The visiting Bulldogs are accustomed to heat but they've never experienced East Tennessee humidity -- the sweltering kind that can soak your clothes, steal your breath and drain your energy. So, if the humidity's high on Saturday, Fresno's players could wilt in the second half.
But what if the early forecasts of rain are correct? How will the California-based Bulldogs react if the humidity's low but the weather's bad? Probably the same way California-based Casey Clausen reacted in the Vols' 2000 game at Memphis, in their 2001 Cotton Bowl game vs. Kansas State and in their 2002 game with Florida. In other words ... poorly. Inclement weather is a radical concept to Californians, so a steady drizzle could baffle the Bulldogs and seriously hamper their potent passing game.
Even if the weather's balmy, though, Tennessee should win this game. The Vols still carry a bad taste in their mouths from last December's 30-3 Peach Bowl loss to Maryland, and there's only one way to remove that taste ... by kicking someone's butt.
Tennessee's players seem focused, determined, almost angry after being slighted by the national and regional media the past eight months. When CBSsportsline recently picked Fresno to upset UT, Phillip Fulmer must've jumped for joy. That should fire up the Vols more than any pregame pep talk ever could.
The Big Orange got another break when Fresno's star quarterback, Paul Pinegar, pulled a chest muscle that likely will cause him to miss Saturday's game. The Bulldogs have a superior corps of receivers but backup QB Jeff Grady isn't as adept at getting them the ball as Pinegar.
Although Tennessee is suspect at tackle, defensive coordinator John Chavis will find a way to shut down Fresno's running attack. That will force Grady to throw the ball ... or at least try. Tennessee's pass rush should be much better now that end Constantin Ritzmann and linebacker Kevin Burnett are back from knee injuries that sidelined them in 2002.
Asked if Ritzmann's pass-rush ability is as good as before the injury, Chavis replied: ''It's fine. I don't think he has any problem. He hasn't lost anything there, and that should be a big plus for us. And the way (sophomore end) Parys Haralson is playing, that's going to be a big plus for us. We've got a chance to be better at defensive end than we were last year. We may not be quite as good at tackle as we were but we really expect to be better at end than we were last year.''
As for Burnett, his knee has been sore at times but he's a better player at 80 percent than most guys are at 100 percent. He probably will play 30-40 snaps.
''Burnett's gotten a good bit of work,'' Chavis said, ''but he's not ready to play a full game yet.''
The return of Burnett and Kevin Simon, who missed the last half of 2002 with a broken foot, gives the Vols tremendous depth at linebacker. The cast also includes Robert Peace, Jason Mitchell, Marvin Mitchell, Jon Poe, Omar Gaither, Daniel Brooks and Ovince Saint Preux.
''We feel good about the depth (at linebacker) and feel we can roll those guys, so they're not in a situation where the guys have to play a whole game,'' Chavis said.
Tennessee's depth at linebacker will be even more crucial if the heat and humidity on Saturday live up to early projections.
''If we get in a situation where we're in a long series -- on the field six, seven, eight, nine or 10 plays -- we'll have to roll guys in and out,'' Chavis said. ''You don't want guys to pull their cork because it's a lot harder to recover after that than it is after five or six plays. We're going to try and keep fresh people in the game.''
Tennessee's coaches appear intent on establishing the ground game, so look for Cedric Houston to rush for 120 yards. Backups Jabari Davis, Gerald Riggs and Corey Larkins should chip in another 80 or so. Casey Clausen should complete roughly 15 of 25 passes for around 200 yards.
Fresno will score some points but it won't score enough. My pick: Tennessee 30, Fresno 17.