In 2009, Western Kentucky came to Knoxville for the first game of the Kiffin era, as well as the Hilltoppers’ first as a full-time FBS program, and were manhandled in all sorts of ways during a 63-0 Volunteer victory. My how things have changed. Bobby Petrino is now at the helm of a WKU program that had seen some tremendous growth and some impressive success under former coach Willie Taggart. Butch Jones is now the head man at Tennessee after a mediocre stretch for the Vols under former coach Derek Dooley. Five years ago, I never would have thought that Western Kentucky would be a true “test” for where the Vols would be early in a season. But here we are.
Western Kentucky is coming off of a win over Kentucky, their second straight over the state’s SEC program. In that game, their defensive line was able to get pressure on UK’s “new” QB and their secondary reaped the benefits. On offense, we saw more of the magical plays that define Bobby Petrino as an offensive wizard. Quarterback Brandon Doughty showed that he can fit right into Petrino’s system, as he torched the Wildcat defense for 271 yards on 27 completions. Their running back tandem of Andrews and Allen tallied nearly 200 yds by themselves as the Hilltoppers’ offensive line physically outperformed Kentucky’s stocky D line. Western Kentucky’s win over the Wildcats was a huge first win for Bobby Petrino since being fired at Arkansas after the 2011 season. To most of us, though, it wasn’t too much of a surprise.
Tennessee is coming off of a win over Austin Peay in the first game of the Butch Jones era. The final score, while a huge number nonetheless, doesn’t quite tell the story of the game. The Vols came out of the gates and scored on each of their first six possessions. The run-first “spread” offense being implemented by Jones’ staff proved to be effective as the Vols had three rushers who tallied solid gains, particularly the starter, Raijon Neal, who had one score and gained 141 yards. One thing I thought the UT running backs could improve on was the north-south running, and finding the holes in the line faster.
Justin Worley was pretty good in his first start since taking the reigns of the Vol offense, passing for 104 yards and 3 TDs. His decision-making is still a little slow, and it showed on certain plays. Worley was, however, able to show that he could gain yards with his legs. The defense looked pretty good in their first game after a switch back to the 4-3 base. Palardy looked to have started his redemption campaign in a positive way, making a FG and making every PAT. He even had some kickoffs leave the back of the endzone. But the second half proved to be a different story as the Vols only scored 3 points, and those came in the third quarter. When Nathan Peterman took over the offense, you could easily sense that things weren’t running smoothly. But they didn’t need to, as the Vols easily handled APSU and spent the latter parts of the game working on the little things. An impressive note was that Tennessee did not commit a single penalty, and was one of only two teams to do so.
So both teams are coming into this game 1-0 after impressive wins, each in their own way. But what could be a big difference in the game? The crease in the playbook.
In Western Kentucky’s win over Kentucky, Petrino and Co. had to pull out just about all stops to keep UK on their heels and win that game. We surely know that the former Arkansas coach has a lot of tricks up his sleeve and is capable of whipping plays up in a flash, but his play-calling put of his plays on tape for the Vols. Butch Jones and OC Mike Bajakian kept their play-calling very vanilla. Jones said in his weekly press conference that they kept the calls on both offense and defense to the base packages to “master” them. It was also a smart strategy to keep the Hilltoppers from having too much to game plan for from the film. I’m looking for Tennessee to pull out a few more stops in this game, as they’re playing a much tougher opponent than Austin Peay, and this will also be a “tune-up” for the game at Oregon.
But enough about playbook speculation, let’s talk about some key match-ups in this game that could have a big impact on the outcome.
UT O-Line VS WKU D-Line
It is well-known that Tennessee has one offensive lines in the SEC, if not the nation. They’re certainly much better than Kentucky’s line, but it was still impressive how WKU was able to dial up pressure just with it’s defensive line. While they are not deep on the line, especially in terms of size, the Hilltoppers will bring some big, mobile bodies trying to get pressure on Worley. Surely the WKU DC will dial up some blitzes that will include their athletic linebackers, but a majority of the pressure will likely come from the line as they try to keep bodies aligned to Tennessee’s receivers. It will be interesting to see how Tennessee handles the pressure they are going to receive from WKU.
Worley/UT WRs VS WKU secondary
Western’s secondary is one of the more experienced in football, with over 110 combined starts between them all. Andrew Jackson, Jonathan Dowling, and the rest of that secondary is probably licking it’s chops at the opportunity to face off against the Vols’ inexperienced receiving corps and a new QB in a new system. Tennessee does have some big targets at receiver in North, Croom, and Howard, and with the Vols not showing much of their passing attack during the AP game, it will be interesting to see how passing game will evolve against a higher-quality opponent.
Vols’ RBs VS WKU Front 7
It will be imperative that Tennessee establishes a successful running game. For lack of a better term, it’s really what makes the offense run (ha ha). The offensive line will provide the holes, but it is up to Neal and Lane to find those holes and go hard. Gaining yards consistently, and the occasional big play, will work wonders with setting up the passing game. It won’t be easy though as WKU has a sizable and experienced front 7. The two Boyds are an excellent duo at LB, and they have a couple big guys, like Bryan Shorter and James Hervey on the line.
Vols’ Defense VS Petrino and Doughty
We all remember how bad the Tennessee defense was last year in the 3-4 base. But the year before, the defense finished 27th nationally, with a lot of these same players seeing playing time as underclassman in Wilcox’s 4-3 base. So those underclassman that had playing time are now upperclassman that could lead the Volunteer defense on it’s road of redemption. Tennessee has one of the better linebacker cores in the SEC, and has a few very strong players on the line. The only problem there is that two of them, Jacques Smith and Corey Vereen are doubtful or out for this game. But even with all of the talent UT has, they have to be on their toes against WKU. Bobby Petrino knows his team is far less talented than Tennessee’s, and he’ll be looking to gain advantages in other ways, like with trick plays and mismatches. Whatever Petrino draws up, Doughty has shown that he can take it from the drawing board to the field. He displayed impressive accuracy and decision-making in a big environment over the weekend, and in Neyland Stadium, he’ll be in an even more disruptive environment. It will be important that the Vols establish a successful pass-rush that can keep Doughty from settling in during offensive drives, and stay mentally and fundamentally tough during some of the trademark “magic” plays BP can draw up.
While Western Kentucky is certainly a team that is capable of going into a hostile environment and pulling off an upset, especially with Petrino, I don’t think they’re going to simply come into Neyland Stadium and outplay the Vols. For WKU to win, they would have to execute their offense almost perfectly and play great on defense, and Tennessee would have to be caught off guard and not allowed to re-establish themselves. It’s going to take some mental mistakes made by the Vols, which could easily happen with a new system and inexperienced players (although they didn’t commit a penalty at all last week), and just some average play for Western to get their second win over an SEC team in 2013.
In the end, I think Jones has his guys fired up for this game and WKU comes in with confidence and we see a great game for the first half. But as the game goes on, we’ll see the difference in quality and depth of talent, and Tennessee pulls away. Don’t think for a minute that Butch Jones is going to let his players play less than 100%, and expect to see a good amount of new “material” on the Vols’ offense. I think this will be a very good test for Tennessee, before they travel west to Oregon the following week, and will be a good game to kick off college football this Saturday!