Wade Payne, Associated Press
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Butch Jones understands his team will endure plenty of growing pains.
He just hopes the Volunteers' newcomers don't start their careers by taking a punch in the gut from Utah State, a program certainly capable of providing that kind of blow.
Utah State is one of only nine Football Bowl Subdivision programs to win 20 games and earn two bowl victories over the last two years. The return of star quarterback Chuckie Keeton from a knee injury that sidelined him for the final eight games of the 2013 season should give the Aggies even more confidence heading into Sunday's game at Neyland Stadium.
"He's one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the country, and he'll play on Sundays," Jones said. "Everything is about impacting and containing the quarterback. But let's make one thing clear. It's not just Chuckie Keeton. There's a reason why they've won the amount of games they've won. They're talented across the board."
Utah State has shown it can be competitive in road games with big-name programs. When Keeton made his Utah State debut in 2011, the Aggies led defending national champion Auburn by 10 points late in the fourth quarter before falling 42-38. Utah State lost 17-14 at Southern California last season and fell 16-14 at Wisconsin in 2012.
"We just have to finish," Utah State running back Joe Hill said. "I feel like in all the other big games, we didn't finish at all. We need this game, and I feel we can get this game if we just come out with tenacity and don't back down at all."
While Utah State has gone 20-7 over the last two years, Tennessee is relying on youth to end its recent slide. The 32-man recruiting class that Tennessee signed in February was rated among the nation's top five by multiple services. Most of those newcomers are expected to play Sunday.
Those newcomers may lack experience, but they also lack the baggage that has come along with four straight losing seasons.
"The thing I like is we have a fresh football team," Jones said. "They don't have past experiences in mind. They came here to win football games. They came here to be part of a great turnaround and get Tennessee football in its rightful place."
Some things to watch in Sunday's Utah State-Tennessee game:
RETURNS FROM INJURIES: Keeton's comeback has garnered much of the attention this week, but Tennessee also has a key player returning from injury. Curt Maggitt is expected to play Sunday after missing the entire 2013 season with a torn ACL. Jones has called Maggitt the Vols' biggest leader. Maggitt will line up at both defensive end and linebacker, so he could spend much of the night chasing Keeton.
INEXPERIENCED LINES: Tennessee is the only FBS program without any returning starters on both the offensive and defensive lines. Senior tackle Kevin Whimpey is the only returning starter on Utah State's offensive line. This game may come down to whether Keeton has enough time to throw, so the matchup between Utah State's offensive line and Tennessee's defensive front could prove critical.
GRAY'S RETURN TO KNOXVILLE: Utah State cornerback Daniel Gray began his career at Tennessee in 2012 before transferring. Sunday's game marks his debut performance for the Aggies. "I'm sure there will be mixed emotions for him going in," Utah State coach Matt Wells said. "He needs to be able to control those and play each snap and move on and have success."
SPECIAL-TEAMS UNCERTAINTY: If this game comes down to a late field-goal attempt, Utah State has a more stable kicking situation. Jones said the choice between sophomore kicker George Bullock and freshman Aaron Medley may be a game-time decision. Neither has attempted a kick in a college game. Utah State has senior Nick Diaz, who was 17-of-23 on field-goal attempts last season. That isn't Tennessee's only special-teams issue. After ranking 92nd nationally in punt coverage last year, Tennessee must look out for JoJo Natson, who scored on two punt returns for Utah State a year ago.
NERVOUS NEWCOMERS?: Tennessee's freshmen acknowledge they'll probably feel some jitters when they take the field for the first time. The question is whether that nervous energy leads to mistakes. "For every football game, you always get a little nervous, but that nervousness is really excitement, just excitement to be out there with my team," Tennessee freshman running back Jalen Hurd said.
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