When Tennessee put WKU on its schedule several years ago, the intention was to probably invite the Toppers into Neyland Stadium for an easy victory.
That win isn’t such a sure thing now.
New Tennessee coach Butch Jones said in his weekly press conference Monday that he and his staff have been eyeing WKU (1-0) for a while now as a team that could give them a big challenge.
“We have a great respect for Western Kentucky, and I think our players understand they’re extremely talented and they’re going to be a great challenge for us,” Jones said. “…all you have to do is watch a couple clips and they have your attention.”
Some players, such as senior offensive lineman Luis Polanco, were with the team when WKU last played Tennessee in 2009.
WKU lost that game 63-7, but Polanco, a 2013 starter who didn’t make the trip that time, is looking for a different result this year.
“I watched the whole thing on TV,” Polanco said. “Like I tell people around school, I’ve been waiting for this game. I’m excited to go down to Tennessee, and go down there, and compete and hopefully come out on top.”
Taking the battle in the trenches is what wins football games against Southeastern Conference opponents.
Polanco and the offensive line did a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage against Kentucky and allowed the offense to execute well last weekend, according to coach Bobby Petrino.
“Our offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage for the most part, which allowed us to run the ball and throw it,” Petrino said.
The Volunteer defensive front four will hold their own against the WKU offensive line despite last season’s struggles.
Tennessee (1-0) is working to repair a defense that gave up an average of 471 yards of total offense last season — one of those games came against Troy, where they allowed 721 yards of offense.
But Tennessee returns a defensive line headlined by senior nose tackle Daniel McCullers who stands at 6-foot-8 inches and 351 pounds.
Polanco understands that playing against an SEC front will be one of the biggest tests of the year for the offense.
“Our mentality is just to work harder,” Polanco said. “To improve on the little things that we did on Saturday and capitalize this week coming up and just try and do a much better job to improve on our technique and stuff. These guys are a little bigger, but size doesn’t matter.”
On the other side of the ball, a young WKU defensive line will battle against one of the top offensive linemen in the nation.
Tennessee’s offensive trench men are considered one of the top in the country, with four All-SEC starters. Last season the Vols allowed the fewest sacks in the SEC with just eight, and finished third in the nation in sacks allowed at 0.67 per game.
Petrino noted that the WKU defensive line still needs to improve, but was happy with their efforts Saturday. Against the Tennessee offensive front, the veterans on defense will have to step up.
“We made some mistakes, but they attempted to do what we asked them to do and played with great effort,” Petrino said. “We’ve got a good group of linebackers so we just have to be real sound in our gap responsibilities and keep our linebackers clean and let them make tackles and not get out of our gaps on the defensive front.”
Petrino, who coached at Arkansas before coming to WKU, is used to game planning for consecutive weeks in the SEC. He said in his weekly Sun Belt teleconference starting the season 2-0 with a win over an impressive Tennessee team would lift WKU’s football program to new heights.
“It would be great for our program,” Petrino said. “Anytime you get to compete against one of the best conferences in the country and excel and do well, it helps in recruiting.
“…Tennessee looks like a very, very good team on video. It’s a huge challenge for our program. What I’m really concerned about right now is that we practice the right way this week, we work extremely hard in practice at getting better and doing a better job in our preparation.”