August 29, 2016

Tennessee opens a season of greater expectations on Thursday night at Neyland Stadium.

The ninth-ranked Volunteers draw Appalachian State, the Sun Belt powerhouse which went 11-2 last season and has the talent to make the Tennessee nervous entering the first game on the SEC Network this season (7:30 p.m. ET).

"Everyone's optimistic. For the first time Thursday night, we'll put our initial football identity on video. We're responsible for what we create so we're looking forward to that," Volunteers coach Butch Jones said.

The talk of Tennessee this week is not just the opener, but next week's Battle At Bristol, when the Vols play Virginia Tech at the fabled racetrack with a crowd in excess of 100,000 expected to be on hand.

Jones said no one in his locker room is looking ahead. Appalachian State is a run-based offense and led the Sun Belt in red-zone defense. On film, Jones said, they already look like they belong.

Appalachian State is coached by Scott Satterfield, who played quarterback at the school and is in the program's third season since jumping from the FCS. He seeks the biggest win the program has had since beating Michigan in Ann Arbor, nine years to the day from Thursday's kickoff. App State is 0-5 against Power Five programs since that landmark win.

"Every time we play a Power Five school it gets brought up," Satterfield said. "I think in a way it kind of hurts us because everybody always references that game to their team."

Only 160 miles separate Appalachian State's campus from University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The talent gap might not be as great as the uninitiated believe, either.

The Mountaineers arrive having won 17 of their last 19 games and 17 starters return from the team that beat Ohio in the 2015 Raycom Media Camellia Bowl. Appalachian State was the preseason pick to win the Sun Belt Conference and boasts both of the league's preseason players of the year in running back Marcus Cox and linebacker John Law.

Cox has three 1,000-yard seasons and has a career average of 113.6 rushing yards per game. At this pace, he'll be the all-time leading rusher in Mountaineers' history by midseason. At 168.4 yards per game, Tennessee's run defense was 65th in the national last season.

That porous defense caused Jones to make a change on defense, hiring coordinator Bob Shoop away from Penn State for matchups like this one. Shoop declared this offseason, "nobody will run the football on Tennessee."

It helps to have a loaded front seven and talent galore at every level of the two-deep.

Tennessee will honor former Vols offensive tackle Chad Clifton, who played in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers, and late women's basketball coach Pat Summitt. Players will wear a cursive "P" decal on their helmets this season in memory of Summitt, who died June 28.

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