KNOXVILLE — Lane Kiffin and Rick Neuheisel used to face off yearly. Except, at that time, Kiffin was an assistant at Southern California and Neuheisel the head coach at Washington.
Both have changed addresses since then, but there’s still plenty of familiarity as Kiffin’s Tennessee team hosts Neuheisel’s UCLA Bruins today at Neyland Stadium (4 p.m., ESPN).
Technically, this is a rematch of the meeting between the Volunteers and Bruins in Los Angeles that opened the 2008 season. This is a very different Tennessee team, though, with a new staff and freshmen all over the depth chart and the field.
One thing hasn’t changed. Last year, under John Chavis, Tennessee’s defense ranked third nationally in yardage allowed. After allowing 83 yards to Western Kentucky, the current UT defense, now coached by Monte Kiffin, ranks — you guessed it — third.
The elder Kiffin will face a familiar coaching opponent today in Norm Chow, the Bruins’ offensive coordinator. Chow previously faced Monte Kiffin when they were with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively. And before that, Lane Kiffin was an assistant under Chow at Southern Cal.
UCLA has changed as well. Kevin Craft, who quarterbacked the Bruins to their 27-24 overtime win last year, lost his starting job to redshirt freshman Kevin Prince.
“He can take the hit and he can throw a real pretty ball,” Vols linebacker Nick Reveiz said of Prince, who threw for one touchdown and 176 yards with two picks last week.
Prince’s counterpart, Jonathan Crompton, threw early and often in last year’s meeting with UCLA — attempting a whopping 41 passes with 19 completions. In 13 fewer throws against Western Kentucky, Crompton had 21 completions and threw for more touchdowns in one game (five) than he did in the entire ’08 season (four).
Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown lead a UT rushing attack that churned out 380 yards against the Hilltoppers, and Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore both should be back to augment the receiving corps.
Still, this one will be decided by the big boys in the trenches.
UCLA (1-0) boasts a tough defensive line anchored by tackle Brian Price, a first-team all-conference choice as a sophomore.
Joining Price on the UCLA interior is Jerzy Siewierski, who is athletic enough to dunk a basketball. And the Bruins have some strong defensive ends in Datone Jones and Korey Bosworth.
Vladimir Richard, one of the Vols’ best offensive linemen, should play after battling an Achilles injury all week. While Jacques McClendon and Chris Scott are veterans, center Cody Sullins and right tackle Jarrod Shaw are making just their second career starts.
UCLA has a true freshman and junior-college transfer up front making their first road start at imposing Neyland Stadium.
“Ready or not, here we come,” Neuheisel told ESPN.com. “We have to go and play and I don’t want them to be nervous about it. I want them to go and enjoy the dang experience, and I think we’re going to do that.”
EXTRA POINTS: Tennessee is favored by 10 points. ... As of Friday evening, tickets remained available for the game. ... In a surprising comeback following arthroscopic knee surgery, UT center Josh McNeil might play.