Surprises Underscore UT Season Openers

Season openers are most often aberrations when it comes to evaluating the relative strength of teams and, consequently, pose more risks for a high-profile program like Tennessee than they provide rewards.

When you intend on contending for a national title, every game carries equal importance and an upset loss early in the season can cancel out a big win later in the campaign. If your goal is to go to the Sugar Bowl and compete in a winner-take-all contest for the national crown, any blemish on the record can disqualify a team no matter how well it is playing at the end of the season.

It seems like anything that can go wrong will go wrong for favorites in season openers. Maybe it's the adjustment to the first live action in eight months. Maybe it's the break-in period required for new players to become acclimated to the speed of the game. Or it could be the lack of timing between a quarterback and his receivers. Or it may be the result of a lack of chemistry that often plagues teams with abundant talent. Or perhaps it's the air of optimism that permeates underdog programs whose renewal is reflected by a 0-0 record.

Whatever it is, it's undeniable that underdogs have the capacity to pull off upsets if not shockers in season openers. That's why the Vols can't afford to stumble out of the gate against Fresno State.

The Bulldogs come into Saturday's contest off a 9-5 record and have opened the last two campaigns with road upsets over Colorado and Wisconsin which were eight and nine point favorites, respectively. Last season the Dogs were 16 point underdogs at Oregon but battled to a hard fought 28-24 loss. In their 1998 season opener at Colorado, Fresno State entered as a 21-point underdog and pushed the Buffs to the limit before falling 29-21. Fresno happens to be a 21-point underdog against Tennessee.

Add it all up and FSU is a concern when you consider that UT is is only 16-8-2 in season openers over the last 25 years. The good news is that Tennessee is 10-1 under head coach Phil Fulmer after going 6-7-2 under Johnny Majors. The Vols haven't lost a season opener at home since dropping a 13-3 decision to Pittsburgh in 1983. Tennessee tied UCLA, 26-26, in the 1985 season opener at Neyland Stadium.

There have been a couple of close calls in season debuts under Fulmer like a 34-33 last-second victory over Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in 1998, and a 19-16 win over Southern Miss at Neyland Stadium in 2000. And if you recall the lone loss — 25-23 vs. UCLA in 1994 — you realize just how strange season openers can be.

In that contest played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Tennessee's starting quarterback Jerry Colquitt went down with a season-ending knee injury on the first series of the game. It had to be one of the saddest endings to a college career that a UT player has ever had to suffered, as Colquitt was a fifth-year senior who had waited four years behind Andy Kelly and Heath Shuler for a chance to start.

The loss of Colquitt forced Tennessee to use true freshmen Peyton Manning and Brandon Stewart in the first half. Also seeing significant action was future Major League Baseball star Todd Helton who probably threw the most impressive block ever by a Vol QB when he peeled back to lower the boom a Bruin linebacker in the fourth quarter. Tennessee's use of four quarterbacks in a loss was also a first and a last for the Vols. The early defeat and lack of experience at quarterback sent UT on a downward spiral and a 1-3 start for the season before the Vols recovered to finish 8-4.

Last season in Tennessee's opener at Adelphia Coliseum, linebacker Kevin Burnett was felled by similar misfortune, going down in the first defensive series against Wyoming with torn knee ligaments and missing the remainder of the 2002 campaign. Burnett's loss, like that of Colquitt, drastically altered UT's plans for the season in a simple twist of fate.

Even if the Vols escape Fresno State with a win, an injury to quarterback Casey Clausen could prove catastrophic. Also, it's of interest to note that Tennessee also lost its starting quarterback to a knee injury in 1985 (Tony Robinson) and again in 1981 when true freshman Alan Cockrell went down in the home opener. Actuarial tables over the last 20 years would suggest that UT loses its starting QB to a knee injury once every seven years, and it's been nine years since Colquitt's injury.

Many Vol fans no doubt recall how star running back Chuck Webb was lost to a knee injury in the 1990 home opener against Pacific, a game UT won 55-7. The loss of Webb probably cost Tennessee a shot at the national title, as the Vols only lost to Alabama, 9-6, and to Notre Dame, 34-29, that year. A player of Webb's caliber could have made the difference in both of those contests much as he did in the season opener against Colorado, gaining 131 yards in 31-31 tie. The Buffaloes went on to win the national title that year with a victory over Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl.

Of course we're not programming for something to go wrong in the 2003 season opener and Fulmer's track record indicates an average debut will produce a 39-12 victory. However older Vol fans know too well how bad things can go in season openers. For instance: Between 1976 and 1983 Tennessee compiled a woeful 1-7 mark that included such spectrum stretching setbacks as 25-24 against Duke in 1982 and a 44-0 loss to Georgia in 1991. Even given Tennessee's consistent inconsistency of that bygone era, the season openers were often surprising and sometimes shocking.

Since it's much easier to correct problems than it is to replace stars, the Vols would no doubt prefer a solid win and a healthy bottom line over a blowout with serious injury. In that respect, playing season openers is a lot landing airplanes. The object is to walk away in one piece and live to fly again.

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