Tennessee head coach Butch Jones walks the sideline during the first half of a game against Austin Peay on Saturday in Knoxville. (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Amy Smotherman Burgess)
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee is treating Western Kentucky as if it’s a Southeastern Conference opponent instead of a Sun Belt team.
“All you have to do is watch a couple of clips and they have your attention,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “They have SEC talent.”
They also have a former SEC coach who knows how to beat teams in the nation’s toughest conference.
Western Kentucky coach Bobby Petrino went 34-17 at Arkansas from 2008-11 and was 21-5 over his last two seasons. He got fired in April 2012 for misleading school officials about a motorcycle accident that eventually revealed his mistress was a passenger and employed by the coach. Petrino took over Western Kentucky’s program in December and beat SEC program Kentucky 35-26 Saturday in his debut as the Hilltoppers’ coach.
“To be honest, I wasn’t really that surprised,” Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel Hood said. ‘We’ve been preparing for them really since the summer because we knew they had a lot of talent coming in. We know they’ve got a great coaching staff there. We knew they were going to be really talented and it would be a tough team to beat. When we saw the score, it was kind of what we expected.”
The Volunteers insist they’ll resist the temptation to look past Saturday’s game against Western Kentucky with trips to No. 3 Oregon and No. 10 Florida looming in the next couple of weeks. They know this team and its coach all too well.
“We feel like they’re an SEC opponent,” Tennessee safety Brian Randolph said. “We know it’s going to be a very competitive game.”
Both teams are coming off convincing performances.
Tennessee played penalty-free football and scored touchdowns on each of its six first-half possessions in a 45-0 shutout of Football Championship Subdivision program Austin Peay, while Western Kentucky defeated Kentucky for the second straight year.
“Tennessee looks like a very, very good team on video,” Petrino said. “It’s a huge challenge for our program.”
Petrino, regarded as a quarterback guru, already has made an impact in that regard at Western Kentucky. Brandon Doughty went 27 of 34 for 271 yards and a touchdown against Kentucky in his first start since tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in 2011.
“I was very proud of the way Brandon played,” Petrino said. “He really did a nice job distributing the ball and taking what the defense gave him. For him to do that in his first game and be so efficient was great to see.”
Jones called the Hilltoppers an “extremely, extremely talented football team” and said they reminded him of his 2009 Central Michigan squad that went 12-2, won at Michigan State and captured the Mid-American Conference title.
“They have NFL personnel, they have swagger, they have confidence,” Jones said. “And they believe they can play with anyone and everyone in the country.”
Petrino’s presence makes Western Kentucky seem particularly dangerous to the Vols.
Jones was West Virginia’s wide receivers coach in 2005-06 when the Mountaineers played two memorable games with Louisville, then coached by Petrino. West Virginia erased a 17point deficit to beat Louisville 46-44 in overtime in 2005 and lost 44-34 at Louisville in a 2006 battle of unbeaten teams ranked in the top five.
The only time Tennessee and Arkansas faced off during Petrino’s tenure there, Arkansas won 49-7 in 2011. The Tennessee upperclassmen who played in that game have told the Vols’ freshman cornerbacks what to expect from a Petrino offense. Tennessee plans to start freshman Cameron Sutton at one cornerback spot, and freshman Malik Foreman also should get plenty of playing time.
“They’re very dynamic on offense,” Jones said. “They challenge you defensively just because of the different personnel groupings that they do. They always do a great job with their tight ends. They mix the formations up. There are different tempos that they present to you. ... We’re going to have to be extremely disciplined.”