KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Just in case there was any doubt that the Aggies will be heading into a hostile environment Sunday tonight, the University of Tennessee announced Thursday that the game is a sellout — the first season opener at Neyland Stadium to sell out since 2007.
That means the better part of 102,455 people — the biggest crowd a USU team has ever played in front of — will be cheering against the Aggies in their 2014 season debut.
"Before the game we all get to go to the stadium, and that's the time to take pictures and be a little bit in awe of how big it is and soak up the history there," USU senior linebacker Zach Vigil said of the team's scheduled walk-through at the third-largest college football stadium in the country. "When it's game time, as soon as you walk out there, you're going to see a sea of orange and take that in and put it away because when you're out there on the field, all you have is each other."
While the Aggies are coming off a 9-5 season that ended with a victory in a bowl game for the second straight year, the Volunteers are still trying to regain their swagger under second-year head coach Butch Jones. Tennessee went 5-7 and finished in sixth place in the Eastern Division of the SEC last year in Jones' inaugural season.
The Volunteers return 10 starters, but Jones announced last week that as many as 28 true freshmen could see time in tonight's game. That means that while all of the Aggies — other than former sophomore cornerback Daniel Gray, who transferred from Tennessee — will be playing their first game at Neyland Stadium tonight, so will an awful lot of Vols.
"The thing I like is that we have a fresh football team," Jones said. "They don't have past experiences in mind. They came here to win football games. They came here to be part of a great turnaround and get Tennessee football back to its rightful place, and it's going to be a journey."
The Aggies, of course, hope that "journey" gets off to a rocky — and not a "Rocky Top" — start. Tonight's game is one of the most anticipated season openers in USU history, and another chance for senior quarterback Chuckie Keeton and this decorated group of Aggies, who have already experienced unprecedented success, to leave behind an even bigger mark by knocking off a big-time opponent on the road.
"It's just another football game," USU senior linebacker Zach Vigil said of taking on the Vols. "That's something that I think our team has done a pretty good job with in the past is not letting where you are in the surroundings overcome you. That's to be determined with this year's team, but I'm sure we're going to be just fine walking into that stadium."
The last time Utah State played a season opener against an SEC team, the Aggies very nearly KO'ed defending champion Auburn, losing 42-38 in front of 82,245 people. Keeton started that game as a freshman, then nearly led USU to an upset of No. 22 Wisconsin a year later, falling 16-14 while playing in front of 79,332 people. Last year, the Aggies held a 23-14 lead at Utah before losing 30-26, and were tied with USC heading into the fourth quarter before suffering a 17-14 setback in front of 63,482 people.
"We just have to finish," USU running back Joe Hill said of Sunday's game. "I feel like in all the other big games, we didn't finish at all. We need this game, and I feel we can get this game if we just come out with tenacity and don't back down at all."
While the Volunteers are young overall, Jones annointed senior Justin Worley the starting quarterback after a spirited competition in the spring and fall camp. Worley completed 106 of 196 passes for 1,239 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions last year before suffering an injury and losing his starting spot.
Senior Marlin Lane (5.2 yards per carry in 2013) will likely start at running back, but USU head coach Matt Wells expects to see a lot of 6-foot-3, 227-pound freshman Jalen Hurd. Wells compared Hurd to Eddie George. As is their tradition, the Volunteers also have a plethora of talented and explosive receivers, including sophomore Marquez North and juniors Pig Howard and Von Pearson. However, the entire state is ga-ga over the potential of 6-foot-3, 204-pound freshman Josh Malone, who, like Hurd, is a former Mr. Tennessee Football.
"Josh Malone is tremendously talented," Wells declared. "He had 180-some yards in the spring game with three touchdowns. He lit it up. Unstoppable."
On the other side of the ball, freshman defensive end Derek Barnett was referred to as "Boy Wonder" by his defensive line coach and is expected to have an immediate impact, while, much like USU, Tennessee boasts an impressive and experienced linebacker corps in junior Curt Maggit, sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin and senior A.J. Johnson.
"You look at them on defense, and A.J. Johnson is everywhere on tape," Wells says. "It doesn't matter what game you pull up, No. 45 is there on the screen. The guy needs to be accounted for or he'll be all-SEC by the end of Sunday."
For the Aggies, tonight's game marks the return of Keeton, who blew out his knee midway through last season. Wells said his senior QB is healthy and "further ahead mentally in our offense."
"I think he's playing faster and everything he does pre-snap is a little more advanced," Wells added. "He feels a little more comfortable in everything that we're doing."
As a fringe candidate for the Heisman Trophy the past two years, Keeton was already well known to the UT coaching staff. The Vols struggled to contain mobile quarterbacks last season, so one of the players they had impersonate Keeton in practice last week was backup kick returner and defensive back Evan Berry.
"He's one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the country, and he'll play on Sundays," Jones said of Keeton. " But let's make one thing clear, it's not just Chuckie Keeton. There's a reason they've won the amount of games that they've won. They're talented across the board."