Utah State football: Timing could be right for Ags at Tennessee
College football • Vols return just 11 starters off of last year’s 5-7 team.
Published: August 25, 2014 06:16PM
Updated: August 25, 2014 11:14PM
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Tennessee wide receiver Marquez North (8) is tackled as he runs the ball after a catch during the annual Orange and White NCAA college spring football game on Saturday, April 12, 2014, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

Logan • Part of the challenge in putting together a college football schedule is estimating how good an opponent will be when they actually play them, so the schedule isn’t too hard or too easy.

For the Utah State Aggies, their timing for the showdown with the Tennessee Vols couldn’t be better.

Back in 2008 when the game was scheduled, the Vols were coming of a 10-4 run in 2007 that ended with a win over Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl.

But since then times have been tough and big wins have been scarce for the Vols. They haven’t had a winning record in SEC play or won a bowl game since that 2007 season and have had just one year — 2009’s 7-6 mark — of finishing above .500.

Since the Philip Fulmer era ended in 2008, the Vols have had three coaches, with Lane Kiffin went 7-6 in 2009 before bolting to USC; Derek Dooley finished 11-14 before he was fired at the end of the 2012 season and current Vols coach Butch Jones was 5-7 last year in his first season.

While there is optimism that Jones is the man who can revive Tennessee and make it the proud program it once was, not many believe that transformation will occur this year.

Tennessee has just 11 starters returning and the Vols remain uncertain at quarterback. Riley Ferguson, who was thought to be a leading candidate for the role, left the school in May.

Senior Justin Worley won the starting nod in camp and has some experience having started seven games last year before he was sidelined with a thumb injury.

Nevertheless, Tennessee’s offense was never exactly formidable in 2013, ranking 111th in the Football Bowl Subdivision teams in passing efficiency last season (191-of-344 passing, 1,979 yds., 12 TDs, 17 INTs) and 13th out of 14 SEC teams with just 164.9 passing yards per game.

Tennessee sounds like a disaster of a team right now. So really, if you are a school from a smaller conference looking for an winnable game against a team from the Power 5, who better for the Aggies to play than Tennessee?

Yep, that timing back in 2008 to agree to play the Vols was spot-on for the Aggies.

That the Vols have slipped from the success of the 1990s, when they won a national title in 1998 and three SEC championships, isn’t lost on the Aggies.

Asked about playing in Neyland Stadium against a team that ranks 10th on the list of all-time won-lost records with a mark of 804-361-53, quarterback Chuckie Keeton noted the Aggies were playing the current Vols, not their history.

“They are athletic and not old, which is a good and bad thing,” he said. “They have guys with a lot of room to grow but at the same time they don’t have the experience we do.”

Still, the Aggies know going into Neyland Stadium and winning would be a big thing for them, regardless of any preseason projections for the Vols.

Utah State coach Matt Wells pointed out the Aggies are just 1-16 against SEC schools, with the lone win, a 36-6 victory over Kentucky in 1970, was “before I was born.”

“We understand the challenge we are going up against,” he said.

Skepticism may reign, but the Aggies hope to prove any doubters wrong, with some perfect timing of their own.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to be about who makes the big plays,” Keeton said.

Utah State at Tennessee

P Sunday, 5 p.m.

TV • SEC Network

Tennessee’s track record

The Vols were one of the nation’s strongest teams in the 1990s but have struggled in recent years. Here is a look at their overall records and SEC records.

Year Overall SEC

2004 10-3 7-1

2005 5-6 3-5

2006 9-4 5-3

2007 10-4 6-2

2008 5-7 3-5

2009 7-6 4-4

2010 6-7 3-5

2011 5-7 1-7

2012 5-7 1-7

2013 5-7 2-6

Vols rundown

Strengths • The Vols pride themselves on having good receivers and this season’s bunch is no different. They are led by returner Marquez North. Others who could make an immediate impact are Von Pearson and Josh Malone. Tight end Ethan Wolf is someone to watch as well.

Weaknesses • Both the Vols’ offensive and defensive lines are thin in experience, but against the Aggies and Chuckie Keeton, the biggest weakness has to be the defensive line. Keeton is a hard quarterback for any seasoned defense to handle, much less one that is filled with guys still learning how to play with one another.

Unknowns • Many believe the Vols will soon break out of mediocrity thanks to new talent, but how quickly can that talent come together?