Football beat writer Jonathan Lintner breaks down each of Western’s 12 opponents over the next 12 days.
Play Western: Sept. 5, at Tennessee
‘08 Record: 5-7
Coach: Lane Kiffin
Returning starters: Seven offense, five defense
The Buzz: New Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin has come under a firestorm of controversy this past off-season. The former Oakland Raiders coach called out SEC foes Florida and Georgia on the recruiting front, accusing Gators coach Urban Meyer of recruiting violations in the process.
Kiffin himself violated NCAA rules by mentioning the Meyer situation, in which he said a player was receiving calls from the opposing coach while on an official visit to Tennessee. Kiffin violated another NCAA rule by referring Vol recruit Bryce Brown as a “great player” on local radio. The university plans to self-report that recruiting violation.
Fresh off a season full of disappointment, Kiffin looks to get the Volunteers in the news for something positive — winning — rather than the criticism that’s been shot his direction since arriving on campus.
Outlook: For everything Tennessee has lost in its wide receiving corps with Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore and Austin Rogers injured over the summer, they hope to make up for with a veteran offensive line and a quarterback that’s been there, done that once before.
Jonathan Crompton, Tennessee’s senior under center, saw action in all but four games in 2008. While Volunteer fans don’t question his talent, Crompton has been known to make poor decisions — just as he did in an 8-for-23 passing effort in last season’s 14-12 loss to Auburn.
Former coach Phillip Fulmer benched Crompton for the next four games in favor of backup Nick Stephens. Now under the reign of Kiffin, the quarterback battle has extended to 2009. Both signal callers are receiving snaps in spring training with Crompton expected to get the nod in against Western in Knoxville on Sept. 5.
Even better news for Crompton is that Jones is currently participating in practices, wearing a cast on his injured arm. That’s bad news for Western, who lost starting free safety Travis Watters after last season along with four other starters and now expects to give playing time to a number of second-year players in the secondary. Watters led the Toppers with 73 tackles in 2008.
How Western can win: If Western expects to make a competitive second half in Knoxville a reality, they’ll rely heavily on their offensive backfield to make it happen. Seniors Tyrell Hayden and Marell Booker head up the Topper rushing attack, with Bobby Rainey not far behind. Maximizing on the Vols’ loss of All-SEC defensive end Robert Ayers as well as maintaining possession and composure in a hostile environment will be of great importance.
The Toppers look to get out of Big Orange Country with a moral victory — a competent ground game to keep the abilities of preseason All-American safety Eric Berry at bay and a closer-than-expected final score.