In keeping with our preseason theme of Worry and Speculation, let’s explore the civil war that rages inside every Vol fan: the head vs. the heart. Ruined by the heartbreaking losses, coaching changes, and general misery of recent years, Vol minds are in a constant twist of self-loathing, stress, and worry. Conversely, the hearts of Vol fans see a schedule that looks like a chance for a repeat of the 1998 undefeated national championship season. And somewhere far from Rocky Top is reality.
Let’s look at the first quarter of the 2014 season from each side of our internal conflict. And somewhere in between.
THE HEAD: Fearless, dynamic Utah State QB Chuckie Keeton will have everything to prove in his first game since his knee exploded on Oct. 4 against BYU. Utah State will spread out and our inexperienced defense will be Swiss cheese. Also, we only return 10 starters, the fewest in the SEC. Problem.
THE HEART: Who cares about the Mountain West Conference? Tennessee doesn’t lose openers anyway. Also, dude’s name is Chuckie, which is either a scary puppet or a mouse that sells pizza to kids. Also, they only return 10 starters, the fewest in the MWC. No problem!
THE FACTS: Utah State will bring a fast but largely overhauled offense into Neyland Stadium. Keeton is a true star, but how much of his video game mobility remains in the wake of his knee rebuild is simply unknown at this point. Utah State also had to rebuild a large portion of its 3-4 defense, which will play into Tennessee’s strengths at running back and tight end. Tennessee is traditionally strong in opening games, largely (but not entirely) due to the trend of major programs scheduling “cupcakes” for their season openers. Utah State is a great match-up for the 2014 Vols, and a much better one than billed.
THE HEAD: Oh, no. Arkansas State, still maybe kinda strong from Gus Malzahn, finished 22 spots higher than Tennessee in last year’s Harris Poll, at 62nd in the country.
THE HEART: Um, SEC vs Sun Belt. No problem.
THE FACTS: The SEC is 108-7 all-time against the Sun Belt Conference. This game isn’t impossible to lose, because none are. If Tennessee shows up, in any fashion, the Vols should be fine. Arkansas State has seen some success in recent years and exported two strong SEC head coaches (Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss and Gus Malzahn at Auburn). The Red Wolves, however, return only four starters on offense, which gives the Vols a rare advantage in experience.
THE HEAD: Ugh. Just stay healthy and enjoy the boost in our strength of schedule ranking. I’ll be at the bar.
THE HEART: There aren’t even 12 teams in the Big 12, so who cares? Road games, especially for a team punctuated by youth and inexperience, are tough, no matter where you go, so who cares? It’s not like we’re playing Oregon. If anybody needs me, I’ll be in my darkened man cave, watching a slightly warped VHS copy of the Miracle at South Bend.
THE FACTS: Bob Stoops lusts for SEC blood. Oklahoma embarrassed Alabama last year and will look to continue the streak when the Vols come to Norman, Okla. The Sooners return almost their entire defense, as well as their offensive line, but have questions at scoring positions. This game has serious long-day potential. That said, the opportunity for this young team to go to war with an out-of-conference power like Oklahoma is infinitely valuable beyond wins and losses.
THE HEAD: Sorry, I’m still watching an infinite loop of Pig Howard definitely crossing the goal line against Georgia in 2013. But everybody knows that the gray jerseys are cursed, so all bets are off.
THE HEART: Tennessee is definitely one inch better than we were last year, and the 2014 Georgia Bulldogs have exactly the same problems that the Vols do, with uncertainty along the offensive line and at quarterback. No problem.
THE FACTS: Much of Georgia’s offensive starting line-up went through overhaul in the offseason, but the Bulldog defense, which returns 10 starters, will be truly intimidating. On the other side of the ball, Tennessee fans will get to see the Vols’ young defense challenged by a nationally acclaimed group of Georgia running-backs, led by Todd Gurley. The good news is, with QB Aaron Murray’s departure to the NFL, Tennessee’s strong-ish linebackers and secondary should force the Bulldogs offense to lean heavily on the ground game, making them somewhat one-dimensional. But that is one dangerous, talented dimension for Georgia in 2014.
THE HEAD: 1-3, victims of the return of the amazing Chuckie Keaton, and victims in all ways vs. Oklahoma and Georgia.
THE HEART: 4-0, obviously. And if you think anything different, then you can take that #VFL off your profile.
THE FACTS: 2-2, with 3-1 potential. Despite a good match-up, Tennessee will have enough time to prepare for the dangerous Utah State, and Arkansas State shouldn’t be a problem. The Oklahoma game will, by all logical thinking, be out of the reach of Tennessee on account of
the team’s combined youth and depth. Georgia will have an edge, but they had more weapons last season and still came within a centimeter of falling to Tennessee in overtime. A Vol victory would not be shocking, but it would be huge for the Tennessee rebuild.
A 2-2 start would be understandable, 3-1 would be both understandable and excellent. Less than 2-2 would be a wreck, more than 3-1 would be the equivalent of a crying statue of the Virgin Mary.
The summer’s wealth of opportunities for Vol fans to fetishize the unknown are winding down, so let your minds twist and your hearts swell for a few more precious days. The road to 12-0, 0-12, or wherever the truth leads begins in less than two weeks.