Vladimir Richard (51)
Sept. 4, 2009
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Lane Kiffin has promised a lot of things in his nine months as Tennessee's coach, including a win over Florida.
One thing he won't promise is the Volunteers are good enough to beat 30-point underdog and Football Bowl Subdivision newcomer Western Kentucky in their season opener Saturday.
"There will come a day where we'll be in that situation where we'll have to worry about our players overlooking a team because of our success, but right now if we have any players overlooking Western Kentucky we've got a big issue," Kiffin said. "There's no way we're good enough to do that."
The Volunteers weren't that good last year. It's why coach Phillip Fulmer was fired en route to a 5-7 finish.
All eyes have been on Tennessee since the former NFL Oakland Raiders coach and Southern California assistant replaced Fulmer on Dec. 1. But the youngest active FBS coach is trying not to focus on the excitement of coaching his first game at Tennessee.
"Last thing that I can do is go out of my focus and all of a sudden they feel something different in me," he said.
Kiffin has held fans' interest throughout the offseason with his headline-drawing antics.
He accused Florida coach Urban Meyer of cheating to land a recruit, drawing a reprimand from the SEC. Tennessee has reported six minor NCAA violations since Kiffin became coach for things such as staging a mock news conference for prospects and mentioning a recruit by name on the radio.
Kiffin hired one of the most expensive staffs with assistants that included father and NFL defensive guru Monte Kiffin, and several of his fellow SEC coaches' best recruiters.
He also signed a heralded recruiting class that included Bryce Brown, the consensus top running back prospect in the country.
Those freshmen will have to perform for Tennessee to have offensive success against Western Kentucky.
The Vols' wide receiver corps has been severely depleted by injuries. Top returning receiver Gerald Jones is expected to be out a few weeks with a high ankle sprain, deep threat Denarius Moore is recovering from summer foot surgery and senior Austin Rogers is out for the season after tearing a knee ligament.
Freshman Nu'Keese Richardson is slated to start alongside senior Quintin Hancock -- who didn't catch a pass last season. Kiffin has promised freshmen Marsalis Teague and Zach Rogers they'll have their chances Saturday too in what could be a strong youth movement.
Brown and Montario Hardesty, whose six touchdowns led the Vols last season, will anchor an improved running game.
With an entirely new Vols staff and lineup, Western Kentucky coach David Elson knows he can't fully anticipate what the Hilltoppers will face.
"We've just kind of researched Lane Kiffin's offensive philosophy from when he was at USC and the Oakland Raiders and obviously, also with Monte Kiffin and his defensive background," he said. "We're making educated guesses."
The Hilltoppers are making their debut as the Sun Belt Conference's newest member and the 120th team in the FBS.
They're no strangers to playing on the road against an SEC opponent. Saturday will be the sixth time in the past seven years they've done so. Elson knows having experienced guys like Gaebler, senior running back Tyrell Hayden and senior center Cody Hughes will help.
For the Vols, this is the first chance to prove last year was a fluke. They hit rock bottom when Wyoming -- a 27-point underdog -- came to Neyland Stadium and beat Tennessee less than a week after Fulmer was fired.
"Everyone expected us to beat those guys and have a pretty big game, but we ended up losing and were pretty upset about it," Berry said. "We still have that bad taste in our mouth from last year and everything that we went through last year.
"We just need to come out and make a statement. That's our goal this weekend."