KNOXVILLE – Senior defensive tackle Daniel Hood went up to the interview podium after Tennessee knocked off Austin Peay 45-0 on Saturday night and mistakenly referred to the opponent the Vols just defeated as Western Kentucky.
Obviously, the Vols began thinking about their next opponent the second last week was over.
And there’s a good reason the Vols were already thinking about WKU. The Hilltoppers, led by former Arkansas and Atlanta Falcons head coach Bobby Petrino, are coming off their first bowl appearance in program history in 2012. This season is off to a fast start as well. WKU knocked off Kentucky 35-26 on a neutral field last week.
“Extremely, extremely talented football team,” coach Butch Jones said of WKU. “We knew that in the summer and everything has been confirmed by video evidence. A lot of NFL prospects, a lot of confidence. They’re an extremely confident team and rightfully so.
“They believe they can play with anybody and everybody. All you have to do is watch a couple clips and they’ll get your attention. They have SEC talent.”
Added offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James: “They’re a good team. They have a lot of talent and we’ll prepare for them like we would anybody else.”
There’s been somewhat of a perfect storm that has helped Western Kentucky transform from an FCS program to a bowl-level FBS team, capable of competing with teams in the SEC.
Former coach Willie Taggart, now the head coach at South Florida, led WKU through the transition to the FBS level. The HIlltoppers were just 2-22 in their first two seasons (2008-09). That stretch included a 63-7 loss at Neyland Stadium in 2009. After one more 2-10 campaign in 2010, the talent began improving and the wins started coming.
In 2011 they were 7-5, but not invited to a bowl game. Their 7-5 campaign in 2012 was good enough to for an invitation to the Little Caesar’s Bowl, the first bowl trip in program history. Taggart left for USF.
Then came Petrino.
One of the nation’s most respected offensive minds fell into WKU’s lap after leaving Arkansas in disgrace following a scandal at Arkansas in the spring of 2012. A proven winner at Louisville and Arkansas, other top programs were hesitant to offer him a job after the controversy in Fayetteville, allowing the Hilltoppers to give him a shot.
"He does a great job of preparing his football teams – they're well coached,” said Jones. “They’re very dynamic on offense, they challenge you defensively just because of the different personnel groupings they do. They mix the formations up, there are different tempos they present to you – all the different things that keep a defense on edge.”
Jones and Tennessee have both met Petrino before. Jones was an assistant coach on a West Virginia team that split two games against Petrino and Louisville in 2005 and 2006. Tennessee, meanwhile, is 0-1 against Petrino, falling 49-7 to Arkansas in 2011 in a game that current starting quarterback Justin Worley was filling in as the starter for an injured Tyler Bray.
“It was a pretty rough night for the Vols,” said Worley, who completed 15-of-29 passes for 208 yards and one INT in that game. “Hopefully we can go out there and have some more success.”
• Jones offered no substantial update on injured defensive end Jacques Smith or linebacker Curt Maggitt. Both sat out UT’s opener on Saturday and their status is unclear for this week. Before the Vols played Austin Peay, Jones said Smith had a good chance to play against WKU, but he seemed less certain on Monday.
• Backup left guard Marcus Jackson, a former starter, didn’t play against Austin Peay. Jones didn’t close the door on the possibility of Jackson taking a redshirt season, but also said they are still evaluating him and other backup offensive linemen.
• Jones said there are no changes to the depth chart this week. Receivers Josh Smith and Jason Croom are still listed as co-starters. Croom started the Austin Peay game.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga