``A lot of our weapons in 2001 got hurt the first of the year,'' Sanders said, referring, mainly, to receiver Donte Stallworth (broken wrist).
This season, the Vols go five deep at receiver, two deep at quarterback, one deep at running back. That's why Gerald Riggs is so important to this team.
Riggs must stay healthy. He must rush for more than 1,200 yards. He must carry over 250 times. He must be a workhorse.
Anything short of that could be problematic for the Vols' offense. Riggs' backup is a walk-on. The No. 3 guy fumbles too much. Behind them are two true freshman and a banged up redshirt freshman.
``Riggs is critical for us because he's the one guy right now who can do everything we need a back to do,'' said Sanders as he prepared for Saturday's season opener against UAB. ``If something happens to Gerald, we'll have to battle not being predictable based on which tailback is in the game.''
Last season, Tennessee rushed for more than 155 yards per game for the first time since 1999. The Vols averaged 186 as two backs surpassed 1,000 yards. The return of the run game was vital considering UT opened the season with two true freshmen quarterbacks.
``Running for 155 yards per game would be a good year, not a great year,'' Sanders said, ``but I'd sure take it.''
The Vols are going against a defense that surrendered over 400 yards per game last season, 270 passing. Tulane and Hawaii each scored 59 points on the Blazers. Given UAB's porous secondary, Sanders was asked if he'll be tempted to strike through air.
``Yes,'' he said. ``You coach quarterbacks, you played quarterback, there is always the temptation to throw it 50 times.''
Sanders said UAB's stats are skewed because of the numbers run up by Tulane and Hawaii. Each had over 400 passing yards. But four other teams - Memphis, Cincinnati, TCU and Army - had at least 300 passing yards.
The Blazers run a multiple defense. They have veterans along the defensive line and secondary. Defensive Larry McSwain had 13 sacks last year. Defensive tackle Sam Williamson is ``really good,'' Sanders said. UAB will blitz safeties, corners and linebackers.
Yet, Tennessee's gifted and experienced offensive line should be able to handle whatever UAB dishes out.
While UT's offense should score more than 35 points, the Vols' secondary - last in the SEC in pass defense in 2004 - will be tested by 240-pound quarterback Darrell Hackney. Hackney passed for more than 3,000 yards last year and has 6,706 in his career.
UT's revamped look of Jason Allen at corner with Roshaun Fellows and converted corners Antwan Stewart and Jonathan Hefney at safety must respond to a quarterback who can stretch the field and find secondary receivers.
UT's secondary could be masked by a fierce pass rush, led by Parys Haralson. The Vols' front four is capable of dominating UAB's line and the Vols' linebackers rank with the nation's best. Hackney said he lost 25 pounds so he could be more nimble and avoid sacks. He'll have to be Bambi-like to avoid UT's rushers.
``It's just another game to us,'' said Hackney. ``We play SEC teams, we play ACC teams, we play Big 12 teams. If you just play and not think of Tennessee as a top team in the nation, you can come out successful.''
Said McSwain: ``The underdog can win. Football is unpredictable. You never know what's going to happen until you line up 11 on 11 and see who's the best team. We're not coming to take no back seats on no rides. We want to win.''
Hackney hopes UAB carries the momentum from making a bowl into this game.
``We know what we have to do to win,'' Hackney said. ``The less mistakes we make, the harder we put it on Tennessee. We're ready to play. We've got a swagger about ourselves and we're not going to settle for less.''
Tennessee ranked last in the SEC in pass defense last season.
``We'll see what Tennessee can do with our passing game,'' said a confident Hackney. ``They're last in the SEC but that's playing SEC teams. I'd like to see how much respect they give myself. Will they bring people up in the box? Will they bring the secondary up? If they do, we'll take advantage someway, somehow. If they drop back into a zone, we'll try to exploit it. It's a chess game, a checkers game. You make this move, I make that move.''
Does UAB have enough moves to hang with the Vols?
Hackney thinks so.
``Nobody wants to go on the road and get dominated,'' Hackney said. ``We have a lot riding on our shoulders. We've got a lot of people we don't want to upset in Birmingham.''
Tennessee is a 24-point favorite.
``We'll use that as motivation,'' McSwain said.
Hackney said he was rendered ``speechless'' by the point spread. ``They're basically saying Conference USA can't play with the SEC. It's just a bunch of bookies picking a score. We're going to go out and play our game and hopefully come out on top. Anybody can win on any given Saturday and you'll see Sept. 3.''
Prediction: Tennessee 37, UAB 17.