How many fans will be in Neyland Stadium tonight for Butch Jones' first game as Tennessee's coach? Based on the Vols' public performances this offseason, it could be a good crowd. After the second-largest crowd ever for a Tennessee spring game (61,076), the program announced that 39,000 attended an open practice this month.
The debuts for Tennessee's last two coaches were both well-attended, too, and both Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley kicked off their tenures against overmatched opponents like Austin Peay. In the Vols' 63-7 romp over Western Kentucky in 2009, the attendance was 98,761 for a steamy noon kickoff. For Dooley's opener the next year, 99,123 watched Tennessee blank UT-Martin 50-0.
6 p.m. * Neyland Stadium in Knoxville * Pay-per-view/106.5 FM
Both the Govs and Volunteers are playing their first game under new coaches. After a 2-9 season that included just one Ohio Valley Conference win, Austin Peay turned to Kirby Cannon, who was the defensive backs coach at Central Michigan the past three seasons. The bigger debut, though, belongs to Butch Jones, who's created energy around a downtrodden Tennessee program with his recruiting and seemingly everything else all offseason.
One to watch
All the eyes certainly be on Justin Worley, who edged out three other quarterbacks this month to win Tennessee's starting job. In sporadic mop-up duty last season, the junior threw two interceptions in just 23 attempts, but now the offense is his to run. A good first step for Worley would be an efficient night throwing the football with minimal game-management mistakes.
"I don't want to call it relief, but there's a sense of ownership that comes with being officially dubbed the starter," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. "I think he can take a deep sigh and know, 'OK, now it's time to just go out and play.'"
In the end
Tennessee hasn't lost a home opener since 1994, and the streak shouldn't face much resistance in reaching 19 years. Austin Peay has won just 13 games since a seven-win 2007 season, and Jones' Cincinnati team roughed up the Govs 72-10 in the 2011 opener. Regardless of the opposition, though, tonight is the chance for Jones and his staff to make their first impression and for a team with some new faces to work out the kinks and build up some confidence before the schedule spikes up -- way up -- in difficulty.
Prediction: Tennessee 56, Austin Peay 10
KNOXVILLE - It's the last of the first impressions.
In nearly nine months as Tennessee's head football coach, Butch Jones has showcased his and his staff's ability to recruit, and his first Volunteers team has performed on public platforms in April's spring game and a rain-soaked open practice this month.
Tonight's season opener against Austin Peay, though, is the real deal.
And the question many Tennessee have wondered all offseason will begin to be answered.
What will it look like?
"I think we're just looking forward to winning," left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson said this week. "The biggest thing is we haven't won these last couple of years, and it's a new era. The biggest thing we've been focusing on is our effort.
"I think that's what you're going to see out of this team this year, is a lot more effort and strain."
It's the staple of what Jones and his coaches have demanded all offseason. They've stressed mental toughness and physical play. The practice field has doubled as an outdoor classroom with teaching between seemingly every repetition in every drill and every snap.
"You get nervous just like a player," said running backs coach Robert Gillespie, who played at Florida in Steve Spurrier's final years as the Gators' coach. "As a coach, we really just play through the kids. The same jitters and excitement and anxiety as a player you have for your kids, because you want those kids to go out and be successful.
"They've done all the things behind the scenes that a lot of the fans hadn't seen and you guys hadn't seen. They've sacrificed time. You really want those guys to go out there and have some success."
The offense is built on a foundation of tempo and a physical running game. It'll feature a precision passing game that includes short and intermediate throws and a mix of screen passes. A new starting quarterback and a wide-eyed group of young wide receivers surround a highly regarded veteran offensive line and two veteran tailbacks.
There's many of the same faces as last season on defense, but the players hope a new user-friendlier system means fewer misalignments and fewer big plays.
The Vols have emphasized special teams all offseason.
"From day one of spring practice," said Mark Elder, Tennessee's special-teams coordinator and tight ends coach, "we've probably repped special teams more than what they're used to.
"When they start realizing, 'Hey, this is not a one-day, two-day, three-day deal,' we talk it and we show it, that, hey, special teams is going to win or lose a third of the ballgames for us and we put that much emphasis on practice -- they start to realize and catch on. 'Hey, this is for real, this is how we're going to win ballgames.' They buy into that."
Jones said he gets "a little grumpier" during game weeks and his mind races and he wakes up at night worrying about the nuances of his team's preparation. That won't be the case, Jones insisted, when he wakes up on the day of the game. It's more about the preparation for him, and he's seemed fairly frustrated at some times in practice this week, particularly with the receivers.
The coach wants the Vols to play relentlessly with passionate energy, and he's "anxious" to see if the Vols can deliver.
"This team, I told you, is not good enough just to show up [and beat anybody]," he said. "We have to be prepared each and every week. That's why we have to teach our players really what game week means. How do you prepare yourself to play at a very high standard?
"It's not just physically; it's mentally, it's doing the extra film study, it's taking care of your bodies."
Given the brutality of Tennessee's schedule from mid-September to October, facing undermanned Austin Peay seems an ideal opener.
Regardless of the opponent, though, the Vols will wake up Sunday with a tangible example from which to form a starting point as they try to develop into the type of team Jones wants.
"We've worked hard this offseason as a team," linebacker A.J. Johnson said, "so our work is just going to show."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.