Vols Face Uphill Fight this Fall

Despite never-ending efforts on the parts of the powers-that-be to level the playing field in college football, all teams are not created equal and, consequently, neither are their schedules.

Last year at this time Tennessee fans were looking at the Vols slate with an eye toward running the table and winning the national championship. Now UT fans are looking at a schedule that features five teams in the top 25, a pair of national title contenders on the road and little in breathers along the way.

Moreover, Tennessee finds itself in an usual position in that it plays four teams that it lost to last year and three of those are on the road. That means that one-third of the 12-game schedule is comprised of revenge games which tend to be emotionally and physically draining whether in victory or defeat.

That's why it's no coincidence that UT hasn't generally played well in its game immediately following Florida on the schedule in recent years. For instance: After losing to the Gators at Gainesville, 23-21, in 1999, the Vols struggled to beat Memphis the next week 17-16 at homecoming in Knoxville. And in 2001, after beating the Gators in Gainesville 34-32, the Vols were defeated by LSU the following week in the SEC title game. In 2000, the Vols lost to Florida 27-23 and proceeded to drop two of its next three games. Last year after absorbing a rain-soaked drubbing from the Gators, the Vols had to overcome a half-time deficit to defeat Rutgers at home the next week.

To make matters worse, Tennessee takes on three of its revenge games during a four-game span — vs. Georgia, Alabama, Duke and Miami — of the schedule. That imposing series of tests is preceded by consecutive SEC contests at Florida, verses South Carolina and at Auburn.

Add it up and it comes out to playing four revenge games and four road games in a series of seven contests that includes five teams rated among the nation's preseason top 25.

Even with a few more breaks and a lot less injuries than last year, Tennessee could be severely challenged to win four of those seven games. In fact, the Vols are likely to be underdogs in five of those contests including the four road games and the home showdown vs. Georgia.

This is also the first time in Tennessee football history that the Vols have to play both the War Eagles and Crimson Tide in the state of Alabama in the same season. However on two occasions they played Alabama and Auburn in Knoxville during a single season. Collectively over the years, UT has a record of 21-37-8 on the road vs. Alabama and Auburn.

Add to the twin Alabama obstacles another first in a set of showdowns in the land of super citrus, beautiful beaches, Mickey Mouse, good tans, bad skin, sparkling waters and hanging shards. Need we say more... we're talking about the Sunshine State, a place that has been neither a vacation or picnic for Tennessee. (Ironically, UT has enjoyed great success in the Citrus Bowl, although it was always considered a bowl destination of little consolation.)

Beating Miami on the shores of the south Florida in November figures to be tougher than tangling with Gators at the Swamp in September, and the Vols haven't ever defeated Florida on the road in the sweltering late summer weather of September. The last victory UT had over the Gators in a day game on the road is 1955 when the Vols beat Florida 20-0 in Gainesville.

No Big Orange fan worth their shaker has to be reminded that the Vols haven't beaten the Dawgs of Athens in the 21st Century. Just like no Gamecock fan worth their spurs needs notice that Tennessee has won 10 straight in that series. South Carolina comes into Knoxville the Saturday between the Florida and Auburn games which could be a great time to spring an ambush. For sure Lou Holtz will have his squad emotionally ready to play with UAB on their slate the week before. Also, most of the Vols win streak over S.C. has occurred late in the schedule when their depth was enough to carry the day. The Gamecocks historically play better early and there's no game on the schedule they'd rather win.

Bracketing Tennessee's gauntlet of six tough games are two first-ever contests against Fresno State and Marshall and two contests against Vanderbilt and Kentucky — the two teams UT has played more than any others in its history. Three of these games are in Knoxville and all are critical. Marshall and Fresno State were bowl teams last year, Kentucky and Vanderbilt were not. Tennessee hasn't lost to the Cats since 1984 or Dores since 1982, but every annual series against archrivals eventually reaches critical mass, just as a sizable asteroid will eventually strike the Earth without human intervention. The Vols have dodged some bullets to maintain their win streaks over Kentucky and Vanderbilt, including a big second half rally against the Wildcats in 2001 at Lexington.

Tennessee kicks off its fourth quarter of the season against Mississippi State in Knoxville and must avoid any letdowns against a team that has retooled and could be dangerous, especially given the influx of talent to Starksville the last two recruiting campaigns.

The Vols also need to build early momentum as well as gain confidence, rebuild the offense and establish an identity in the first two games against the FSU Bulldogs and the Marshall Thundering Herd. Upsets in the early season aren't unusual and first games tend to be aberrations. Fresno didn't fare well against Arkansas in Little Rock last season and may not be ready for the intensity of a packed house against an SEC opponent. Ditto for Marshall, which was overwhelmed by Florida two years ago in Gainesville. On the other hand, those programs may have benefitted from the experience and be ready to prove themselves this time around.

Should the Vols be fortune enough to win big in the first two games, it would allow them to get invaluable reps for unseasoned players that must take on some of the load down the road this season. A loss in either game could spell disaster for a team trying to rebound from the most disappointing season in the highly success Phillip Fulmer Era.

The key will be maintaining focus and energy during the arduous middle stretch of the schedule in which the Vols only have one off week (before Alabama) and which they play five straight SEC games at Florida, vs. South Carolina, at Auburn, vs. Georgia and at Alabama.

Overall, it's a rugged row to hoe and the nation's second most difficult schedule. Tennessee could well have a much better team than last year and play much better ball, but the win-loss results may not be drastically different than last season's 8-5 record.

Tennessee's senior class has compiled a 27-11 record in its first three seasons on the Hill. This is not nearly up to the standards of their predecessors under Fulmer and, given those circumstances, questions about the team's confidence are only natural. Does this group of Vols know how to win big games? close games? consecutive games against quality opponents? Can they bounce back from a devastating defeat? Can they follow an upset victory with another topnotch performance? Tennessee has a lot of captains, but does it have enough battle-tested leaders?

Another question concerns how UT fans will support the Vols attempt to bounce back. Will they wait for the Vols to prove themselves before jumping on the bandwagon? Or will they stay strong and remain patient? There was a time not too long ago in Tennessee football when fans got behind the team and stayed with them throughout the season. Under the success of Fulmer, Vol fans haven't been content with 8-3 seasons and some won't get excited about anything that doesn't end in an SEC or national championship.

That's a shame because the success of Tennessee football is as much about it's great fan base and support as it is about championships. Traditionally, UT fans have been at their best when times are worst. Take for example the Vols last losing season of 1988, when the Vols started out 0-5, but still drew a capacity crowd for the sixth game against Alabama. They lost in a close decision that day, but went on to drop only one of their next 23 contests, complying a 20-1-2 mark in that span.

The Tennessee football experience transcends wins and losses, coaches and players, times and circumstances. Enduring fan support is the thing that makes it special, and when that support is there in the absence of victories, UT football is elevated above the status of a mere game.

With Big Orange faithful squarely in their corner, the Vols may discover the will to fight, and win, this fall.

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