.
But against an opening opponent of similar recent stature, the Vols have a chance to write a great first chapter knowing the real story of their season will be written in the weeks to come. Tennessee could beat this team 68-17, as Wisconsin did. Or they could find themselves in something like 59-31, as Western Kentucky did. Either way, they could have a chance to beat a team every bit as good as we thought Utah State was last year. And already therein lies the progress: this Tennessee team is looking to do a little more this season than survive against a pesky opening opponent in search of one of the necessary six wins. It wouldn't feel as important and we hope bigger wins are out there. But that doesn't mean taking care of business against this team in the opener wouldn't be an impressive start for Team 119.
For more on Bowling Green, check out Bill Connelly's preview at SB Nation.