Utah State vs. Tennessee Complete Game Preview
As far as tests go, Sunday's season-opening tilt with Utah State is ideal for a Tennessee Volunteers team filled with newcomers.
Though scheduling a mid-major game against the upstart Aggies and dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate Chuckie Keeton could be considered a "no-win" situation for the Vols, it's actually just the opposite.
This game is exactly what UT needs.
It's enough of a test to where the Vols can't sleepwalk. A victory can give a growing team confidence heading into a grueling, season-long gauntlet.
Also, with Oklahoma and Georgia on the September schedule, lining up against a potentially dynamic offense will help UT prepare more than it would against a pair of cupcakes.
Keeton and his teammates may see the game as a showcase on a national stage that would help put USU on the map. But it's also a coming-out party for a group of Vols intent on erasing a miserable recent stretch of football.
"The one thing about football is it's not what they do, it's what you do," A.J. Johnson told UTSports.com's Brian Rice. "We have to come out focused and worried about us and getting the job done."
With that much inexperience thrust into key roles, UT has plenty of concerns. But there's palpable excitement, too. The practice pads are about to come off. It's finally game week.
Date: Sunday, Aug. 31
Time: 7 p.m. ET
Place: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tennessee
TV: SEC Network
Radio: Vol Network, NewsTalk, Sirius/XM 91
Spread: Tennessee by 6.5 points, according to OddsShark.com.
Tennessee Keys to Victory
Utilize Those Big Receivers
None of Utah State's top four cornerbacks are taller than 5'10". While the Aggies don't have terrible size at the position, it shouldn't be enough to match up with the Vols.
Tennessee's receivers are huge. Marquez North is 6'4". Jason Croom is 6'5". Josh Malone is 6'3", and so is Von Pearson. Even Josh Smith is 6'1".
In other words, the Vols have got some serious size advantages on the perimeter. It's going to be up to newly-minted starting quarterback Justin Worley to get the ball to them and let them use their speed and physicality to dominate USU's smaller, less athletic defensive backs.
Much of the preseason hype surrounding UT's offense has focused on the receivers. But if the Vols can't exploit the Aggies there, they will have bigger issues against Oklahoma and in league play.
If the passing game is truly going to be a strength, it needs to get off to a good start.
Cut Off the Corners
All throughout the 2013 season, Tennessee was torched by teams on the edge.
Once opponents got outside of the tackle box against the Vols, big gains were not far behind. Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton—when healthy—has the ability and mobility to move the pocket and pick up yards with his arm or legs.
According to the Albuquerque Journal's Rick Wright (subscription required), Keeton's knee is "fine" and has recovered well from tearing an anterior cruciate ligament less than a year ago. If that's the case, the Vols are in for a big test.
If there's one place USU is concerned about, it's on its offensive line, where youth and inexperience rule. The Vols have their own issues on the defensive front, but this is where UT's SEC athleticism has to take over.
The Aggies have enough speed to make this interesting. Tennessee's front seven has to push everything toward the middle of the field.
Play the Role of Belief Thief
Utah State isn't coming across the country for a paycheck.
The Aggies know that Tennessee is not Tennessee right now. They know that upsetting the Vols is a possibility, and the Aggies are likely even going to be a trendy Week 1 pick.
Butch Jones' team needs to dash those hopes early.
Even during Tennessee's troubling times, it handled business against upstarts like Cincinnati, North Carolina State and Western Kentucky. None of those teams had Keeton, but at least a couple of them had more playmakers.
UT needs to jump out to a lead, get some defensive stops and make this one a no-doubter. The longer this game lingers as a competitive environment, the greater USU's belief will grow and the more likely an upset will become.
Utah State Keys to Victory
Movement and Misdirection
USU's offense is established and well-oiled, as head coach Matt Wells was offensive coordinator before taking over for Gary Andersen, who left for Wisconsin after the 2012 season.
Chuckie Keeton balances a rush-oriented offense with his ability to throw. But the Aggies are known to be tricky on the ground out of a spread base, utilizing creative ways to get the ball to their playmakers in space.
That's concerning for an inexperienced UT defense. Even one of the veterans the Vols will rely on—defensive end Curt Maggitt—hasn't played in a live game since November of 2012.
Considering defensive coordinator John Jancek told GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required) "anywhere from 11 to 13" newcomers would play on defense, that's a lot of fresh faces having to account for the many moving parts of USU's offense.
Not all of the Aggies offense is predicated on smoke, mirrors and tomfoolery, but Wells will likely try to catch UT's youngsters off guard, and that would be wise.
Chuckie Making Child's Play of UT Secondary
Again, inexperience is going to be the flavor of the year for Tennessee. But one place where the Vols have some seasoning is the secondary.
