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Smiling Tennessee fans filing out of Neyland Stadium just ahead of awesome lightning strikes Saturday night were already charged up by coach Butch Jones’ debut — a 45-0 win against Austin Peay.
So was Jones, whose young Volunteers were penalty-free and executing offense at a fast tempo.
But there’s no rest for the rebuilding.
“I’m already thinking about Western Kentucky,” Jones said about five minutes in to his post-game press conference. “We’ll enjoy this one tonight but the more you win, the more is at stake. We’re going to be challenged by a really good football team coming in here.”
Western Kentucky is coached by Bobby Petrino. And while Tennessee was fruitlessly pursuing Charlie Strong and Mike Gundy, if not Jon Gruden, to succeed Derek Dooley after last season, many Tennessee football fans were matter-of-factly stating their desire to see Petrino become the next Vols football coach.
Taking Louisville and Arkansas to the top 10, they contended, trumped any stunts with the Atlanta Falcons or former Arkansas volleyball players.
Certainly, the Western Kentucky faithful feels that way today. The Hilltoppers beat fellow basketball school Kentucky for the second straight season in Petrino’s opener Saturday night, and they’ll try to improve to 2-0 in the SEC East when they visit Tennessee (1-0) on Saturday at 12:21 p.m. (WCYB).
WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty was 27 of 34 for 271 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions, and the balanced ’Toppers diced up new Kentucky coach Mark Stoops’ defense for 487 yards.
“The things and the knowledge he (Petrino) knows is absolutely crazy,” Doughty said to reporters after the game. “He will come to the sideline and be like, ‘Hey, they are going to be in this. Throw to this guy because he is going to be open, I promise.’ It’s an unbelievable experience. To see it work live, 1s-on-1s against Kentucky is awesome.”
Of course, WKU w ill have more crowd noise to deal with in Knoxville than it heard against the Wildcats at Nashville’s LP Field.
The Vols’ Jones continues to grasp the magnitude of UT football’s popularity. He said the 39,000 that turned out for an August scrimmage helped all of his youngsters in front of the 97,000 that showed up for Saturday’s glorified scrimmage.
“I’d like to thank our student body,” Jones said. “We can’t do it without them. We talk about making Neyland a home field advantage. Over 10,000 of our students here. I greatly appreciate them and we’re going to need them even more as we continue to move on.”
Indeed, Tennessee’s green secondary will have its hands full against Petrino and company. True freshman Cameron Sutton started at cornerback for the Vols, and another true freshman, Dobyns-Bennett graduate Malik Foreman, played a lot at cornerback. Foreman gave up a couple of plays early, but made an interception in the red zone late.
“They are very, very young and inexperienced but talented,” Jones said. “They are extremely competitive. They have great competitive character. I think that showed in Malik Foreman. Again, as we move forward we will be tested even more.”
Foreman’s former D-B teammate Devaun Swafford is another true freshman defensive back that played a lot Saturday for the inexperienced Vols.
So beating Petrino will be a test. At this stage, it’d certainly qualify as a quality victory for Jones’ Vols.
Petrino might have inherited as much talent as Jones. He got the job because predecessor Willie Taggart was hired at South Florida after leading the Hilltoppers to a bowl last season.
Austin Peay punter Ben Campbell, a Science Hill alum that played against Western Kentucky and Virginia Tech last season, said the Hilltoppers and Hokies were similarly talented. The scoreboards agreed. Western defeated Peay 49-10 and the Hokies beat it 42-7.
Regardless of Saturday’s scoreboard in Neyland, Jones appears to be a good fit for a lengthy stay in Knoxville. As for Petrino, fans of many BCS programs will probably be urging athletic directors to hire him 3-4 months from now.