Sanders faces unknowns

Like Tennessee's fans, Tennessee's offensive coordinator is eager to see how things play out in this weekend's opener against Alabama-Birmingham.

Below are some of the questions Randy Sanders should have answered by 4 p.m. Saturday:

How will Rob Smith perform in his first-ever game at center?

How will Gerald Riggs handle being the featured back?

How productive will the unproven reserve tailbacks be?

How will Ramon Foster, who is making his first college start in his first college game, perform at guard?

Will UT's imposing receiving corps play up to its potential?

Can tight ends Chris Brown, Justin Reed and Brad Cottam contribute in the passing game?

Can Tennessee avoid the penalties and turnovers that often crop up in a season opener?

How far has sophomore quarterback Erik Ainge advanced since his freshman season?

What will Alabama-Birmingham do defensively that didn't show up on last year's game films?

Given all of these unknowns, it's little wonder Sanders is a tad anxious as game time approaches.

"It's tough," he said. "Sometimes openers are hard because you've got all year to sit around and look at every game from last season. You start looking at everything they did on defense, and it can get overwhelming. You try to look at what they did well, make some guesses on what they're going to do to stop what you do well, then make your adjustments from there."

Tennessee's offense will look pretty familiar to fans. It'll feature the same stuff that worked last season, plus a few additions to the playbook.

"You always show a few new things … give the defense a few new wrinkles," Sanders said, "but you're going to do what you do well, what your guys know and what they can make adjustments off of."

Tennessee's quest for offensive balance was achieved in 2004. The Vols averaged 186 rushing yards per game and 213.5 passing yards per game, falling half a yard shy of a 400-yard average in total offense. Tennessee scored 29.1 points per game and converted 43 percent of its third-down opportunities.

Naturally, Sanders hopes to surpass those numbers in 2005, but he has no specific statistical goals in mind.

"Our biggest goal is to do whatever we have to do to win," he said. "Probably the biggest goal we have is to try to not have any turnovers each game, try to eliminate the penalties. Those are things you can control each play.

"If you don't have penalties, you're not putting yourself in bad down-and-distances. You keep the game manageable that way. And if you're not turning it over, you're not wasting your opportunities to score. We feel that if we don't have penalties and don't turn it over that we'll score enough points to win."

Tennessee's so-called "package" was limited last year by the fact the Vols went with two freshman quarterbacks (Brent Schaeffer and Ainge) who barely knew half the plays. Now that Ainge has a year's experience, Tennessee will have access to the whole package this year. That's a huge plus, especially given the quality of Ainge's supporting cast.

"We had the whole offense at our disposal in 2003," Sanders noted, "but I think we have a few better players doing some things than we had in 2003."


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