SCOTT: SEC News & Notes

In the days leading up to Tennessee's season opener against ninth-ranked Cal, every question seemed to be smothered in last season's leftovers. How will quarterback Erik Ainge do after last season? Will the offensive line and the running game be better than last season?

Was last season's 5-6 record a hint of things to come or a one-year aberration?


Can the Vols bounce back from last season?


"I think the Tennessee pride has been wounded," senior defensive tackle Justin Harrell said. "The only way to get that back is to go out and win ballgames, and that's what we're going to do."


That's exactly what the Vols did on Saturday. It's only one step, but at this point a 35-18 victory over Cal looks like a huge step toward moving past last season and putting Tennessee back in contention for championships.


The Vols played like a team on a mission, with a purpose that often appeared to be missing last season.


"We expected to win this ball game and be Tennessee," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said.


Being Tennessee means actually doing something special in the special teams, especially after last season's failures in the kicking game. The Vols started over on Saturday with Robert Ayers busting through the Cal wedge on the opening kickoff and slamming Cal's Craig Stevens. The hit resulted in a concussion for Stevens, who never returned to the game.


"I think it started on the opening kickoff," defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "That was a devastating blow. It was unbelievable, and I think our kids just fed off that. Special teams set the tone for our entire football team."


Being Tennessee means running the ball effectively. With David Cutcliffe back as offensive coordinator, the Vols got the job done by rushing for 216 yards behind an improved offensive line that brought a much-needed physical presence to the line of scrimmage.


Being Tennessee means being able to stop the run and put opposing offenses in bad situations. The Vols did that by holding Cal's highly regarded running game to 64 total yards. Marshawn Lynch entered the game as one of the nation's top backs and left it with 74 hard-earned yards on 12 carries.


Being Tennessee also means being able to take advantage of the running game and the defense by making big plays in the passing game. After a 2005 season loaded with frustration, Ainge and his receivers unloaded on the Bears, connecting for 291 yards and four touchdowns on only 11 completions.


"I looked at him as he came off the field, and he knew exactly what had happened," Fulmer said. "I watched him while he was getting ready to go back. His demeanor never changed. That's a big plus for Erik.


"Sometimes there are experiences that we have that aren't so pleasant that we grow from, if we're the right kind of person, and Erik has grown considerably."


With Cal defenders playing up close and personal on Vol receivers, Ainge squeezed passes into tight spaces and watched as his receivers ran away from those defenders for big gains. Robert Meachem did the most damage, turning five receptions into 182 yards and touchdowns of 42 and 80 yards that gave Tennessee a 21-0 lead early in the third quarter.


Being Tennessee also means taking care of business in the fourth quarter. The Vols led 35-0 before Cal scored late in the third quarter and even though the Bears scored two late touchdowns the lead was never in danger.


Even the fans did their part, filling Neyland Stadium with 106,009 fans, enthusiastic support for the home team and plenty of noise for the visitors.


"We've never seen anything like that. That's a pretty impressive atmosphere, there's no doubt about it," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "The environment they create gives Tennessee a real home field advantage."


In the process, the Vols finally took a step toward reclaiming Neyland as their own after going 0-6 against top-10 teams at home since 2000. Many of those fans stayed to the end, eager to put aside the final game of the 2005 season when the Vols lost to Vanderbilt on their own field.


"I think we've felt disrespected and talked bad about since last season, as we expected," Ainge said. "We would expect nothing else after going 5-6 at the University of Tennessee. But as good as I think we are and can be, we all felt disrespected.


"This game wasn't just for Tennessee versus California. It was for the South versus the West Coast, the SEC versus the Pac-10, and we took that to heart. We were on the field pre-game, and they were screaming 'Pac-10.' We took that personally."


The performance and the outcome made it evident that many Vols took last season personally. If Tennessee continues to play with the fervor and commitment it showed on Saturday, it will have a chance to win every game it plays this season.


That might catch the rest of us off guard, but it won't surprise the Vols.


"I'm very, very proud of our football team," Fulmer said. "I can't sit here, though, and say I didn't expect it. We've been pointing toward this."




Some of the most intriguing stories from the first week of SEC football involved who played and who didn't.


