Before the Tennessee Volunteers head West to begin a brutal two-game road trip against top-12 opponents Oregon and Florida, they'll welcome an old foe into Neyland Stadium.
Bobby Petrino is coming to Knoxville, and he's bringing his new team, Western Kentucky, with him.
The former Head Hog in Arkansas celebrated his first trip back to SEC play since the infamous motorcycle accident brought his Arkansas head coaching stint to a screeching halt with a 35-26 win over Kentucky last week. Now, he'll bring a tricky talented Hilltoppers team to Knoxville with nothing to lose.
The only other meeting between the Vols and Hilltoppers came in Lane Kiffin's first game as UT's head coach in 2009, as the Vols torched WKU, 63-7. The last time UT saw Petrino was a bit more forgettable, as Jarius Wright and Joe Adams led eighth-ranked Arkansas to a 49-7 win over Derek Dooley's Vols in 2011.
You may remember the Xbox-esque punt return where Adams made Tennessee look like Pop Warner players. I still wake up in cold sweats after having nightmares about it.
Time: 12:21 p.m. ET
Place: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: Vol Network, Sirius Premier Channel 158/XM Channel 201
Spread: Tennessee by 14 points, according to Sportsbook.com
Jump Out To an Early Lead
Simple recruiting rankings show that Tennessee is much more talented than the Hilltoppers, but that doesn't mean Western Kentucky will find itself in an early hole.
Petrino brings some swagger to a team that learned how to win under current South Florida coach Willie Taggart. After beating in-state rival Kentucky, it believes. The Vols have to smother that hope early.
Ground It Out
Vols senior running back Rajion Neal may have been playing against inferior competition last Saturday, but he ran with a burst and purpose never seen from him before.
He shed arm-tackles, delivered a punch at the point of impact and ran away from defenders in the open field. It was almost as if he shed the timidity that has plagued him in his first three years. Backfield mate Marlin Lane, too, was a bruising presence behind a UT offensive line that looked capable of living up to the hype.
Lost in the Hilltoppers' win over UK is the fact that they allowed 216 rushing yards. That's a decisive advantage on paper for Tennessee that it must exploit.
No Unforced Errors
Butch Jones has told the Vols all preseason that they aren't talented enough to make mistakes and win.
They were nearly perfect against the Governors in that department. UT wasn't penalized a single time, and the only turnover the Vols had was a fumble from fourth-string running back Alden Hill. Efforts like that win games.
Brandon Doughty Gets Hot
WKU's junior quarterback isn't the flashiest player, but he was steady and solid against Kentucky in his first action since tearing an ACL in 2011.
It didn't take bombers to dissect the Vols' secondary last season, and UT is again inexperienced. There were a couple of drives in which Austin Peay methodically marched downfield through the air against UT. If that putrid offense can move the ball, there are holes that need addressing. Doughty will be looking for them.
Andrew Jackson—the WKU linebacker, not the former president—is a name Tennessee players better know by now. The senior linebacker will play in the NFL next season, and he wasn't even the Hilltopper who had two of his team's three sacks against Kentucky. That was fellow LB Xavius Boyd, who led a WKU pass rush that did a great job of getting to UK quarterbacks Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow.
Though the Hilltoppers are very young up front, those two can give teams fits. Tennessee junior starting quarterback Justin Worley has a history of making mistakes when he's rattled, and that's exactly where Boyd and crew want him.
Calm the Crowd
A season opener in front of 47,623 at LP Field in Nashville was a nice tune-up, but WKU hasn't heard anything like 102,000 screaming fans in Neyland. Noise like that is tough on any team, but if the Hilltoppers take the 12th man out early, the day could go their way.
A kegs-and-eggs kickoff time is on their side.
The true freshman wide receiver has a swagger about him that screams greatness. He works hard and has continued to surge for UT. Though he had just three catches for 33 yards against Austin Peay in his debut, that led the team.
Those numbers don't tell the entire story, however. North beat defenders numerous times, and Wes Rucker of GoVols247 pointed out that the 6'5", 215-pound receiver would have had two easy touchdowns had Justin Worley not underthrown him on both occasions.
