Now that Tennessee finally has ended a string of four straight losing seasons, the next challenge is for the Volunteers is to build on their momentum.
The 25th-ranked Vols get a chance to take that step Saturday when they open their season by facing Bowling Green at Nissan Stadium, home of the NFL's Tennessee Titans. Tennessee is in the Top 25 for the first time since September 2012 and is seeking its first win as a ranked team since 2007.
"We're not building a team," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "We're building a program. And those are two totally different things."
The Vols' toughest chore will be keeping up with the fast pace of Bowling Green's offensive scheme, while Bowling Green must worry about the speed of Tennessee's players.
"We're playing the best football team we've played since I've been here," said second-year Bowling Green coach Dino Babers, whose team lost 68-17 last season to a Wisconsin team that ended up ranked 13th. "It's going to be a very challenging task, but we're looking forward to it."
Bowling Green returns the nucleus of an offense that averaged 18.6 seconds per play. Baylor and Arizona were the only Football Bowl Subdivision programs with faster-paced offenses last season.
Tennessee's defense has tackled fast-paced attacks in the Southeastern Conference and when it practices against its own offense, but cornerback Emmanuel Moseley acknowledges the Vols didn't face a team last year that picked up the tempo quite this much.
"Their pace is way faster," Moseley said. "Way faster."
Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson will be playing his first game since injuring his hip in last year's season opener. Johnson led Bowling Green to a 2013 MAC title.
While Bowling Green's quarterback is healthy again, Tennessee's secondary is dealing with injury issues.
RaShaan Gaulden, the projected starting nickel back, broke his foot in training camp and will miss the entire season. Safety LaDarrell McNeil, who has 31 career starts, has a neck issue that likely will cause him to miss the whole season.
Their injuries have led to depth issues that could prove problematic against such a fast-paced offense. but Bowling Green will have its own issues keeping up with Tennessee. Babers said the speed of Tennessee's defensive linemen offers the most cause for concern.
"They're just so athletic, so huge," Babers said. "Our tackles, our guards, we haven't seen anything like this. This is new territory for all those young men."
|Tennessee sophomore wide receiver Josh Malone|
Some things to watch when Tennessee faces Bowling Green.
STRENGTH vs. STRENGTH: The matchup between Bowling Green's offensive line and Tennessee's defensive front is worth watching. Bowling Green 's offensive linemen have combined for 125 career starts. Only UCLA's offensive linemen have more combined starts. Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett make Tennessee the only FBS team to return two players who recorded at least 10 sacks last season.
TENNESSEE'S BIG RECEIVERS: Tennessee has four receivers who are 6-foot-3 or taller in Marquez North, Jauan Jennings, Josh Malone and Preston Williams. That could cause trouble for a Bowling Green secondary that lists 5-9 Darrell Hunter and 5-10 Clint Stephens as its starting cornerbacks. Tennessee's receiving corps will be hurt by a one-game suspension to Alton "Pig" Howard and injuries to Jason Croom and Vincent Perry.
FAMILIAR FOES: Bowling Green receiver Ronnie Moore verbally committed to play for Jones at Cincinnati. After Tennessee hired Jones away from Cincinnati, Moore ended up at Bowling Green. Bowling Green reserve defensive lineman Malik Brown redshirted at Tennessee in 2013 before transferring.
COMING HOME: Tennessee's trip to Nashville represents a homecoming for running back Jalen Hurd, offensive guard Jashon Robertson and Barnett among others. Reserve defensive end Kyle Phillips is the son of Tennessee State athletic director Teresa Phillips, whose school uses Nissan Stadium as its home field. Jennings comes from nearby Murfreesboro.
NEW COORDINATORS: Tennessee has a new offensive coordinator who will be matchup with Bowling Green's new defensive coordinator. Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord formerly held the same position at Michigan, but he hadn't coached in the college ranks since 2007 and hadn't coached at all since 2012. Bowling Green defensive coordinator Brian Ward was Western Illinois' defensive coordinator the last three years. Bowling Green returns only three starters from a defense that allowed 33.5 points per game to rank 108th nationally last season.