Matthew R. Osborne, Tennessee Athletics
Fireworks go off in November as the Vols run through the T before the game between the Vanderbilt Commodores and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.
Utah State University fans aren’t the only ones lining up to watch Chuckie Keaton quarterback the Aggies’ 2014 football aspirations.
Apparently, Tennesseans are as well.
For the first time since 2007, the Volunteers have sold out their Sunday home opener. The 102,455-seat, 95-year-old Neyland Stadium is the fourth-largest in the nation, according to the University of Tennessee.
“We are excited to go play in as historic a venue as Neyland Stadium. Just to go play in that checkerboard end zone is pretty cool for these kids to go in there,” Aggies head coach Matt Wells said in a Monday press conference.
“Not lost is the fact that Utah State has only had one win against an SEC team, and that was before I was born. We understand what kind of challenge we're going up against.”
Utah State comes into this season on a roll, having won two bowl games the past two years. Last year, USU went 9-5 (7-1 MWC). The Aggies won the Poinsettia Bowl 21–14 over No. 24 ranked Northern Illinois.
The Tennessee coaching staff respects USU’s experience.
During a Thursday press conference in Knoxville, Vols offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian noted that Utah State’s defense has three starters with 27 starts each. This accounts for more experience than the entire Vols starting offense.
"Number one is that they're very experienced," Bajakian said. "They bring an understanding of the game. They know how to win. They play hard. They play fast. They play physical. They're a well-coached group. They pose a lot of problems with just their skills and you add their scheme and they'll keep you on your heels."
Still, national football pundits favor Tennessee. Last year, the Vols went 5-7 (2-6 SEC conference) en route to their fourth straight losing season.
The Bleacher Report says the Vols’ strength in the receiving corps tips the season-opener in Tennessee’s favor.
“Head coach Butch Jones can throw waves of talented targets at opponents. It's going to be such a drastic mismatch for the Aggies' revamped secondary, the Vols will ride that advantage to a season-opening win,” Bleacher Report columnist Brad Shepard wrote.
Marquez North, Pig Howard and Von Pearson will start for the Vols on Sunday, according to the most recent UT depth chart.
The Aggies head coach called Tennessee "Wide Receiver University" at Monday’s press conference.
“They have 11 first-round draft picks in the last 40 years at wide receiver. That's unbelievable. There may be four more on this roster,” Wells said.
"I look at the secondary and know that we lost three guys to the NFL and that scares the heck out of me. We've got good, talented players, but they haven't done it yet."
One of those charged with slowing down the Vols’ attack is Daniel Gray, a Tennessee transfer. According to the USU website, Gray will get his first start as a Utah State Aggie cornerback on Sunday.
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“I'm sure there will be mixed emotions for him going in,” Wells said. “He needs to be able to control those and play each snap and move on and have success.
He's known since the minute he walked in here that this was the opening game.”
Five of seven ESPN SEC bloggers also pick the Vols to prevail.
“Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton can't beat the Vols by himself, can he? Even with UT linebackers A.J. Johnson spying and Curt Maggitt providing some pass rush, Keeton won't be stopped, but he will be contained,” ESPN blogger Jeff Barlis wrote. “Tennessee has just enough talent to win a squeaker at home.”