Western Kentucky’s one and only trip to Knoxville, Tenn., back in 2009, was disastrous.
The Hilltoppers have come a long way since their 63-7 loss that season and look for a much better showing Sept. 7 when they play at Tennessee – their second of five nonconference games in 2013.
Much like the opener against Kentucky, WKU will face a new-look Tennessee team with a new coaching staff and a revitalized energy toward a new era. Butch Jones arrived in December to replace former coach Derek Dooley, who went 15-21 in three seasons at UT.
Jones has a career record of 50-27 after three years apiece at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
First-year WKU coach Bobby Petrino said this spring he and his staff have already spent time looking at Jones’ system at Cincinnati. In 2012, the Bearcats went 10-3, beat Duke in the Belk Bowl and ranked in the top 40 nationally in rushing, scoring and total offense.
Both Jones’ offensive coordinator, Mike Bajakian, and defensive coordinator, John Jancek, followed him from UC to Knoxville.
They take over a Volunteers team that lost six of its final eight games a year ago and finished 5-7, although four of those losses came by 10 points or less.
The Volunteers’ biggest strength on the offensive side is up front, where four starters – including three seniors – return to an offensive line that helped UT score 36 points per game in 2012. Jones’ biggest issue will come with his group of playmakers at running back and wide receiver, which are both relatively thin on depth and inexperienced.
Tennessee also hasn’t exactly answered its starting quarterback question after spring practice. Junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman are reportedly the favorites heading into fall camp.
Defensively, UT was one of the worst in the nation last year. The Volunteers allowed 188 yards per game on the ground (85th nationally), 282 yards per game through the air (111th nationally), 35 points per game (104th nationally) and ranked 107th in total defense after giving up 471 yards per contest.
Making things tougher will be Jones and Jancek moving the team’s defensive scheme from a 3-4 front to a 4-3 front. Junior linebacker A.J. Johnson and senior tackle Daniel McCullers will anchor the middle, but the unit’s secondary, which recorded only 12 interceptions in 2012, is a major concern.
The Volunteers have the fortune of opening the season against Austin Peay, an FCS program that won two games last year. After that, nothing will be easy.
Tennessee travels to Oregon and Florida in consecutive weeks after hosting the Hilltoppers and then plays at Alabama at the end of October. The Vols will also try and knock off Georgia and South Carolina at home.
The game against WKU this year will be the second meeting between the two programs. In the first meeting in 2009, the Vols had a 28-0 lead at halftime and held the Hilltoppers to 83 yards of total offense. Western Kentucky went on to finish that year 0-12.
While at Arkansas in 2011, Petrino led the Razorbacks to a 49-7 win over UT in Fayetteville, Ark. The Arkansas offense recorded 499 yards in that game.