Tom Smart, Deseret News
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Just in case there was any doubt that the Aggies will be heading into a hostile environment Sunday tonight, the University of Tennessee announced Thursday that the game is a sellout — the first season opener at Neyland Stadium to sell out since 2007.
That means the better part of 102,455 people — the biggest crowd a USU team has ever played in front of — will be cheering against the Aggies in their 2014 season debut.
"Before the game we all get to go to the stadium, and that's the time to take pictures and be a little bit in awe of how big it is and soak up the history there," USU senior linebacker Zach Vigil said of the team's scheduled walk-through at the third-largest college football stadium in the country. "When it's game time, as soon as you walk out there, you're going to see a sea of orange and take that in and put it away because when you're out there on the field, all you have is each other."
While the Aggies are coming off a 9-5 season that ended with a victory in a bowl game for the second straight year, the Volunteers are still trying to regain their swagger under second-year head coach Butch Jones. Tennessee went 5-7 and finished in sixth place in the Eastern Division of the SEC last year in Jones' inaugural season.
The Volunteers return 10 starters, but Jones announced last week that as many as 28 true freshmen could see time in tonight's game. That means that while all of the Aggies — other than former sophomore cornerback Daniel Gray, who transferred from Tennessee — will be playing their first game at Neyland Stadium tonight, so will an awful lot of Vols.
"The thing I like is that 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 back to its rightful place, and it's going to be a journey."
The Aggies, of course, hope that "journey" gets off to a rocky — and not a "Rocky Top" — start. Tonight's game is one of the most anticipated season openers in USU history, and another chance for senior quarterback Chuckie Keeton and this decorated group of Aggies, who have already experienced unprecedented success, to leave behind an even bigger mark by knocking off a big-time opponent on the road.
"It's just another football game," USU senior linebacker Zach Vigil said of taking on the Vols. "That's something that I think our team has done a pretty good job with in the past is not letting where you are in the surroundings overcome you. That's to be determined with this year's team, but I'm sure we're going to be just fine walking into that stadium."
The last time Utah State played a season opener against an SEC team, the Aggies very nearly KO'ed defending champion Auburn, losing 42-38 in front of 82,245 people. Keeton started that game as a freshman, then nearly led USU to an upset of No. 22 Wisconsin a year later, falling 16-14 while playing in front of 79,332 people. Last year, the Aggies held a 23-14 lead at Utah before losing 30-26, and were tied with USC heading into the fourth quarter before suffering a 17-14 setback in front of 63,482 people.
"We just have to finish," USU running back Joe Hill said of Sunday's game. "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 the Volunteers are young overall, Jones annointed senior Justin Worley the starting quarterback after a spirited competition in the spring and fall camp. Worley completed 106 of 196 passes for 1,239 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions last year before suffering an injury and losing his starting spot.
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