Aulbach: Tennessee a good gauge of where Toppers stand nationally

Lucas Aulbach

Tennessee won’t have the big “#1” next to its name on the TV broadcast of Saturday’s game, but the Volunteers have a lot in common with some of the SEC foes the Toppers have faced during the past couple of years.

No. 1 Alabama muscled WKU to a 35-0 loss last season. The Toppers fared a little better the season before against No. 1 LSU, but still fell 42-7.

Tennessee probably won’t play in the BCS National Championship this season like those two teams did. The Volunteers still stand as the toughest team on WKU’s schedule, though.

Their biggest strength is on the line — the Volunteers have four starters on the offensive line that were selected to all-SEC preseason teams, including first-team left tackle Antonio Richardson. This group — which will go to work blocking for senior running back Rajion Neal — rates among the best in the nation and could cause problems for a WKU defensive line sporting four new starters.

The game also stands out on WKU’s schedule based on venue alone — Neyland Stadium seats 102,455, far and away the most of any team the Toppers play this year, and should be full of a die-hard fanbase looking for a 2-0 start before the Volunteers start a six-game stretch that features five teams in the AP top 10.

The Toppers have played in big stadiums before, with 101,821 Alabama fans packing Bryant-Denny Stadium last September to catch the Tide take on the Toppers. But those fans knew coming into the game that their team was more than ready to handle WKU — Tennessee might not have that same luxury.

The WKU team that took the field last Saturday came out of the gate with confidence and looked great on its first drive, which resulted in a touchdown. The Toppers rode that momentum for the rest of the game.

Coach Bobby Petrino likes to strike fast — last week’s game is a prime example — so getting off to a similar start will be key for the Toppers in Knoxville.

WKU can also try to exploit the youth of the Tennessee squad. The Volunteers start six freshmen or sophomores and are especially young at receiver — WKU could use a game from the Topper secondary worthy of their “Air Force” nickname.

Another accurate day from junior quarterback Brandon Doughty, who showed why the coaching staff has been so high on him this offseason in the win over Kentucky, and strong showings from WKU’s stable of running backs will also be necessary to knock off the SEC juggernaut.

Saturday’s game stands out on WKU’s schedule for another reason — it’s a good chance to see how the Toppers stack up outside of the Sun Belt.

WKU won’t get many chances this season to show bowl representatives what they can do against teams from upper-tier conferences. Apart from Navy and Army, both independents, and Morgan State, from the FCS’ Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, every other opponent on its schedule is in the Sun Belt. If the Toppers stack up 10 or so wins, beating a pair of SEC schools could vault the team into a bigger bowl game this winter.

Tennessee is a cut above the Kentucky team WKU faced last week, but the Toppers controlled that game from the first minute. If WKU can stand up to the big crowd and big line the Volunteers will produce, the Toppers could move to 2-0 in Tennessee on the year.