Questions abound

If you've ever been set up with a blind date, you know that gut-wrenching sense of excitement/anxiety you get as you prepare to meet. Is she tall? Short? Thin? Chunky? Pretty? Plain? Bubbly? Boring? Bright? Dumb?

Not knowing is stressful, which is why Tennessee's football staffers must be going nuts as Saturday's season opener with California approaches. The 2006 Vols are dealing with more unknowns than any season in recent memory:

- Will Erik Ainge bounce back from his poor 2005 showing?

- Will the new-look offensive line jell into a solid unit?

- Will the receivers finally live up to their press clippings?

- Will Arian Foster stay healthy?

- Will the young defensive ends be OK?

- Will the painfully inexperienced linebackers grow up quickly?

- Will the secondary play as well as everyone expects?

- Will James Wilhoit make field goals in the clutch?

- Will the Vols break the losing habit they developed last fall?

- Will new offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe make THAT much difference?

- Will Tennessee reclaim its home-field advantage?

- Will the Vols see a lot of spread option from Cal or just a little?

- Will Tennessee's players crumble if the breaks go against them early?

Phillip Fulmer doesn't have all the answers. But he knows what the questions are.

"The questions you always have in openers," he said. "Have we prepared for everything? How will the young guys respond and react? Are we ready to take on those challenges? We'll get to see and find out.

"Not knowing is the toughest thing – not knowing some things about your team because of youth and inexperience at different spots … not knowing exactly what they (Golden Bears) are going to do on offense and defense."

One question Fulmer doesn't have is whether or not his players will be motivated. If you can't get up for the opener when you're coming off the program's first losing season in 17 years, something's wrong.

"I'm sure the energy and emotion will be there," the head man said. "We just need to minimize our mistakes."

The mysteries surrounding any season opener are plentiful. The mysteries surrounding this one go way beyond the normal, however. Even an old hand like Cutcliffe is affected.

"I'm anxious," he said. "I've watched them every day in practice and in scrimmages, so I'm anxious to see how they respond under the lights. We've worked really hard - trying to prepare the mental aspect, as well as the physical aspect - so I'd say they're really eager to play."

With the Vols coming off a 5-6 disaster in 2005, Tennessee obviously needs a good start Saturday to put last year's ugliness in the rear-view mirror once and for all. Cutcliffe is all for that.

"I'm like everybody else: I'd love to get off to a fast start and play well," he said. "But the test is how mentally tough we're going to be against a really good California defense."

The 2005 Vols ran well in some games and passed well in others but never really established an offensive identity. Asked what the '06 offensive identity will be, Cutcliffe conceded that this is another unknown.

"I know what we'd LIKE to be," he said. "We want to be a really physical football team. We've been physical at times. Somebody's going to take that role in our league, and we'd like to do that."

The word "physical" conjures up images of a smash-mouth, run-it-down-their-throats attack. Cutcliffe says that isn't the case at all.

"People think that means three yards and a cloud of dust; that's not what we're saying," he said. "You can be physical all the time at everything you're doing. That opens up great opportunities to make big plays when you become a physical team."

The biggest mystery of all: Is Tennessee ready to face a top-10 opponent the caliber of California?

"I think it's a great way to guage yourself," Cutcliffe said. "I think it made our summer work more intense. They (Vols) have seen the same tape I've seen. They know there's a top-10 team coming in here and that they deserve to be a top-10 team. I think it's a good way to get things cranked up."

One final mystery remains: Can the Vols keep their poise and confidence if things aren't going well?

"I think our confidence is better but it's not been tested to the max," Cutcliffe said. "When you're playing an opponent like Cal, rarely does anything go perfectly. You'd better take advantage when you get opportunities but the test is how we respond to tough circumstances and tough situations.

"We've tried to prepare them for that, and I'm anxious to see how they respond. I'm not sure all the preparation in the world can get you ready for those situations. We've got to be mentally tough, physically tough."

So, are the Vols mentally and physically tough?

Cutcliffe's response: "We'll find out on Saturday."


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