Senior nickelback Justin Coleman, junior safety Brian Randolph and sophomore cornerback Cameron Sutton all carry bountiful starting experience.
Even so, the other key names in the rotation on the back end of the defense have played very little. Throw in Coleman at a new position, and a matchup against Keeton is going to be a stout early test.
USU's revamped receiving corps of JoJo Natson, Brandon Swindall and Ronald Butler could emerge as one of the best in the Mountain West Conference with Keeton throwing their way. Also, 6'5", 245-pound tight end Wyatt Houston is a big, athletic target who averaged 16.9 yards per catch as a freshman.
The Fack Attack
Just like Tennessee always has to know where USU linebacker/defensive end Kyler Fackrell lines up, the Aggies want to put him in various positions to make plays.
The 6'5", 245-pound defender is much like Maggitt in that he can line up in a lot of places and attack an opponent in a variety of ways. The junior is a rising star who is a can't-miss NFL talent.
Fackrell is a two-time All-MWC performer, and he is athletic, fast and a load for any offensive line to handle. Considering offensive tackle is one of UT's biggest concerns, Wells is going to try to line up his defender wherever he can wreak the most havoc.
Over his first two seasons, Fackrell has 21 tackles for a loss, eight sacks, four interceptions, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He can fill up a stat sheet, and USU needs him to be at his best against the Vols.
Tennessee Players to Watch
The excuses are over.
UT coach Butch Jones said a season ago his quarterbacks had to play perfect. Also, it was the first year for any of the signal-callers in learning offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian's scheme.
Now, Worley has a bunch of young playmakers by his side and a better grasp of what the Vols want to do offensively.
Optimism abounds on Rocky Top since Jones named Worley his starter. The coach told Nashville's 104.5 The Zone this week (via AllForTennessee's Zach Ragan) he believes Worley can be among the top five or six quarterbacks in the SEC:
Well, I do believe that. Justin Worley has had a tremendous, tremendous offseason. [He] followed that up with a productive spring and then a very, very good and very solid training camp…I'm very encouraged by what I've seen with Justin and very confident in his ability to lead this football team.
That has to translate on the field. A season ago, even against inferior opponents like Austin Peay and Western Kentucky, Worley struggled with timing and accuracy. The USU game is a big test, and his performance could tell us a lot about the season ahead.
Tennessee has done everything during camp short of shroud Maggitt in bubble wrap and stamp a "handle with care" message on his forehead to ensure his health.
When he dinged up his ankle, the UT redshirt junior defensive end sat nearly two weeks and rested. He hasn't played in a game since tearing his ACL against Missouri in November of 2012, and the Vols need their heart and soul on the field.
Not only is Maggitt a fast, dynamic force who makes the Vols a better defense, he is also the vocal leader. His health is essential to the defense's success.
The West Palm Beach, Florida, native undoubtedly will be shaking off some rust and getting in game shape against USU, but it'll be interesting to see if he has lost a step. Reports throughout camp (when healthy) were that Maggitt is still a force.
Now, he will get to prove it under the lights.
Not since the nation's top overall prospect Bryce Brown signed with Tennessee in 2009 has there been a more anticipated debut than Hurd's.
Ever since the hotly-recruited, in-state star running back committed to the Vols in March of 2013, fans everywhere have had him penciled in as the next great superstar on Rocky Top. Coaches haven't tossed a wet blanket on those hopes, either.
It's difficult not to get excited when the 6'3", 227-pound runner's work ethic matches the hype. According to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required), running backs coach Robert Gillespie said Hurd is improving every day.
The quicker he grasps everything on offense, the better that unit is going to be. Hurd simply possesses game-breaking traits that few others on UT's roster do.
Utah State Players to Watch
The Utah State camp insists Chuckie Keeton is back to his old self despite tearing his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his knee on Oct. 4 of last season.
That's an awfully quick turnaround, but Keeton has been practicing with the Aggies like nothing ever happened.
USU senior safety Brian Suite told the Desert News' Jeff Hunter following a recent scrimmage:
"I saw Chuckie jump cutting and doing what Chuckie does—what makes him Chuckie—and that makes me really happy."
What Chuckie did before the injury was terrorize defenses. During his magical sophomore season, he completed 68 percent of his passes for 3,373 yards, 27 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also ran for 619 yards and eight touchdowns.
He was on pace to shatter those records last year before shattering those ligaments. Keeton is a star on any level, and he's going to be tough to handle.
Just like Keeton, Hill tore knee ligaments last year, doing so in the San Jose State game the week before Keeton's injury came.
Prior to that injury, the 5'11", 190-pound speedster averaged 4.8 yards per carry and had 13 catches out of the backfield. According to Jeff Hunter, Hill had 59 rushing yards on four carries in the recent scrimmage and is showing no ill effects of the injury.
