The 2009 season begins on Saturday, Sept. 5, when the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers come into Neyland Stadium to take on the Tennessee Volunteers and new head coach Lane Kiffin. Kiffin is Tennessee's 21st head coach.
Tennessee coaches are 16-4 all-time in their first game as coach, though General Robert R. Neyland had three "first" games, going 3-0 and improving the overall mark to 18-4.
The Hilltoppers are from Bowling Green, Kentucky and are beginning their 91st season of college football. They are new to the Sun Belt Conference and the FBS. This season marks the first season that the Hilltoppers are eligible to win the Sun Belt Championship and eligible to play in an FBS bowl game.
David Elson begins his seventh season at the helm of the Hilltoppers, who had had 12 straight winning seasons heading into 2008, which saw a much tougher FBS schedule that led to a 2-10 season.
Elson believes that the Vols will rely heavily on the run and is preparing his team accordingly. Part of that preparation is getting his team ready to throw the deep ball.
"One of the things we've talked about is how we have to get better at completing the deep pass," Elson said. "We have to be able to complete those passes in this offense, so it was good to see our guys respond [in the scrimmage] with the lights on, and hopefully that will give them some confidence going forward."
That is a different approach than last season when WKU had a much more balanced attack. WKU averaged 143.9 yards rushing per game and 142.2 yards passing in 2008.
The Hilltoppers have lost eight straight road openers and have lost all 11 games played against current SEC members by an average score of 37-5.
The Hilltoppers will start senior QB Brandon Smith, who will be helped up the middle by a senior center and senior running back in 6'0", 295-lb. Cody Hughes and 5'7", 192-lb. Tyrell Hayden.
Smith has struggled a bit through fall camp and is the only QB on the depth chart to have played in a game for WKU. His experience includes 12 games in three seasons. He is 18-of-38 for 120 yards and a touchdown for his career.
The offensive line was banged up in 2008 as no single player played all 12 games at one position.
The receivers for the Hilltoppers are an athletic group led by 5'10", 185-lb. senior Jake Gaebler, who is only 25 catches away from being WKU’s all-time leader.
WKU has just two seniors starting on defense (linebacker Taurean Smith and cornerback Jihad Morris).
The top five defensive linemen are gone, and the two deep has four redshirt freshmen.
The linebacking group returns four out of the top five tacklers from 2008; however, the '09 linebackers combined for just one start in 2008.
The defensive backfield returns six players that started games in 2008, along with former Tulsa transfer Dexter Taylor, who flirted with the QB position last season. Sophomore safety Mark Santoro returns as the leading tackler for WKU. He had 60 tackles in 2008.
WKU is a young team that should feel the pressure when they walk onto the Neyland Stadium field. WKU's 11 seniors are the fifth-fewest in FBS.
Tennessee has won 14 consecutive home openers dating to the 1994 season.
The Vols get the honor of being the first SEC team to play on the SEC Network, which will air one SEC home game in syndication each week for the duration of the 2009 season. The Vols are 6-4-2 all-time in their first appearance on a television network.
The Blazer Chronicles feels safe predicting a win for the Volunteers in this matchup. Head coach Lane Kiffin should have his Volunteers ready to make a statement. If the offense can move the ball on the beat-up defensive line of the Hilltoppers, the Volunteers should control all aspects of this game.
The double-breasted prediction
Tennessee Volunteers 42, Western Kentucky Hilltoppers 3