New Coaches Present Big Challenges

There are plenty of reasons to believe Tennessee is on the verge of a big football season in 2005 — a position supported by preseason polls and rankings — but a favorable schedule isn't among those reasons.

Admittedly, it is only after the season that a team's strength of schedule can fully be measured, just like the only poll that really matters is the final one. There is, however, a truth about UT's schedule that is an inescapable X-factor and can't be underestimated. Nearly half (5-of-11) games are played against team's with new head coaches that have the most impressive of credentials.

Consider this lineup:

(1) Urban renewal begins at the Swamp as Florida coach Urban Myers enters on the heels of an undefeated season at Utah with a reputation as a highly skilled offensive innovator and very effective motivator. His spread option attack is a perfect fit for Florida's existing personnel and will be tough to prepare for given the Gators open their campaign against Wyoming and Louisiana Tech — two teams they can defeat without exposing a lot. UT will be the first major test of his Florida command and the biggest one-game challenge of his coaching career to that point, but he will also have more skill, speed and depth to work with that ever before.

(2) Playing LSU in Baton Rouge against any coach other than Nick Saban seems like a relief, but the defensive master, who was spirited away by the Miami Dolphins and a boat load of money, left the Tigers well stocked with talented players on both sides of the ball, including 10-of-11 returning starters on offense. Miles guided Oklahoma State to 24 wins and three straight bowl games, playing in the tough Big 12 Conference. He has a track record for engineering upsets and preparing well for big games against powerful opponents. For instance: his Cowboys took Oklahoma to the wire before losing 38-35 last season. One of his first moves at LSU was to hire former Chicago Bear assistant Vance Bedford as defensive coordinator, so the Vols can expect an active 4-3 front with a lot of blitzes. Considering the teams and locales, playing Florida and LSU on the road may well be the toughest two-week stretch any team plays in the 2005 college football season.

(3) Ole Miss may have made the best off-season move of any SEC school with the hire of Southern Cal defensive, and recruiting, coordinator Ed Orgeron. The raging Cajun will energize the Rebels with his unbridled enthusiasm and an outstanding infusion of talent. The Vols will face another serious challenger for prospects in Memphis as well as this season's game in Knoxville, that falls in the middle of a five-game stretch preceded by Florida and LSU and followed by Georgia and Alabama. That makes this a double sandwich contest against a highly motivated team that may well enter this SEC contest at 3-0.

(4) As though it's not enough Tennessee has to tangle with the defensive coordinator of two-time national champion USC, Phillip Fulmer's crew also has to face a Notre Dame team in South Bend that is led by Charlie Weis, the offensive mastermind behind the New England Patriots current two-year run as Super Bowl champions. It's no comfort that Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn, who led ND's upset victory at Neyland Stadium last season, resembles the Pats' Tom Brady in more than name alone. Oh yeah, the Fighting Irish also has two weeks to prepare for the Vols, who must play at Alabama before venturing to South Bend.

(5) He's baaaacck! The man who needs no introduction takes charge at South Carolina as the Gamecocks take flight with the "old ball coach" behind the controls of his famed "Fun-n-Gun" offense. Steve Spurrier might have fired blanks in the NFL, but he knows how to win in the SEC and has been a longtime UT nemesis even when he was at Duke. Ending a 12-game losing streak against Tennessee would give Spurrier a lot of capital in Columbia, S.C., and he'd spend it like a drunken sailor on Saturday shore leave.

More often than not playing an opponent with a new head coach is an advantage since it usually indicates a program has hit upon hard times. That's clearly not the case with Florida and LSU which are both loaded with outstanding players. Meanwhile Ole Miss, Notre Dame and South Carolina were each led by accomplished coaches — David Cutcliffe, Ty Willingham and Lou Holtz — who enjoyed success during their respective reigns and left the programs in good, if not great, shape.

Last season, Tennessee needed a 50-yard field goal at the final horn to defeat Florida in Knoxville. It needed a fourth-quarter comeback to conquer Ole Miss and surrendered 29 points to South Carolina without Spurrier calling plays. The Vols lost to Notre Dame and didn't have to play LSU.

How tough will those teams be with new coaches at the helm? It's a question worth pondering before making those Sugar Bowl reservations.

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