by Randy Moore
Nevada-Las Vegas is unlikely to upset Tennessee in Sunday night's opener at Neyland Stadium, but the final score might upset some of the more optimistic Vol fans. They shouldn't expect a resounding victory by the Big Orange.
To borrow from Forrest Gump, openers are like a box of chocolates: You never know what you'll get. Although UT is 10-1 in openers under Phil Fulmer, some of the performances were pretty uneven -- a 34-33 squeaker against Syracuse in 1998, a 19-16 snoozer vs. Southern Miss in 2000 and a nondescript 24-6 defeat of Fresno State in 2003, for instance.
Another uneven performance is likely in 2004, since the Vols will rely on a pair of rookie quarterbacks, Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge. No SEC team has ever opened a season with a true freshman behind center, and there's a reason for that. A first-year QB is liable to do anything -- throw interceptions, fumble snaps and turn the wrong way on handoffs ... and those are just the physical mistakes. The potential mental mistakes are too numerous to be listed here.
In addition to freshman quarterbacks and Game 1 jitters, there are at least five more reasons Tennessee will not cover the 21-point betting line Sunday night. They are:
1. John Robinson
2. UNLV's poise
3. UT's lost luster
4. UNLV's unpredictability on offense
5. UT's predictability on offense
Let's examine these point by point:
1. John Robinson's record as a coach speaks for itself. He fielded some of the finest teams in college football during his days at Southern Cal, and he clearly has UNLV on the right track.
2. Nevada-Las Vegas may not be filet mignon but the Rebels aren't chopped liver, either. They aren't afraid of college football's big boys. They proved as much by going to Wisconsin last year and stunning the heavily favored Badgers 23-5.
3. Playing Tennessee used to intimidate some opponents. After eight losses in the past two years -- including humiliating Peach Bowl setbacks to Maryland (30-3) and Clemson (27-14) -- it's safe to say the Vols' air of invincibility is gone with the wind.
4. The Rebels have a new offensive coordinator (Bruce Snyder), which means last year's game films are virtually useless. Preparing for a foe you haven't scouted is no easy task.
''It's the unknown,'' Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis says. ''You just don't know what his personality's going to be. He's had a whole spring practice and a fall practice to get his system in, so we'll just see how much he changes.''
There are unconfirmed reports that the Rebels will sport a totally different look in 2004 than they had in 2003. If so, that could be very problematical for the Vols.
There's been a lot of talk about them changing,'' Chavis concedes. ''The last couple of years they've been a hard nosed running football team, and they've done a tremendous job of running the football.... But there's been some rumors about them opening it up and throwing the ball down the field more. We'll see.''
5. Whereas UNLV may come out running anything from the wishbone to the West Coast offense, Tennessee undoubtedly will rely on the same basic offense it has run since Walt Harris installed it 21 years ago. Variety may be the spice of life but it's a foreign concept on The Hill. As a result, I feel safe making two predictions: Tennessee's first play of the season will be an off-tackle run by Cedric Houston. Tennessee's next play of the season will be a second-and-12 call.
My pick: Tennessee 27, UNLV 14.
Why Vols Will Repel Rebels
By: Jeffery Stewart
One gridiron axiom states a team makes its greatest progress between game No. 1 and game No. 2 on the schedule. However, Tennessee has to hope it makes the most progress between game No. 13 of 2003 and game No. 1 of 2004.
Otherwise, any D-I program with a decent defense and a couple of playmakers on offense will be a tough test for a Tennessee team that, when last seen, looked flat and unfocused against Clemson in the Georgia Dome. Of course, when you're getting your butt kicked it's hard to look otherwise. And in all fairness, Clemson was a very good team that was highly motivated and playing its best ball in Tommy Bowden's tenure.
The embarrassment of that Peach Bowl beating is enough by itself to assure Tennessee will be focused for this contest. The Vols have swallowed a lot of nails since that winter's night and their pride is hurt. Furthermore, this game will not be played under a roof in Atlanta but in under the lights in Knoxville. It won't be played against Clemson but UNLV and the Rebels are hardly Tigers.
After a 5-7 record in what was largely regarded as a rebuilding season, Nevada Las Vegas comes to UT with high hopes but limited resources. Sure UNLV pulled an upset at Wisconsin last year but the week before it lost at Kansas 46-24. Two weeks after the Rebels stunned the Badgers they began a four game losing streak to Nevada, Air Force, Utah and BYU — hardly murder's row even by Mountain West standards. Two weeks after that streak was halted in a 37-35 victory over New Mexico, UNLV was shut out by San Diego State 7-0.
True the Rebels are led by the highly-respected John Robinson, but proponent of power football has only had one winning season in five years in Las Vegas and he doesn't have the wealth of talent he enjoyed at USC or with the Los Angeles Rams.
Former Arizona State head coach (1992-2000) Bruce Snyder moves up to offensive coordinator this year after calling plays in the last games of the 2003 campaign. The Rebels scored 23 and 35 points in those contests which were both victories (Colorado State and Wyoming). So John Chavis' stop troops will likely see a lot of different looks and they don't know what type of offense to prepare for as Snyder has had a fall and spring practice to install his system. Yet UT should have some idea of the style of play Snyder perfers since he spent 14 years as a head coach — he was at Cal from 1987 to 1991.
Tennessee will also have a good gauge of what UNLV quarterback Kurt Nantkes brings to the table. Nantkes started most of last season, finishing with a less than impressive 1,883 yards on 47 percent passing with 12 TDs and 10 INTs.
UT's disadvantage of not knowing UNLV's offense will be offset by the Rebels' lack of game experience running the offense. Regardless of their preparation time to install the offense, they can't simulate the speed of Tennessee's defense.
Nor can they simulate the late summer humidity of east Tennessee in the arrid enviroment of their desert campus. The Rebels' depth will be tested by Tennessee in the mildest of climates and will be exploited in the rain forrest conditions that is a packed Neyland Stadium in early September. The intensity of the crowd and the noise it generates is another negative UNLV will have to deal with.
Finally, the issue of playing two true freshman signal callers is a legitimate concern. There's simply no way to prepare the rookies for that experience and no way of knowing how they'll react. We do know they haven't resembled freshmen to this point in practices, although freshmen moments are unavoidable in either venue. They'll make some freshmen mistakes but each has the talent to erase those mistakes by making big plays.
Likewise, UNLV won't know what to expect since any film from the last four years would feature an offense run by Casey Clausen. Plus, the Rebels have to prepare for not one but two QBs with divergent strengths. Sometimes seniors make even more mistakes due to overconfidence. For instance: Peyton Manning had more interceptions as a senior than he did as a freshman and sophomore combined.
UNLV has had a lot of time and film to diagnose UT's offense and will have a good read of the Vols' tendencies. The same thing could have been said about the Dallas Cowboys under Tom Landry. The man in the hat used the same system for 26 years. The key to making it work wasn't the element of surprise. It was superior personnel and sound execution.
The same formula will work for the Vols.
Prediction: Tennessee 31, UNLV 10.