Last year, Tennessee used two true freshmen quarterbacks to score 30 points on Florida. Last week, a veteran offense got seven points and 213 yards.
Now, Tennessee faces a third-ranked LSU team eager for a home opener in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The atmosphere promises to be electric.
Can UT's offense match the electricity? It better.
The key is quarterback Erik Ainge, anointed the starter despite completing just 44 percent of his passes. He's been shaky, inconsistent, uncomfortable. If he doesn't shake those traits, the Vols have no chance to beat LSU.
Randy Sanders, UT's offensive coordinator, said the Vols have handed the keys to the talented sophomore.
``Erik will play until he gets hurt,'' Sanders said. ``I'm sure if he goes out and is laying an egg and playing badly, we'll make may a change.''
Sanders hopes Ainge will respond to being ``the guy'' and not look over his shoulder to see if Rick Clausen is warming up.
``The big thing with him is not to feel pressure to prove this was the right decision,'' Sanders said. ``He's got to go out and play within himself. His job is to run the team, manage the team, do a great job taking care of the football and make the plays he's supposed to make.
Ainge was good enough last year to help Tennessee beat top-10 Georgia on the road and talented Florida in Knoxville. He was good enough to set a UT record for passing yards by a freshman. Can he regain that form in a hostile environment on what could be a rain-soaked night?
Ainge showed signs of that during one drive at Florida, when he completed six of seven passes for 64 yards on an 83-yard touchdown march.
``Erik made the comment to me it was the first time (this season) he'd felt into the game and felt the flow of the game and like a quarterback again,'' Sanders said.
Considering LSU has one of the best run defenses in the SEC and two of the top defensive tackles, attacking the Tigers' secondary is a must for Tennessee. That means Ainge and Pat Washington's receiving corps must be on the same page.
LSU's secondary surrendered 461 passing yards in the opener at Arizona State. Unless the weather is unbearable, the Vols must go after LSU cornerbacks Ronnie Prude, Mario Stevenson and Chevis Jackson – even if it means throwing 40 passes. UT's patch work offensive line won't be able to sustain drives against LSU with the run game.
Sanders said LSU's defensive scheme under former coach Nick Saban and current defensive coordinator Bo Pelini is very different.
``When Nick Saban was there, they were going to line up and say, `You're not going to run it. The quarterback will beat us and receivers will beat us, and if they do, great. If not, then you're going to have a long, hard night,''' Sanders said.
That scheme led to a Vol true freshman walk-on, Kelley Washington, setting a school record with 256 receiving yards in the 2001 game in Knoxville.
LSU's scheme now calls for more zones and more zone blitzes.
Here's a unit-by-unit breakdown:
QB: JaMarcus Russell was 16 of 29 for 232 yards with six drops against Arizona State. He rolled left to throw a game-winning 39-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-9. He's bigger (6-6, 252) and stronger than UAB's Darrell Hackney but he's not as accurate.
Ainge has completed 44 percent of his passes with a quarterback rating of 90. He was 6 of 7 on the touchdown drive against Florida but 8 of 22 the rest of the game. He's got to play well for UT to have a chance. Edge: LSU
RB: Gerald Riggs might be the best back in the game but LSU has more depth. Joseph Addai is one of the SEC's most complete backs. Justin Vincent rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2003 and was MVP of the SEC Championship game and the national title game. Shyrone Carey had 56 yards on 11 carries against Arizona State. LSU will miss having power back Alley Broussard (torn ACL). Edge: LSU
OL: UT's best linemen are guards Rob Smith and Arron Sears, which should help match up against LSU's Kyle Williams and Claude Wroten. However, Eric Young is getting his first start at left tackle, Anthony Parker has played three snaps this season and Albert Toeaina has been average at right tackle. LSU has three top-notch linemen in left tackle Andrew Whitworth, a potential first-round draft pick, center Rudy Niswanger and guard Nate Livings. Edge: LSU.
WR: Both units are talented but have underachieved. The Vols have potential but haven't proven it. Edge: LSU.
DL: The Vols and Tigers have the best tackle tandems in the SEC. Tennessee has more depth at defensive end. Edge: UT
LB: Kevin Simon played well against Florida after an OK game against UAB. Omar Gaither and Jason Mitchell are strong on the outside. LSU's trio is just a cut above average. A converted running back, Jason Spadoni, starts at the will spot. Edge: UT
Secondary: The Vols had a strong performance at Florida. LSU is coming off a horrible outing at Arizona State. Free safety LeRon Landry is LSU's best defensive back. Edge: UT
Special teams: Tennessee was horrific against Florida. LSU blocked a field goal and a punt for fourth-quarter touchdowns against Arizona State. Skyler Green led the nation in punt returns in 2003 (18.5 average). Edge: LSU
Intangibles: LSU is playing its home opener and will dedicate the game to evacuees from two hurricanes. Edge: LSU
Tally: LSU 6-3
Prediction: LSU 24, Tennessee 17