However the Vols never resembled a champion even early on before injuries eroded their talent base and exhausted their experience level. The team took on a rudderless look at times and suffered from individualism; a point not lost on Phillip Fulmer and his coaching staff.
The offseason has seen signs of a team coming together and going about its business with a greater sense of urgency. How this translates to competition remains a matter of conjecture, but there is no doubt Tennessee is loaded with talent. Admittedly, much of it is untested while durability of the team's best talent is in some cases unproven, but still there is an air of optimism around the program whereas last year there may have been an air of arrogance.
Those factors alone make Saturday's opener highly significant. Add a quality opponent in Fresno State and the contest becomes crucial because, unlike last year when UT opened with Wyoming, the Vols won't win this one by showing up. The Bulldogs pushed Wisconsin to the limit on the road in last year's opener and went to Colorado and knocked off the Buffs to open the 2001 campaign. Like Tennessee, FSU had it's bad outings but the Bulldogs finished strong with a bowl victory over Georgia Tech.
Tennessee is rated a 20-point favorite over Fresno but this reflects the home field advantage, stature gap and wagering public's appetite more than it does a talent disparity between these squads. Fresno State has very good skill players and a potential top 10 NFL Draft choice in wide receiver/return specialist Bernard Berrian (6-2, 190). The Bulldogs aren't as deep as Tennessee nor do they appear as strong across the front, but this is a team that has enjoyed a combined plus 27 turnover ratio the last two seasons and has blocked 40 kicks, including 20 punts, in head coach Pat Hill's six-year tenure. If Fresno State can create a couple of big breaks against Tennessee the game could become too close for comfort.
The Vols need to utilize their advantage in the offensive line to control the ball, the clock, field position and to keep FSU's defense on the field. A couple of old fashioned 15-play drives will set Fresno State's secondary up for play action and enable Tennessee to take control in the fourth quarter. The importance of an improved passing game can't be overstated, but the key to making it work is the run. To that end, the Vols need to parlay their depth in the O-line and the backfield.
On defense, Tennessee will be facing a rebuilt and reshuffled offensive line that is lacking experience and susceptible to stunts. Expect the defensive coordinator John Chavis to unleash linebackers, Kevin Burnett and Kevin Simon, and attack from the opening whistle. Turning the heat up on back up QB Jeff Grady could create mistakes while allowing UT to seize the initiative. The Vols need to set a fast pace on both sides of the ball and maximize the edge of their superior special teams play.
If Tennessee avoids big mistakes and forces a few of its own, it will win going away. The guess here is that the Vols consume the clock and score a solid win.
Prediction: Tennessee 34, Fresno State 16.