You can make a logical argument that the Vols will win anywhere between four and eight games. They could turn heads and return to a bowl for the first since 2011 or record a historically-bad season.
It’s simply unknown.
And that unknown element will be on display more than any other time this season when Utah State comes to town Sunday night. Both teams are replacing a huge chunk of their starters. There’s no film for either team in 2014. There are few recent common opponents to help size the two up against each other.
“The first games are the games of the unknowns,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said on Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “We probably have more unknowns than anyone else in the country. How will your players respond? We have to be disciplined, assignment sound and handle turnovers. The winner of the first game usually manages the turnovers. They don’t beat themselves.”
Not beating themselves has been a point of emphasis for Jones and Tennessee all throughout camp. That’s why he stopped practice late last week to – not so subtly – remind them that they must be situationally smart. They can’t get beat over the top on third-and-long. The offense can’t let precious time run off in a two-minute drill. They have to protect the ball – especially in the passing game.
And with nearly half the roster playing college football for the first time in 2014, three freshmen officially on the depth chart as starters and 28 total underclassmen listed on the two-deep, those unknowns don’t get any clearer for UT.
“I’d say Week 1, you’re always a little uncertain because you’re basing it on what you’ve seen from last year’s film – I think that’s the biggest reason why (Jones) said it’s a game of unknowns,” said senior quarterback Justin Worley, who is set to make his 11th career start for the Vols.
“Also, with us having 30-something freshman and 40-something new guys, you don’t know how they’re going to react to playing in front of a crowd like that.”
He brings up a good point. While Utah State might be somewhat overwhelmed by what Jones described as a 100,000-plus person crowd that is on the verge of selling out, there’s also concern about how such a young UT roster will handle such a large crowd and a national televison audience on the SEC Network.
“I am worried about he shock value of our team,” Jones said when asked if he thought the Aggies would have to overcome a shock factor on Sunday. “A lot of these individuals haven’t performed, that is why the open practice was monumental, our fans coming out and supporting us was monumental. When you hear them say, `that is the largest crowd I ever played in front of, 40,000.’ I told you a couple weeks ago, that isn’t even half of what you are going to be playing in front of. So I am more concerned with how our players respond and not getting all caught up in the emotions of a game.”
Add it to the list of unknowns for Sunday as the Vols start a season of the unknowns.
Consistency earns Sutton starting PR job: Devrin Young was the odds-on favorite to return punts for Tennessee this season. But it was sophomore cornerback Cam Sutton, who had a 70-plus yard punt return in a scrimmage this past spring, who came out on top of the depth chart at that position.
“He has been consistent every time that he has gone back,” said Jones. “He consistently catches the football and I will continue to say that that is one of the hardest jobs in all of sports.”
Maggitt is “full go”: After injuring his ankle earlier in camp and being a limited participant in practice last week, Jones anticipates defensive end/outside linebacker Curt Maggitt being 100-percent ready for Utah State.
“He has been back with us during the full practice,” Jones said. “We will move him around and ask a lot from him. We will ask him to play outside linebacker to being down on the line. He is back with full go. It’s been great because he adds a full other element to our defense, and we are going to need that.”
• There’s still no decision on who the kicker will be. Aaron Medley and George Bullock are listed as co-starters on the depth chart and Jones seems content to let that battle rage on into this week of pracitce.
• Jones was also asked who would be the starting outside cornerback in the nickel opposite of Cam Sutton. He called Michael Williams and Emmanuel Moseley 1A and 1B at that spot (not clarifying which was which).
• Jones also said starting receiver Pig Howard can play any of the wide receiver spots and could get some work out of the backfield as well.