KNOXVILLE -- With Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson's media responsibilities almost over Monday afternoon, someone asked him about the quality of Western Kentucky's athletes, whom the Volunteers will face early Saturday afternoon.
"They've got good athletes all over," Johnson said. "Not everyone can play in the SEC."
Though the Southeastern Conference's seven straight BCS championships might indicate otherwise, not every good college football player does call the SEC home. WKU has at least two defenders -- linebacker Andrew Jackson and safety Jonathan Dowling -- who UT coach Butch Jones believes soon will play on Sundays in the NFL.
And if those Hilltoppers stars play well enough, all that good will Jones and his unsung team have built up the past nine months may momentarily be put on hold, pending further review.
But it's the guy on the other sideline who probably concerns Jones the most this week. Fellow by the name of Petrino, Bobby. The last time Petrino faced the Vols he was the Arkansas coach and the Razorbacks won 49-7 in Fayetteville in 2011.
"A pretty rough night for the Vols," said UT junior quarterback Justin Worley, whose rough fate it was as a true freshman to start that loss against the Hogs. "Hopefully we can go out [this time] and have a little bit more success."
But should they not, should Petrino again vanquish the Vols during the first season of his personal rehabilitation project at WKU, at least a few folks in the Big Orange Nation surely will wonder whether UT athletic director Dave Hart made the right decision last fall in ignoring the ethically and morally challenged former Boss Hog in favor of the gentleman Jones.
It is certainly an interesting debate, regardless of Saturday's outcome. Good as Jones may one day make the Vols, Petrino almost surely would have gotten them there faster. After last Saturday's 35-26 win over Kentucky -- when Petrino's offense scored all five of its touchdowns on drives of 60 or more yards -- the man stands a combined 76-26 as a head coach at Louisville, Arkansas and WKU, having produced four seasons of 10 or more wins and two BCS bowl appearances.
That doesn't make him a noble figure. Especially not when the married father of four lost his Arkansas gig after having an affair with a fellow athletic department employee, using his clout to get her a higher paying job, then lying about the affair when questioned about it.
Given his previous history of lying about his interest in the Arkansas job when he was head coach of the Atlanta Falcons and his lying about his pursuit of Auburn and LSU openings while at Louisville, Bobby Pinocchio was as likely to land a BCS opening for this season -- both UK and UT passed on him -- as former UT coaches Lane Kiffin or Derek Dooley are to wind up with bronze statues in front of Neyland Stadium.
Still, Western took that chance, and as WKU president Dr. Gary Ransdell told a Louisville television station over the weekend, "Everything since December -- every speech, every interview, every alumni meeting -- [Petrino's] been great to work with. I could not be more proud of him and this whole group of coaches."
That doesn't mean UT was wrong to hire Jones. The Vols may need desperately to break their run of three straight losing seasons, but that doesn't mean they're desperate enough for the state's most famous academic institution to vacate its values just to win a few football games.
Nor should Western Kentucky necessarily be criticized for giving a bum a break. This was a business decision, plain and simple. All history points to Petrino continuing the good work begun by former coach Willie Taggert, who took the South Florida post after guiding the Toppers to eight wins last season.
A bad coach easily could have returned WKU to the middle of the Sun Belt Conference. Or worse. Even if he's there only for this season, Petrino already has proven his worth by spanking UK in Nashville. Let him take down the Vols in Neyland and Ransdell may soon be answering to Bobby P.
Yet the Vols have different goals and, we hope, different standards. The vast majority of their fans want to win with dignity, honor and class, all of which Jones seems to have in abundance.
A single example: At least five UT fans have told me the last couple of days how proud they were of the Vols' on-field behavior against Austin Peay last weekend. Not a single Johnny Manziel moment of classless taunting and mouthing.
Asked about that on Monday, UT strong safety Brian Randolph said, "We want our pads to do the talking."
As Jones was discussing the Hilltoppers, he said, "Football is a game of one-on-one matchups. It is me vs. you."
If WKU should somehow topple UT on Saturday, at least a few Vols fans will see it as Petrino vs. Jones, and an example that the Big Orange hired the wrong guy. They shouldn't. Their school got it right.
But the mindset within all SEC programs is that while not every coach can work for its 14 member schools, those schools should never lose to someone who doesn't.
Contest Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.