1. They are located nearby. If you're going to pay a sacrificial lamb a bunch of money to come to your stadium and lose, you might as well keep that money in the neighborhood.
2. Because WKU's fan base is within easy driving distance of Knoxville, Topper supporters will help ensure that Neyland Stadium is packed for the '09 opener. Many will purchase meals and motel rooms during their stay, which helps the Knoxville economy.
3. Western Kentucky is making the difficult transition from Div. 1-AA to 1-A, so the Vols should be able to (a) post a solid victory, (b) play some of their young guys and (c) build some confidence.
Playing a good team like Cal on the road in the 2007 opener was a terrible idea. That Game 1 loss eroded the Vols' confidence level and the fans' enthusiasm level before the season was even two weeks old.
The last time Tennessee dropped a season opener, then rallied to have a great year was 1967. Doug Dickey's Vols lost 20-16 at UCLA that fall, then won nine straight games before bowing 26-24 to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
Here's what has happened in seasons that opened with a loss since that time:
1976: Lost to Duke 21-18 and finished 6-5, costing Bill Battle his job.
1977: Lost to California 27-17 en route to a 4-7 season in Year 1 under Johnny Majors.
1978: Lost to UCLA 13-0 and finished 5-5-1.
1980: Lost to Georgia 16-15 en route to a 5-6 season.
1981: Lost to Georgia 44-0 and finished 8-4.
1982: Lost to Duke 25-24 en route to a 6-5-1 season.
1983: Lost to Pittsburgh 13-3 and finished 9-3.
1988: Lost to Georgia 28-17 en route to a 5-6 season.
1994: Lost to UCLA 25-23 and finished 8-4.
2007: Lost to Cal 45-31 en route to a 10-4 season.
I've always been a fan of the scheduling model Steve Spurrier had at Florida: Play two teams in the bad-to-mediocre range before facing your first real test (usually Tennessee) in Game 3. This virtually guarantees that your program will have some momentum, some confidence, some experienced newcomers and some fired-up fans when crunch time arrives.
Spurrier started 11 of his 12 seasons at Florida 2-0, thanks to routinely playing Games 1 and 2 against the likes of San Jose State, Arkansas State, New Mexico State, Houston, Southwestern Louisiana, Georgia Southern, Southern Miss, Central Michigan, The Citadel, Northeast Louisiana, Western Michigan, Central Florida, Ball State, Middle Tennessee, Marshall and Louisiana-Monroe.
Conversely, successor Ron Zook had the misfortune to inherit schedules that featured tough Game 2 tests against Miami (2002), Miami (2003) and Tennessee (2004) – losing each time – and being fired before Year 3 of his tenure was complete.
Here's an added plus of putting two sure wins at the front end of the schedule: Whenever one of your star players incurs some off-season trouble, promptly suspend him for the first two games. You look like a strict disciplinarian and your star player is back on the team by the time you actually need him.
Unfortunately, UT athletics director Mike Hamilton seems intent on scheduling a tough opponent before Week 3 each year. The Vols opened with Cal in 2006 and 2007. They open with UAB in 2008 but play at UCLA in Game 2. The '09 season opens with Western Kentucky but features a home game with UCLA in Week 2.