IT Team Plays Devil's Advocate

Welcome to Devil's Advocate — Inside Tennessee's version of point/counterpoint — where each week analysts Randy Moore and Jeffery Stewart take opposite sides of the field to make their case for our readers' regular amusement and occasional edification.

Bulldogs have some bite

by Randy Moore

''Remember The Maine!''

That should be the battle cry of every college football favorite this weekend, including the Tennessee Vols. Maine, a Div. 1-AA team that hadn't beaten a Div. 1-A team in 13 years, slipped into Starkville last weekend and stunned Mississippi State. That a rinky-dink like Maine could whip a team from the powerful SEC in its own backyard makes one thing perfectly clear: There is no such thing as a ''lock'' in the wacky world of college football. Not these days.

Tennessee must be acutely aware of this Saturday night, when the Vols host a lightly regarded Louisiana Tech squad. Tennessee may be a lot better than Mississippi State but Louisiana Tech probably is a lot better than Maine, so the Vols cannot take victory for granted. If they do, this game could prove to be embarrassingly close.

Here's why Tennessee's run defense has been shaky, and the visiting Bulldogs boast the leading rusher in college football. Ryan Moats is a 5-9, 209-pounder who averages 198.3 rushing yards per game. Dominique Dorsey of Nevada-Las Vegas ran rings around UT in Game 1, and Moats reportedly is a better back than Dorsey.

''Moats is an excellent running back,'' Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis said this week. ''I have tremendous respect for him. He's a really powerful guy. When he hits the line of scrimmage it's with bad intentions. He looks to run over you. He's a back that could play anywhere in the SEC and start ... maybe with the exception of Auburn.''

If Moats consistently gains 4, 5, 6 yards on Tennessee's defense that will enable the Bulldogs to keep the chains moving and keep the clock running. Naturally, the fewer possessions Tennessee gets the better chance Louisiana Tech has of keeping the scoring low and the outcome respectable. You'll notice that the bigger upsets (Troy 17, Marshall 15 ... Maine 9, Mississippi State 7) tend to be low-scoring affairs in which the underdog manages to neutralize the favorite's offense.

Don't be fooled by Tech's 48-0 loss at Miami last weekend. The Bulldogs made some costly mistakes, then things snowballed. Vol head man Phillip Fulmer noted that the game was competitive until the Bulldogs gave up ''some punt returns and turnovers, then things got out of hand.''

Certainly, Tennessee's in trouble if it must rely on breaking returns and forcing turnovers to score points this weekend. The Vols are averaging a pathetic 14.3 yards per kickoff return and an unspectacular 12.7 per punt return (when they bother to field the ball). The Big Orange isn't exactly a turnover team, either, having picked up just two interceptions and one fumble through the first two games.

Louisiana Tech's passing attack is nothing to write home about but it still might be good enough to exploit a Vol pass defense that has been frightfully porous. UNLV and Florida combined to complete 35 of 56 passes (62.5 percent) for 461 yards and three touchdowns.

Finally, there's the ever-present danger presented by the ''sandwich game.'' With Tech sandwiched between nationally ranked foes Florida and Auburn, will the Vols be focused enough on the Bulldogs to take care of business?

I'd like to think so, but I wouldn't bet the house on it. Or the car. Or even the TV.

Bulldogs' Bark Worse than Bite

By: Jeffery Stewart

Taking an opponent for granted is a luxury few teams can afford in this era of equality. Unfortunately, Tennessee is not one of those teams. If the Vols sleepwalk their way through Saturday's game against Louisiana Tech they'll likely struggle and maybe even lose.

It was in the third game of last season that La Tech went into East Lansing, Mich., and knocked off Michigan State 20-19. The Spartans were looking ahead to a contest at Notre Dame and simply overlooked the Bulldogs. The next week Michigan State beat the Fighting Irish, going on a five game winning streak en route to an 8-5 record.

Tennessee not only has two huge contests directly ahead against Auburn and Georgia, it also has to recover from an emotional victory over Florida. Furthermore, the Vols are also competing on homecoming which has its own set of distractions. Most coaches will tell you they'd rather play at an opponent's homecoming than their own.

So the Vols have their work cut out just getting to this game with business on their minds and menace in their hearts. Make no mistake, Tennessee will have a letdown against Louisiana Tech. It's almost impossible to avoid one. The key is not to lose focus and to remember that as an entity a team either gets better or worse. It never stays the same. UT's staff is well aware of this evolutionary process and will, no doubt, emphasize that point with players this week.

If they get through to the players, Tennessee will get through this game unscathed. And the players should listen because coaches control playing time and there's plenty of competition for PT at UT this season. Foremost is the quarterback competition where two young gunslingers are trying to outdo each other while advancing the team. The excitement created by the ongoing competition there is contagious to the supporting cast and players seem to perform at a higher level than they might otherwise.

There's also plenty of competition at tailback among four backs out to prove they deserve the No. 1 designation. Ditto at wide receiver where a talented crop of pass catchers are fighting to stay in the rotation or to get into it.

Over on defense, the Vols have already overhauled the secondary and former starters are hoping to reclaim jobs while rookie starters are looking to improve their play. There's a hole at middle linebacker that has created a need that several candidates would like to meet. John Chavis is looking for pass rushers at defensive end and depth at defensive tackle.

The confluence of those competitions is a strong driving force that should keep the Vols frosty. Besides, this team is playing with a lot of excitement and seems to be having more fun than any UT team since 1998.

With the weapons Tennessee has on offense and the athletes it has on defense, Louisiana Tech will have a tough time keeping pace. The Bulldogs are coming off a 48-0 shelling at Miami. They could respond with their best effort but are more likely to be drained physically and emotionally with back-to-back road games against perennial football powers.

In truth, the Bulldogs are not a very good defensive team. Last season, they allowed an average of 511 yards per game, surrendering 238 yards per game rushing and 273 yards per game passing. They allowed opposing teams to pass at a clip of 62 percent in 2003 and have not held offenses below an average of 32.5 points in the last four years.

Sure they had some turnovers against Miami, but that's not unusual. Over the last four seasons, they have a turnover ratio of minus 31. And when La Tech played the Canes in 2003 it lost 48-9. If you think that's a lot, consider that the Bulldogs gave up point totals of 43 to Boise State, 35 to UTEP, 44 to Hawaii, 34 to Nevada, 49 to LSU, 48 to Tulsa and 49 to Rice. They lost those last two games by counts of 48-18 and 49-14.

Forget the Maine. The Vols should remember the Canes and take care of business.


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