If you asked Tennessee fans which team they would most like to beat this season, the consensus answer would be obvious.
How could they pick anyone else other than Alabama?
Imagine what an upset over the defending national champions would do for UT’s image.
While that’s an obvious choice for the best victory, the worst possible loss would spark more debate.
You might pick Vanderbilt since the Vols haven’t lost back-to-back games to their in-state rival since 1926. Or maybe you would choose Kentucky, which hasn’t won consecutive games against UT in Lexington since 1959.
But my pick for the worst loss would be Western Kentucky.
UT isn’t physically capable of losing its opener to Austin Peay or at the end of September to South Alabama. So I eliminated them from consideration.
Maybe you regard Western Kentucky in Week 2 as a sure thing as well. It’s not.
UT should be a solid favorite against the Hilltoppers. However, the gap between the two programs has narrowed since Tennessee beat them 63-7 four years ago.
The image gap is just as significant, though. It’s still the Sun Belt vs. the SEC.
That’s not the only reason a loss would be devastating to new coach Butch Jones’ program.
Western Kentucky also has a new coach — a more famous new coach, in fact.
If not for an ill-advised motorcycle ride with a questionable blonde passenger, Bobby Petrino would still be the coach at Arkansas.
No one questions Petrino’s coaching ability. He had great success at both Louisville and Arkansas. He’s one of the best offensive coaches in the country.
And he clearly makes Western Kentucky a more dangerous team than it might have been with a lesser coach.
Petrino won’t have nearly as much to work with offensively this season at Western Kentucky as he did with his last Arkansas team in 2011.
But he didn’t have many offensive weapons in 2008 when he took over the Razorbacks. Nonetheless, an offense severely lacking in talent averaged better than 25 points during the last seven games.
His first Western Kentucky team has to find a new quarterback, but returns three starters on the offensive line and has an exceptional all-around running back in Antonio Andrews.
Defensively, the Hilltoppers must replace their front four, but their starting secondary and linebacking corps return intact.
And they will play UT right before the Vols play back-to-back road games against nationally ranked Oregon and Florida.
No matter what looms ahead, the Vols would be foolish to overlook anyone after three consecutive seven-loss seasons. If they compare scores from last season and add the Petrino factor, Western Kentucky should hold their attention.
The Hilltoppers were good enough to beat Kentucky in Lexington in overtime last season. Tennessee downed Kentucky by 20 at Neyland Stadium.
Western Kentucky defeated conference-rival Troy 31-26 on the road. Tennessee topped Troy 55-48 at Neyland Stadium.
Almost losing to a Sun Belt team was bad enough. Losing to one would constitute a new low.