Tennessee vs. Western Kentucky
When: Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. Time TBA.
Where: Knoxville, Tenn.
Western Kentucky at a glance:
Head coach: Bobby Petrino (1st season at WKU; 75-26 all-time record as a college HC; 3-10 in the NFL)
Conference: Sun Belt
All-time record: 511-349-30
2012 record: 7-6 (4-4 Sun Belt)
Returning starters: 7 (offense) 6 (defense)
2012 overview: It was a historic year for the Hilltoppers last season. Formerly an FCS power, WKU began playing in the FBS in 2008. It won just four games between ’08-’10, a stretch that included a 63-7 loss to the Vols in 2009. But fortunes began to change in 2011 when the Hilltoppers won seven of their final eight games to finish with their first winning record (7-5) in FBS play. That momentum carried into 2012 with WKU going 7-5 in the regular season, highlighted by wins at Kentucky and at Troy, and making its first bowl appearance (a 24-21 loss to Central Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl).
While the transition from FBS doormat to bowl contender has been impressive, the Hilltoppers drew the most headlines last year for their selection to replace former head coach Willie Taggart, who took over as head coach at South Florida. They hired former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino, who infamously departed Arkansas in the spring of 2012 after a messy scandal involving a cover up of an affair with an Arkansas employee and a motorcycle crash.
One of the most controversial figures in football, Petrino doesn’t have a great off-the-field rep, but he’s also viewed as one of the brightest offensive minds in the game. His offenses at Louisville and Arkansas were among the best in the nation. With several key pieces of the offense coming back at WKU, the Hilltoppers figure to be a dangerous Sun Belt squad (transitioning to Conference USA in 2014) for as long as Petrino sticks around.
Three questions for the 2013 matchup:
1. Can UT contain running back Antonio Andrews?
The sight of an opposing running back dashing past UT’s secondary was an all-too-common occurrence for the Vols last year. Facing Andrews, ranked as one of the best running back prospects for the 2014 draft, will be their first true test for UT’s revamped defense. Andrews became just the second player in FBS history to account for over 3,000 all-purpose yards in a single season last year. The other? Heisman Trophy winner and NFL great Barry Sanders in 1988. The rising senior will be a threat as a runner, receiver and return man.
2. Can Petrino keep up his success against the Vols?
Petrino made easy work of the Vols in 2011, leading the Razorbacks to a 49-7 win over a UT squad led by backup quarterback Justin Worley, who is vying for the starting job this year. Petrino had a host of NFL talent at the skill positions on that roster – a luxury he won’t have leading the Hilltoppers this year, but some of the same players remain and he clearly had UT’s number that day.
3. Can UT survive the first test of the Butch Jones era?
The Vols will be fine against Austin Peay, but this is a team they can’t overlook. Regardless who is coaching them, a loss against the Hilltoppers would be unacceptable to UT fans and would put the Vols in a really bad spot with four of their next five games coming against potential top-10 teams.
How will it play out?
Though this WKU squad has a high-level coach and a lot of returning talent, there are questions it must answer as well. The Hilltoppers will be breaking in a new quarterback, must replace some key offensive linemen as well as top tight end Jack Doyle and defensive end Quanterus Smith.
But there’s no denying this a scary game on some levels for UT, and WKU could be a chic upset pick.
If the Vols can run the ball successfully behind their superior offensive line and control the clock, they should be able to get out of this one with a relatively comfortable victory. A close game wouldn’t be shocking, though, if UT doesn’t have its best performance.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga