My pick: Vols 45, Duke 14

Tennessee football fans have wondered for nearly two years when ballyhooed tailback Gerald Riggs, Jr., will live up to his high school credentials.

This is the week it happens.

With first-team tailback Cedric Houston sidelined by a high-ankle sprain, Riggs should get his long-awaited chance to shine ... and shine he will. I look for a breakout performance -- one that will leave fans scratching their heads and demanding, ''Where has this guy been?''

In Phillip Fulmer's doghouse ... that's where. Riggs has basically stayed on the head man's bad side ever since he arrived on The Hill as one of the most heralded signees in recent Vol history. Riggs' latest transgression was arriving late for three of the last four Friday walk-through practices. His penalty was to remain on the bench throughout last Saturday's game at Alabama, even though fourth-team tailback Corey Larkins -- listed BEHIND Riggs on the depth chart -- got to play.

With Houston sidelined, however, Riggs ought to get his big chance in Saturday's homecoming game with Duke. Once the Vols build a commanding lead -- which shouldn't take very long -- Riggs finally will get an opportunity to show why practice observers have been raving about him since last spring.

Riggs was the most impressive back on Tennessee's roster last March and April. He ran with power, with speed, with balance, with vision. He ran inside and outside, patiently waiting for his blocks on some occasions and exploding through small creases on others. In short, he exhibited all of the rushing skills a college tailback needs.

Unfortunately, Riggs never earned the trust of UT's coaches. They were turned off by an attitude that appeared to suggest: ''Give me the ball on Saturday and watch me run.'' The perception was that everything else -- studying the playbook, pass protecting, going to class, etc. -- was trivial to Riggs.

Perhaps that perception is correct. Maybe he is an immature young man who has a lot of ego. But he also has a lot of talent ... talent that likely will be displayed, at long last, Saturday afternoon against Duke.

The emergence of Gerald Riggs, Jr., as a force in Tennessee's running game is one of several reasons I think the Vols will romp this weekend.

Another reason is Justin Harrell. The return of the injury-plagued defensive tackle has helped stabilize the Vol defensive line. Tennessee stopped Alabama cold on several third-and-short and fourth-and-short situations last weekend, and improved play by Harrell and the rest of the front four contributed greatly to that.

Another reason I like UT in a romp is that Tennessee's passing game really clicked near the end of the Alabama game. The Vols scored five touchdowns and a field goal on their final six possessions last weekend, and that success should carry over into this weekend's game.

The only factor that seems to favor lowly Duke (2-6 overall, 0-5 in ACC play) is its recent coaching change. The switch from Carl Franks to Ted Roof seemed to invigorate the Blue Devils in last week's game against North Carolina State. Duke hung tough against the favored Wolfpack, falling by a respectable 28-21 margin.

Now that the novelty of a new coach has worn off, though, look for Duke to return to form this week. The Blue Devils are not a good football team. Good football teams don't lose 27-0 to Virginia, 56-7 to Florida State and 42-13 to that powerhouse known as Wake Forest.

The oddsmakers have installed Tennessee as a 26-point favorite, which seems a little high in one regard. After all, Tennessee has scored 26 points or more in regulation just one time all season -- in a 34-24 Game 2 defeat of Marshall back on Sept. 6.

So, why should Tennessee suddenly pile up points this weekend? Because the Vols are facing a team that has struggled all season ... a team that probably will roll over and play dead if Tennessee takes control early. And that's precisely what I think the Vols will do. Then fans finally will get to see Gerald Riggs' breakout game.

My pick: Tennessee 45, Duke 14.


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