Hill also has been named as a member of the Doak Walker Award's watch list. The award goes to the nation's top running back.
Though he is a bit of an unproven commodity, Hill should shine in the same USU offense that produced NFL running back Robert Turbin a few seasons ago. The Aggies have featured a 1,000-yard runner in each of the past three seasons, so Hill is next in line.
Back in 2012 when Tennessee was mired in the worst defensive season in school history, then-coordinator Sal Sunseri tried everything to ignite a spark.
That included playing a fast and extremely raw freshman cornerback named Daniel Gray. Despite showing some flashes here and there, Gray was torched often—most notably in a shootout win over Troy.
Despite the struggling start, big things were expected of Gray's future in Knoxville. Then, he suddenly left. Though it was reported he was looking for a school closer to his Florida home, Gray wound up in Logan, Utah.
Now, the Aggies are expecting the redshirt sophomore to be a big part of their plans, according to the Salt Lake Tribune's Kyle Goon. The Vols hope for one night, his Neyland nightmares continue.
What They're Saying
Chuckie Keeton may have a big night against UT, but he isn't catching anybody in Knoxville by surprise.
Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen told UTSports.com's Brian Rice his team knows what it's getting into in the battle to slow down the elite dual-threat quarterback:
He's dynamic. He can throw it, he can run it, he can make all the checks, he doesn't give their offense many negative plays. …He can throw it just as good as he runs it. He poses one of the biggest threats we'll see all year.
Everybody wants to see Jalen Hurd in action. Running backs coach Robert Gillespie told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan it doesn't matter who starts. Whoever is hot will play:
I have an idea of who's going to go in first and who will go in second and who's going to be ready for certain plays. I just believe in the guy that gets hot and gets going, the guy that’s making plays, he'll stay in the game. …[As] a guy that's on the sideline substituting, I just want to keep a guy in who's hot.
A year removed from struggling to find weapons in his wide receiving corps, Zach Azzanni is much more excited this year about the options from which he can choose.
The receivers coach told Volquest's Paul Fortenberry (subscription required) UT can be much more dynamic this year:
At least we have some guys with some multidimensional skill sets. We have some guys that can do a lot of different things. We asked Marquez [North] to do everything last year. We limited Pig [Howard] on some of the things he could do. We asked Marquez to do everything because we didn't have another option. We didn't want to be that vanilla, we had to play some football at the same time. But, now, I think we can move guys around and use their skill sets and make them successful.
The Aggies lost several members of a defense that ranked in the top 15 nationally a season ago, but nose guard Travis Seefeldt told KSL.com reporter Sean Walker that hasn't affected the unit's confidence.
All that it will take is one series in Neyland Stadium:
"[Last year's swagger] starts all over again," Seefeldt said. "I think it starts with the first series against Tennessee. We'll definitely set who we are."
Following Thursday's final scrimmage, USU head coach Matt Wells closed practice to the public as the Aggies prepared for the Vols. Keeton told The Herald Journal's Wade Denniston the attention has squarely shifted to UT:
After today’s scrimmage, it’s 100 percent Tennessee. Before this last scrimmage, it was 100 percent about the Aggies, it was 100 percent about getting better and trying to improve each day, but now it's solely set on Knoxville, Tenn., and what we have to accomplish on Aug. 31.
Despite receiver Ronald Butler (DUI and improper use of lanes) and Bruce "JoJo" Natson (theft) being arrested this offseason, both have been practicing for the Aggies and appear set to play.
Wells said at the team's media day, according to KSL.com:
We've got some issues internally, which is part of the drill. I'm in a business that is mentoring young men. Sometimes they make really good decisions and sometimes they make really poor decisions. We've already handled things internally.
Amid all the swirling upset talk, lingering concerns about Tennessee's youth and inexperience and question marks in the trenches, one thing remains: This is the SEC against the MWC, and the Vols have plenty of SEC-caliber athletes—something they didn't have a season ago.
Sure, Chuckie Keeton is going to be a marquee test and will get plenty of yards, but dissecting this game position-by-position, Tennessee just has too many size and athleticism advantages all over the field.
Also, with an offensive line that is completely rebuilt, the Aggies should struggle with UT's athleticism on defense, even if many players will be getting their first action on the college gridiron.
Utah State has some playmakers, and the Aggies have been extremely well-coached and disciplined in the past. This is going to be an excellent early-season litmus test for the Vols, but a night game on a holiday weekend in Neyland Stadium doesn't bode well for USU.
The place is going to be rocking. Though the Vols could make it one-sided, the guess here is they'll make several youthful miscues and be forced to pull away late.
Tennessee 38, Utah State 27