Tennessee coach Butch Jones, center, poses with his players for a group photo on Aug. 15 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. (AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, Adam Lau)
KNOXVILLE — Butch Jones should savor the first game of his Tennessee coaching tenure. It may represent one of the few times in his debut season that his team takes the football field as a prohibitive favorite.
Tennessee opens the Jones era Saturday by hosting Austin Peay, a Football Championship Subdivision program that went 2-9 last year and has dropped 16 consecutive road games. This should serve as a virtual dress rehearsal for the tougher tests that await the Volunteers over the next two months, though Jones is taking nothing for granted.
"Saturday night we put our resume on film," Jones said. "What types of players are we going to be, (with) the mental toughness that it takes and the grind? Everything is a learning process for this football team."
Five of Tennessee's first eight games are against teams ranked 10th or higher in the Top 25: No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Oregon, No. 5 Georgia, No. 6 South Carolina and No. 10 Florida. The Vols must mature in a hurry to avoid a fourth consecutive losing season. Austin Peay may offer an opportunity for the Vols to work through the growing pains.
Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley will make his fourth career start after winning the opportunity right to replace Tyler Bray, who threw for 3,612 yards and 34 touchdowns last season. Tennessee also will take the first step toward improving a defense that gave up the most points and yards per game of any Southeastern Conference team last season.
"We're very eager," Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson said. "(With) a lot of young players, we're just really ready to get out there and show what we can do. We're not going to take any opponent lightly, Austin Peay, whoever it may be."
Austin Peay also is ushering in a new era.
The school just brought back scholarship football in 2006. The Governors landed at the bottom of the Ohio Valley Conference last year and were picked to finish last again this year under new coach Kirby Cannon, who was hired in March after predecessor Rick Christophel left to become the Arizona Cardinals' tight ends coach.
Although Jones and Cannon don't know each other personally, both have Central Michigan backgrounds. Jones coached Central Michigan from 2007-09 and was succeeded by Dan Enos after leaving for Cincinnati. Cannon spent the last three years as a secondary coach on Enos' staff at Central Michigan.
In Cannon's debut performance at Austin Peay, the Governors face an SEC team for the first time ever.
"I still don't know what the bright lights are going to do to them," Cannon said. "We've done some things, but can't replicate what's going to happen that night. ... We played Virginia Tech last year (a 42-7 loss). We're hoping the poise of our seniors who've played can carry us through."
Here are five things to watch in Saturday's season opener between Austin Peay and Tennessee:
QUARTERBACK SITUATIONS: Worley will try to solidify his status as Tennessee's starting quarterback after beating out redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman and freshmen Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs for the job. Austin Peay expects to play two quarterbacks. City College of San Francisco transfer Andrew Spivey, the starter, is the better passer. Sophomore Jacob Sexton is more mobile.
DESPERATE DEFENSES: Tennessee gave up 35.7 points per game last year, its worst showing since 1893. Austin Peay allowed 39.5 points per game a year ago. Both defenses are hoping their experience will lead to better results. The Govs return 10 of their top 11 tacklers from last season. The Vols have five senior starters in their front seven.
STRONG UP FRONT: Tennessee returns four starters from an offensive line that allowed only eight sacks last season. Austin Peay returns starting tackles Gavin Willisson and Ben Stansfield from a line that gave up just 10 sacks last year
FAMILIAR FOES: Austin Peay running back Tim Phillips played for Jones at Central Michigan as a freshman in 2009. Govs safety Leron Eaddy redshirted on Jones' Central Michigan team in 2009. Both players followed Cannon to Austin Peay this year.
WHO'S MISSING: UT's defense is playing without injured defensive ends Jacques Smith (thumb) and Corey Vereen (knee) and cornerback Riyahd Jones (leg). Linebacker Curt Maggitt (knee) will be a game-time decision. Austin Peay is playing the entire season without defensive end Earnest Smith, who tore his Achilles tendon during summer workouts after recording four sacks and nine tackles for loss last season.
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