You might recall how UT had difficulty putting away opponents in the 2001 campaign, a trait that ultimately cost it dearly in the SEC Championship when LSU overcame a double-digit deficit despite losing its starting backfield and best receiver in the first half. In the Fresno State victory, Tennessee came out ready and dominated both lines of scrimmage. However it also showed signs of last season's disturbing self-destructive nature as well as 2001's inability to put a team away.
Phillip Fulmer said: "It looked like we lost our stinger" when evaluating the second half of the Fresno State contest. General Robert R. Neyland addressed the situation in his Maxiums of Football when he said: "Carry the fight to our opponent and keep it there for 60 minutes." Note that he didn't say carry the fight to our opponent until the lead is safe, or until the third team comes enters the contest. He knew when a team let up any time in the arena of competition it was asking for trouble, either in way of injury, or forming bad habits, or losing a game. He knew if you lose your emotional edge in the heat of battle you'll eventually get burned.
The Vols dodged a bullet in their first meeting with LSU in 2001 only to be hit between the eyes in the second meeting. Tennessee also lost its stinger against Georgia that season and was bitten on the butt in the very house that bears Neyland's name. A victory in either of those games would have likely resulted in a Rose Bowl berth and a shot at the national title.
So why are we discussing ancient history when it's a new season? Well it's a history Tennessee has yet to outlive, as is the case with last season's self-destructive tendencies. In other words, we know this is a team that can win, but it's a team that still has to prove it knows how to win. It's how you win that determines how high you can fly and how far you can go in a season.
That's what makes the Marshall contest such a good gauge of how far Tennessee has come. If this is truly a team that has been born again hard, it should be able to contain, then put away, the Thundering Herd. However, if the Vols have lapses and again lose the turnover battle, they could be pushed to the limit by a Marshall team that is better than Fresno State.
Make no mistake, Marshall is a successful program that has dominated the middling Mid American Conference and compiled 60 wins in six seasons as a Division I competitor. But Marshall hasn't proven it can beat the big boys, as its 47-21 defeat at Virginia Tech in 2002 and its 49-14 loss at Florida in 2001 underscore.
Track the Thundering Herd over the last three years and you'll discover a team that scores a lot of points and gives up a lot of points. Even Hofstra put 21 on the board last week. So scoring shouldn't be a problem for the Vols. However if Tennessee sputters in the red zone or commits more than its share of turnovers, Marshall could score enough to make this one uncomfortable.
Consequently, this game will be decided by Tennessee's defense which dominated Fresno State last week and is exceptionally quick. The Vols will look to confuse and pressure quarterback Stan Hill, who is making only his fourth career start. That means a lot of stunts and blitzes.
Marshall may counter by going to max protection and cutting down its splits in the offensive line in an effort to eliminate the linebackers run through lanes. The pressure will shift to UT's cornerbacks who must maintain man coverage to free up defenders to attack the pocket.
Also expect Marshall to test the interior of Tennessee's defense with the run. Any success the Herd can have inside will help it control the ball and set up play action. The Vols need defensive tackles Mondre Dickerson and Greg Jones to control the middle and give UT a chance to attack from the edge.
The Vols also need a big day from their special teams which missed opportunities last week and was hurt by penalties.
The guess here is Tennessee takes another step forward. Casey Clausen raises his level of play behind an offensive line that provides protection and paves the way for a solid running game led by Cedric Houston. The Vols may not carry the fight to Marshall for 60 minutes, but it will apply enough pressure to prevail.
Prediction: Tennessee 41, Marshall 17.