KNOXVILLE - Tennessee football coach Butch Jones has said it before this summer. Said it quite often, actually. But the words carried a bit more weight a mere five days from the Volunteers' season opener against Utah State on Sunday evening.
Said Jones early Tuesday afternoon: "We probably have more unknowns than anyone else in the country."
Maybe they do and maybe they don't, but they certainly have enough of them. For instance:
Can Justin Worley be a winning quarterback at the top level of college football, which is clearly what the Southeastern Conference is these days?
Assuming Worley can deliver the goods in his final season, can the much-hyped receiving corps -- Jason Croom, Pig Howard, Josh Malone, Marquez North, Von Pearson and Josh Smith (and that doesn't even include the tight ends) -- turn those throws into winning plays?
Can completely new offensive and defensive lines stand up not only to crafty, dangerous Utah State but, far more importantly, to the unrelenting, unforgiving SEC?
Can new kickers somewhat match Michael Palardy's 2013 excellence for Team 117? Remember that Jones recently referred to him as "our MVP."
Finally, can all this youth on both sides of the ball -- 20 true or redshirt freshmen on the two-deep chart when you include special teams -- not play like uncertain, inexperienced freshmen come those crucial moments that separate winners from losers?
Or as Jones noted when asked if Neyland Stadium's 102,000 fans might rattle Utah State: "I don't know. I am worried about the shock value of our team. I am more concerned with how our players respond and not getting all caught up in the emotions of a game."
It's surely a legitimate concern. Especially in week one. As North, who played seven games inside Neyland a year ago as a true freshman observed, "There's always going to be a little bit of nerves. Just coming in from high school, it's a big step playing in front of probably about 1,000 people at the most at my school, to 102,455 ... hopefully, we'll handle it."
But what if they don't? What if they lose? And lose at Oklahoma? And lose at home to Florida? And finish no better than 5-7 for the fourth straight season? Is there still reason to feel good about this program and this coaching staff moving forward under such a scenario?
"This football team is going to be intact with many years to come," Jones said. "Along with that you suffer growing pains, but also they are very talented. A lot of people would say they would take talent over experience, but you still need to benefit from that experience."
And no statement could better sum up what we're about to watch from Team 118. This season may not only define the future of this program, but also Jones's future. This isn't so much about wins, although a bowl bid would certainly be nice, as about overall improvement. The careers of Worley, Jordan Williams, A.J. Johnson and Justin Coleman may indeed be almost done, but most of the rest of this team is just getting started.
So much potential. Seemingly so much time to realize it, regardless of what happens this autumn.
Added Jones, as if to instill patience in the Big Orange Nation with this ridiculously young team: "It is exciting because I think it is the future of Tennessee football. ...We get to raise this football team as Vol nation. [We] are going to continually see them grow up."
A wise man walks softly, especially when he doesn't know how big a stick he'll bring to battle, his immediate future more unknown than known.
But the future is short for veterans such as Worley. It is now or never for the seniors, and their quarterback is confidently placing his chips on now, beginning with Sunday night against the Aggies.
"I think we can surprise some people this year," he said. "I think we are really talented, even though we are young. I think the sky is the limit for this football team."
The trick for the Big Orange Nation is to decide how high that sky should be? Six wins and a bowl bid? More wins and a bigger bowl? Or something less dramatic, but ultimately as important, such as simply closing the competitive gap with the Alabamas of the SEC?
Said Jones: "We will find out in a hurry come Sunday night how far we have progressed and where we need to make improvements as we move forward."
Five days from the start of season 118, that may be the only known out there.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.