At Auburn, for instance, two projected starters at linebacker, Kevin Sears and Tray Blackmon, did not play, consistent with every public statement coach Tommy Tuberville made about the subject throughout the summer. Sears and Blackmon are both paying the price for alcohol-related arrests and will continue to sit out until Tuberville believes they are ready. Auburn insiders insist the suspensions will last for three games, which means Sears and Blackmon could miss the LSU game.


The standards and expectations appear to be different at Arkansas and Alabama.

For days before Arkansas' season opener against USC, Arkansas coach Houston Nutt made it appear there was little chance sophomore tailback Darren McFadden would play against USC due to the lingering ill effects of a toe injury.


"He started running full speed on Tuesday," Nutt said. "He surprised me how quickly he recovered. We knew he wouldn't be ready for his normal 25 or 30 carries but we got the ‘okay' from his doctors and decided to take a chance. We knew he would be involved in the game and not have a chance to re-injure his toe."


Never mind that McFadden was somehow able to mend quickly enough to start and play in the game. Anyone remember how he broke his toe in the first place? Kicking someone repeatedly during a parking lot brawl outside a seedy Little Rock nightclub about 4 a.m., on July 29. And yet, he played in the season opener with no public repercussions.


"I was just glad to be back out there with the team," McFadden said. "I was glad to be on the field."


Of course he was. The same could be said of Alabama senior linebacker Juwan Simpson.

Simpson's status for the opener has been in doubt ever since a May 20 arrest in Bessemer, Ala. After some legal wrangling he eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of marijuana possession and having a handgun without a license.


Very few people (if any) seemed to know if Simpson would play against Hawaii – including Simpson. Throughout the summer and preseason, coach Mike Shula refused to say anything about a suspension. At least he's consistent when it comes to commenting on discipline.


"I really didn't know what to expect," Simpson said after the Hawaii game. "I didn't want to get my hopes up. He said it was a decision he was going to make by himself and I'm glad he made the decision."


Shula finally spoke about the subject on Saturday, saying, "Juwan has been great since everything's happened," Shula said. "We all know what happened but he's worked really hard, and I think he's worked hard to prove himself to his teammates, No. 1, and his coaches. We're going to need his leadership."




After spending the opener beating up on Division I-AA Western Kentucky Georgia enters a more volatile game at South Carolina on Saturday with a lot of questions still unanswered about its quarterback situations.


Senior Joe Tereshinski earned his second career start in the opener and did some positive things, completing an 18-yard touchdown pass to Mario Raley for Georgia's second score in a 48-12 victory. However, he completed only seven of 17 passes for 90 yards and had four passes dropped. In the process he didn't exactly remind anyone of David Greene or D.J. Shockley, his Georgia predecessors.


"I thought he did a nice job," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "He went to the right guy most of the time and got us into the right plays."


Quarterbacks coach Mike Bobo told the Athens Banner-Herald that Tereshisnki "managed the game well. He was high on a couple (passes), but overall I thought he played well."


The big lead also allowed Georgia to play three quarterbacks, with redshirt freshman Joe Cox completing two of three passes for 29 yards and an interception and true freshman Matthew Stafford completing three of five passes for 40 yards and a 13-yard touchdown pass to Coleman Watson. All three of Stafford's completions, including the touchdown, came on one drive.


"That last drive, I don't know if it was a lightning bolt, but it was a good sign," Richt said.


A good sign of what? Of a change at the quarterback situation? At this point it's probably too early for Richt to make a change, but you can bet Georgia fans will be clamoring for Stafford or Cox if Tereshinski struggles against a South Carolina defense that gave Mississippi State fits in last Thursday's 15-0 Gamecock victory in Starkville.


"The quarterback situation? Right now Joe T. is definitely No. 1, and we'll just compete to see who's No. 2," Richt said. "If Stafford is going to be in the thick of that race for next year's starting position, then it's probably in his best interest to get reps right now."


Or, could those reps possibly be in the best interests of Georgia's current season?


"He deserved to play," Bobo said of Stafford. "It's a long season, and a lot can happen."




Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer, author and weekly columnist in Tiger Rag magazine. Reach him at

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