As an early look at USU's out-of-conference schedule, I'll be examining each opponent in-depth to give you a better feel for who we're going up against. Our first preview takes a look at the Tennessee Volunteers:
Coach: Butch Jones. Jones is in his second year at Tennessee. He started his head coaching career at Central Michigan. In three years at CMU, Jones’ Chippewas went 27-13 and went to, but lost, two bowl games (he didn't coach them in their bowl game in his third year). After CMU, Jones went to Cincinnati for three years, during which time the Bearcats went 24-14 (4-8 his first year, 10-3 both of the consecutive years), including two straight bowl wins. In his first year at Tennessee, the Vols went 5-7.
Location: Knoxville, TN
Stadium: Neyland Stadium (Capacity: 102,455)
Mascot: Smokey. Smokey is the name of both the live and the costumed mascot for Tennessee. The current live mascot is the 10th in the line, hence his name as Smokey X.
Conference: SEC-East Division
2013 Record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC). Tennessee also posted a 5-7 record during the 2012 season. During Butch Jones’ first year, however, the Vols did improve their conference record from 1-7 in 2012 to 2-6 in 2013. Granted, that’s only a single game swing… the reason why that is a big deal is because of who that win came against: the Vols beat a ranked team in then #11 South Carolina. The positive for Vols fans is that six of their seven losses came against then-ranked teams: #2 Oregon, #19 Florida, #6 Georgia, #1 Alabama, #9 Auburn. The bad news is that they lost their seven games by an average of 23 points.
Bowl game: N/A
Five key players (in no particular order):
1) Justin Worley: Tennessee has struggled the past few years at the quarterback position, for a number of reasons. Worley continued UTenn's QB problems last year; he led Tennessee to its first win over a top 25 team since 2009 in a close game vs. South Carolina last year before having his season ended by torn ligaments in his throwing hand thumb. How Worley comes back this year will have a huge impact on the Vols’ success in this game, and in this season.
2) Brian Randolph: Last year, Randolph recorded 50 solo tackles, assisted on 25 others, had 2.5 tackles for loss, 3 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble, and 4 interceptions returned for 79 yards. The defense will depend heavily on him to lock down the top Aggie receivers.
3) A.J. Johnson: Marking himself as the top tackler on the Vols defense the last two years was quite a feat, and it earned him Tennessee’s only 1st team preseason all-SEC selection (Phil Steele) for the year. In 2013, Johnson’s over 100 total tackles included 8.5 tackles for loss; he also recorded 1 fumble recovery, 3 pass breakups, and 3 QB hurries. He will anchor the front seven against an aggressive Aggie run game.
4) Marlin Lane: Lane was the backup RB last year, but managed to record over 500 total yards and 4 touchdowns. If he can step up his game as a starter and become a strong presence in the backfield, Tennessee may have a chance to keep USU’s nasty front seven off of Worley long enough to make a few plays that could impact the end result of the game.
5) UPDATE (6/27) Von Pearson: Thanks to @seanthood for the update. Pearson, the top JuCo WR prospect last recruiting cycle, has apparently been creating quite a stir in Tennessee's early practices. Von racked up some pretty gaudy stats at Feather River College in California, catching 93 balls for 1600 yards and 12 TDs. Josh Malone and Marquez North round out the top receivers for the Vols. "Pig" Howard was apparently disciplined by the team and had to appeal to his teammates before even being allowed back to team practices. He will still compete for playing team.
Offensive overview: Much has been made of Utah State's O-line returning only one starter. If anyone can understand the Aggies' concerns, though, it's the Vols; Tennessee returns a total of zero starting linemen, offensive or defensive. Their top returning QB was not altogether impressive last year before his season-ending injury. There are a couple solid receivers returning, and some excellent new talent at the receiver positions, but whether the ball will be delivered to them is questionable. The top RB has potential, and he'll need to maximize that potential if UTenn wants to have any success offensively in this game.
Defensive overview: Not much better off on defense (in terms of returning starters), they do have several players with elite-level talent; Tennessee had three defensive players chosen for Phil Steele’s 4-deep preseason all-conference teams. As noted above, they return no linemen, and only one LB (Johnson). Their strength on defense comes in the defensive backs, where they return every starter.
Early prediction: Despite home field advantage and SEC pedigrees, Utah State pulls out the road win, carried on the backs of Chuckie Keeton and an all-star defense. USU 31 – Tenn. 27.