He'll get that first score on Saturday.
The redshirt sophomore is one of the most dependable players on UT's defense, and he is also the lid on a very inexperienced unit.
After he went down with a torn ACL against Florida last season, the Vols were historically bad. Now, with freshmen all over the place in the defensive backfield, there will be busted plays against good offenses. It's Randolph's job to clean those up and make big plays go for 15 yards rather than 50.
USAToday's Paul Myerberg called Andrews "the nation's most underappreciated back" following a season when he finished with 1,733 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
The 6'0", 219-pound bruiser split carries with another big back, Leon Allen, and still finished with 99 yards on 20 carries against Kentucky. He'll be going up against a UT front seven that is strong against the run and features massive defensive tackle Daniel "Mount" McCullers and All-SEC middle linebacker A.J. Johnson.
If he can get his yards against the Vols, WKU has a shot.
The WKU safety began his career at Florida, and, in case you didn't know, the Gators have a pretty good track record against the Vols.
Blessed with exceptional size and speed, Dowling is a legitimate star in the defensive backfield and gives the Hilltoppers a more talented player than you normally see on teams like WKU. He finished last season with 68 tackles and six interceptions, and Worley will have to account for where he is on the field before every play.
Tennessee senior nose tackle Daniel Hood wants a little revenge on Bobby Petrino, according to the the Associated Press h/t the Lexington Herald-Leader, for the 49-7 beating his Arkansas team administered to UT in 2011, the last time the Vols faced a Petrino-coached team.
"We've known for a while that they were going to be a really good team.'' Hood said. "Last time we played that coach, he beat us pretty bad down in Arkansas. So we owe him a good one.''
WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty admitted to the Bowling Green Daily News' Chad Bishop that playing in Neyland Stadium is going to be a bit different than anything he's faced before, with twice as many fans as the large crowd last week at LP Field in Nashville. At least he believes he knows what's coming:
Last week was awesome. Our fans were unbelievable. Even the guys in the locker room, when we first went out there in pregame, the team was getting in there and the fans started getting rowdy, guys were like, ‘This is cool. I’ve never seen Tops fans like this.’ They were crazy the entire game. I was really excited about that.
But a hundred and six (thousand at UT) is a lot of guys. We’ll see how we react. You can’t worry about that in a game, you got so many other things to worry about—your schemes, your protections, are you good, are you not hot? That crowd stuff, that really doesn’t affect me too much.
Volquest.com's John Brice overheard some motivational shots fired over UT linebacker A.J. "The Beast" Johnson's bow by coach Butch Jones during Tuesday's practice, as relayed here. Said Jones in the general direction of his defensive star:
A.J. Johnson gets to play on the same field as an NFL linebacker. The difference is, he (WKU's Andrew Jackson) is a first-rounder and you're a practice-squad player. A.J., Come on A.J.! Come on A.J.! The other A.J. is already practicing.
Junior linebacker Curt Maggitt this week went full-go with his teammates in consecutive practices for the first time since tearing his ACL in late October against Missouri. His return would give the Vols a big boost, writes Wes Rucker of GoVols247.com:
There would be obvious benefits to Maggitt getting some full-speed game reps heading into a brutal stretch of games at second-ranked Oregon and 12th-ranked Florida the next two weeks, but Jones said the bottom line is Maggitt will play only when he’s physically and mentally prepared to play.
The Vols will have to contend with a few worrisome WKU players. But the bottom line is UT is superior on the lines of scrimmage.
That's where this game will be won.
While the Hilltoppers could pose problems in the passing game, running is their forte, which plays into UT's defensive strengths. Offensively, Tennessee's senior-laden line is special, and there are just no barriers of resistance on that young WKU front. That's why the Vols will run the football at will and make the Hilltoppers stack the box.
It won't be a comfortable game by any means, but the Vols will employ the ball-control offense that will have to be successful to stay in upcoming games against Oregon and Florida. Some fans will grumble about a final score that isn't as sexy as they want, but UT will escape with a good stepping-stone win for the rebuilding effort.
Prediction: Tennessee 27, Western Kentucky 14