Utah State (0-0) at Tennessee (0-0) (ET)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Neyland Stadium (102,455) -- Knoxville, Tennessee. Television: SEC Network. Home Record: Utah State 0-0, Tennessee 0-0. Away Record: Utah State 0-0, Tennessee 0-0. Neutral Record: Utah State 0-0, Tennessee 0-0. Conference Record: Utah State 0-0, Tennessee 0-0. Series Record: First-ever meeting.
GAME NOTES: The Utah State Aggies and the Tennessee Volunteers will get a late start to the 2014 campaign on Sunday night in non-conference action at Neyland Stadium.
In the first season under the tutelage of Matt Wells, previously the team's offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, Utah State continued its run as one of the best mid-major programs in the country in 2013, although things did not get off to such a smooth start.
The Aggies found themselves just 3-4 midway through October, but they responded by ripping off five straight victories to finish in first place in the Mountain West Conference's Mountain Division. Although they fell flat at nationally-ranked Fresno State in the league championship game (24-17), they bounced back with a 21-14 triumph over Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl to wrap up the year 9-5.
After collecting just a 15-21 record in the three previous seasons under Derek Dooley, the Vols hired former Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones in 2013 to lead the team back to prosperity, but things were rough during his first year as the team finished 5-7 (2-6 in the SEC) and missed the bowl season for the third straight year.
The squad could not overcome its difficult schedule, losing a brutally tough road non-conference bout to Oregon (59-14) while also falling to bowl-bound SEC squads Georgia (34-31 in OT), Alabama (45-10), Missouri (31-3), Auburn (55-23) and Vanderbilt (14-10). It wasn't all disappointment for the Vols last season, as they knocked off a heavily-favored South Carolina squad on Oct. 19, 23-21. They also ended the year on a high note with a 27-14 triumph at Kentucky.
The Aggies and the Volunteers have never before faced off on the football field.
Utah State employed an effective offense last season, putting up 31.8 ppg and 411.5 ypg, and with its star quarterback returning for his senior season fully healthy, there's a strong chance those numbers can improve in 2014.
Chuckie Keeton was off to an outstanding start in 2013, completing just shy of 70 percent of his passes for 1,388 yards, 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions to go with strong rushing stats (241 yards, two TDs), but he was lost for the season in early October with a knee injury. Assuming full health, Keeton, who's accounted for 70 touchdowns in his career, should be in the running for the MWC Player of the Year.
Bruce Natson returns as the team's leading receiver (59 receptions), but he accounted for just 395 yards (6.7 ypc) and two touchdowns. Brandon Swindell (29 receptions, 285 yards) is a strong red zone threat, scoring six times.
The loss of Joey DeMartino (1,221 yards, 13 TDs) in the backfield means that Joe Hill (252 yards, TD) will see an increase in carries, although the offensive line in front of him returns just one starter.
The Aggies' defense is what catapulted them to so much late-season success, as they ranked first in the MWC and seventh nationally in allowing only 17.l ppg, but the unit will need to rebound from losing more than half of its starters.
Linebacker is the defense's biggest strength. Zach Vigil is the top returning tackler (124 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks) and will act as the defensive leader in 2014. Kyler Fackrell racked up 82 tackles, 13.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks, two forced fumbles and even returned an interception 99 yards for a score against Hawaii, and Nick Vigil (57 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks) was also solid.
Brian Suite (77 tackles, five INTs, two FR) was a difference maker in the secondary and will bring valuable senior leadership to the defensive backfield.
Generating offense was a big problem for the Vols last season, as they ranked in the bottom-third of the SEC in both scoring (23.8 ppg) and yardage (353.3 ypg). They'll need to seek improvement this season with nearly an entirely new unit, as they return just four starters.
One of the few returnees is quarterback Justin Worley, who was modest at best last season in completing just 55.6 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions in eight games. Luckily for Worley, his direct competition -- Joshua Dobbs (.595 completion percentage, 695 yards, two TDs, six INTs) and Nathan Peterman (10-of-23, 45 yards, two INTs) -- failed to impress during their playing time last year.
Marlin Lane (534 yards, four TDs) will be inserted into the starting lineup at running back, although true freshman and five-star recruit Jalen Hurd is also expected to see plenty of action early in his career.
The team is relatively deep at wide receiver with the return of top pass- catchers Alton "Pig" Howard (44 receptions, 388 yards, three TDs) and Marquez North (38 receptions, 496 yards, TD). Josh Malone, another five-star prospect from Tennessee's highly-touted freshman class, is also in position to make an immediate impact.
Unsurprisingly, Tennessee's defense also failed to impress during the 2013 campaign, allowing 29.0 ppg and 418.4 ypg. Luckily the unit brings back more experienced players than the offense with five returning starters, including both top tacklers.
A.J. Johnson (106 tackles, 8.5 TFL) established himself as one of the SEC's best linebackers last season, and more of the same is expected in his senior season. Safety Brian Randolph (75 tackles) was a difference maker in the secondary with four interceptions and a fumble recovery.
The inexperienced defensive line will have four new starters, none of which recorded more than 1.5 sacks in reserve roles last season.
The secondary remains largely intact, with corners Justin Coleman (46 tackles, INT) and Cameron Sutton (39 tackles, two INT) and safety LaDarrell McNeil (54 tackles, INT) joining Randolph to round out the veteran bunch.
Tennessee may possess a still-to-be-determined identity heading into Jones' second season as head coach, but its play late in the season last year was a promising sign of things to come. If the Vols can contain Keeton, they should be able to find a way to defend their home field.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Tennessee 30, Utah State 27Game Date and Time
Sunday, August 31, 7 p.m. (ET)