By: Randy Moore
What follows are a dozen valid reasons why Fresno State could upset Tennessee's apple cart in Saturday's season opener at Neyland Stadium:
1) Fresno State has outstanding receivers, while Tennessee has a suspect pass rush and unproven cornerbacks. That can be an explosive combination. Here's what Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis had to say about the Bulldogs' pass-catchers: ''Their skill people match up with anybody we've seen. It's like Florida of old, when you start looking at those receivers. There's four or five out there that'll play in the NFL for a long time. It's going to be a big challenge for us.''
2) Fresno State is a 20-point underdog that has nothing to lose. Tennessee is coming off a 30-3 Peach Bowl loss to Maryland and feeling pressure to win impressively. If the Vols start slowly, they're sure to hear some boos in their own stadium.
3) Fresno State coach Pat Hill says his team is stronger at cornerback than at any time during his tenure. This could make life difficult for a Vol receiver corps that was woefully inept in 2002.
4) Tennessee pins its hopes for a greatly improved receiving corps on converted safety Mark Jones and converted quarterback James Banks -- two guys who have yet to catch a pass in a college game. And tight end Victor McClure is a 300-pound converted guard who can't find a seam in his pants, let alone in a defense.
5) Tennessee's tailback corps may be overrated. First-teamer Cedric Houston has been plagued by injuries, second-teamer Jabari Davis spent much of last fall at fullback and third-teamer Gerald Riggs has shown an annoying tendency to fumble the ball.
6) Tennessee's linebackers are talented but Robert Peace (5), Kevin Burnett (3) and Kevin Simon (3) have just 11 college starts among them ... and none of the three was durable enough to stick around for the last four games of 2002.
7) Tennessee's top four defensive tackles are Mondre Dickerson, a converted defensive end with two college starts (both at end) to his credit; and three guys who have never started a college game -- sophomore Greg Jones, freshman walk-on Matt McGlothlin and freshman Tony McDaniel.
8) Tennessee's offensive line is essentially the same guys who were roundly criticized for underachieving in 2002.
9) Fresno is not intimidated by hostile crowds in season openers. The Bulldogs beat Colorado 24-22 in the 2001 opener at Boulder and dropped a 23-21 heartbreaker to Wisconsin in the 2002 opener at Madison.
10) Tennessee's aura of invincibility at Neyland Stadium is little more than a fond memory. The Vols were blown out three times on their home field last fall, losing to Florida (30-13), to Alabama (34-14) and to Miami (26-3).
11) The perception that Tennessee will benefit from facing Fresno's backup quarterback (Jeff Grady) now that first-teamer Paul Pinegar is injured may be wishful thinking. The last time the Vols prepared to feast on a backup quarterback, LSU's Matt Mauck torched them in the second half of the 2001 SEC Championship Game.
12) Finally, anything can happen in season openers. As Vol head man Phillip Fulmer noted earlier this week: ''First games are really hard a lot of times. You're not sure about people until they get on the field and have a chance to play in front of the crowd in the heat of the moment.... First games are hard also because you're not always sure what you're going to get from the opponent, whether it be a change in philosophy or players you haven't seen on film.''
Why Tennessee Should Win
By: Jeffery Stewart
Fresno State is a quality opponent and, as my esteemed associate so ably illustrated, there are valid reasons for picking the Bulldogs to upset Tennessee on Saturday. However, oddsmakers aren't listing the Vols as 21-point favorites for nothing. Here are six sound reasons Tennessee will rule opening day.
(1) The first sound reason is a loud Neyland Stadium, packed to the rim with frustrated Tennessee fans ready to reeve it up to spirited renditions of Rocky Top. Expect Big Orange faithful to get behind the home team in a big way, knowing the importance of a good start to the new season. The 107,000-plus crowd will include only a smattering of Fresno fans and that could smatter a lot because the Bulldogs haven't fared well away from the cozy confines of the Dog House, where 41,000 is a capacity crowd.
(2) The House that Bob Built will be a hot house on Saturday, harboring brutal humidity under a midday August sky. Great for growing tropical plants. Bad for fostering topical upsets. Especially when the opponent comes from sunny southern California climate where it never rains and late summer days are always set at room temperatures. Add three hours of jet lag into the equation and it doesn't add up to an upset. This game favors the deeper team and Tennessee has a significant advantage in the depth department.
(3) Depth often shows itself on special teams and Tennessee (which ranked No. 24 nationally in 2002 special teams play) figures to have a substantial edge in this critical phase of the game. Not only do the Vols have one of the country's top punters in Dustin Colquitt, but they also have a pair of place kickers superior to Alex Walls, who was injured most of last season and not up to par when he did play. Phillip Newman is a fifth-year senior with a strong leg and game experience. James Wilhoit is a redshirt freshman who was the nation's top kicking prospect coming out of high school, and likely to finish his career as one of the Vols best ever.
Conversely, Frenso State will be breaking in a new punter and place kicker on special team units that ranked No. 68 nationally in 2002. Steve Caldwell has taken over special teams operations at UT and should infused his specialists with an espirt de corps that has been missing at times in the recent past. Combine that with UT's sizzling team speed and you have special teams that have the potential to live up to their name.
(4) While these gridiron squads match up fairly even on the perimeter and at skilled positions, the Vols appear to have a decisive edge in the trenches. This is particularly true on the offensive line where Tennessee's first unit returns nearly intact and is backed by a second unit that is almost as good.
The Vols O-line suffered an assortment of injuries up front last year and never quiet jelled. However Tennessee's veteran offensive front is now healthy, very talented and augmented by an ambitious bunch of former high school All-Americans i.e. Cody Douglas, Rob Smith and Arron Sears. It's also directed by Jimmy Ray Stephens who handled the same duties under Steve Spurrier at Florida and has simplified assignments at Tennessee in favor of greater aggression and better continuity.
While the wide receiver position has been pointed to as UT's primary problem on offense last year, the lack of pass protection was at least as much a factor in the Vols' offensive woes. That problem has been addressed this year with the addition of Mark Jones and a couple of high school all-Americans, Jayson Swain, and Brett Smith, giving Casey Clausen more options. Tennessee's ground game could be dominating as the depth at running back is exceptional.
Fresno State is sending a rebuilt and untested offensive line into the fray that is minus two starters. The Bulldogs will also have a second team quarterback directing the attack. Sure, Jeff Grady (6-2, 200) is a senior, but he couldn't beat out true freshman Paul Pinegar (6-4, 220) last year and won't be an improvement over the proven, albeit injured, sophomore. Despite the lack of experience in its defensive interior, the Vols front seven is a team strength which will cause Fresno problems with its speed.
(5) While it's true Fresno State has taken on tough non-conference opponents and head coach Pat Hill's team beat Colorado to open the 2001 season and lost by only two points at Wisconsin to open the 2002 campaign, the Bulldogs have also had some on-the-road meltdowns — losing to Oregon 59-19 and to Boise State 67-21 last year. Fresno also needed a Hail Mary bomb to beat Rice on the road. Additionally, half of Fresno's eight regular season wins — over San Diego State, Rice, Colorado State and San Jose State — were by a field goal or less. On balance, it's not exactly the kind of background that would inspire confidence for a team that hasn't played an SEC opponent in the last decade.
(6) For the last 10 months Tennessee's players and coaches have had to contend with questions about "what's wrong" with the team and hear commentary that has been less than flattering. This is a team that has a bad taste in its mouth and bad intentions in its heart. That's bad news for the Bulldogs who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.