By: Randy Moore
Football is a game of match-ups. If you get a wide receiver who runs a 4.4 forty matched up against a linebacker who runs a 4.7, there's a pretty good opportunity for success. And match-ups is why I think California presents a very difficult opening test for Tennessee Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
The Golden Bears tend to be strongest in the areas where they are most capable of exploiting Vol weaknesses. For instance:
- Cal features two topnotch running backs in Marshawn Lynch (1,246 yards last fall) and Justin Forsett (999). They'll put tons of pressure on a Vol linebacking corps that features three guys (Marvin Mitchell, Ryan Karl, Jerod Mayo) with a combined total of three career starts. If these young ‘backers blow a few assignments, overrun a few plays and miss a few tackles — all logical assumptions — Lynch and Forsett will have big days.
- The strength of Cal's defense is its line. Tackle Brandon Mebane is a first-team All-American, and his supporting cast is pretty strong, as well. Conversely, Tennessee's offensive line is shaky once you get past senior tackle Arron Sears. The center, former walk-on Michael Frogg, has played in just four college games with zero starts. Guard David Ligon (4 career starts), guard Anthony Parker (1 career start) and tackle Eric Young (2 career starts) aren't exactly grizzled veterans, either.
Of course, Cal has weak spots, too. Unfortunately for Tennessee, they are in areas the Vols may have trouble exploiting. Consider:
- Cal has three new starters in its secondary, so the Golden Bears' pass defense is suspect. However, Tennessee's pass offense is equally suspect. Erik Ainge completed just 45.5 percent of his passes last fall, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. Plan B is redshirt freshman Jonathan Crompton, who has never taken a snap in a college game and hasn't taken a snap in any game since the 2005 Army All-American Bowl some 20 months ago.
- Cal is incorporating the spread option into its offensive repertoire this fall, and that surely will require some adjustment time. With six new starters in its front seven, however, Tennessee may be unable to capitalize on the Golden Bears' growing pains.
You'd assume Tennessee would have the edge in a close game, since James Wilhoit was 14 of 19 on field-goal attempts last fall. Wilhoit made just four of 10 tries in UT's final preseason scrimmage, however, missing more kicks in that one scrimmage (6) than he did all of last season (5). That's a concern.
The Golden Bears should bring a better mindset into this game. They are a preseason top-10 team on the verge of establishing themselves as a national power, so Saturday's game is a huge stepping stone. The Vols, conversely, are sure to be a bit shaky as they try to shake the hangover left by last year's 5-6 disaster.
Bottom line: Tennessee will be a better team in 2006 than it was in 2005, but it still won't be better than California.
The Case for Tennessee
By: Jeffery Stewart
Everything my esteemed colleague has told you above is absolutely true. It's not overstated or slanted beyond the bounds of grim reality. It is not sugarcoated to leave a bittersweet taste in mouths of the masses. It does not portray a pretty picture, but it is tastefully appointed.
Tennessee hasn't opened a season against an opponent this tough since 1990 when they squared off with eventual national champion Colorado in Anaheim, Calif., at the Pigskin Classic. That game ended in a 31-31 tie, and reflects the Vols strength as much as their start that year.
There were many more exclamation marks on the 1990 Tennessee team than question marks. It went on to win UT's second straight SEC Championship and beat Virginia in the Sugar Bowl. Had it not lost the sensational services of star tailback Chuck Webb in the second game of the season, against Pacific no less, UT would have probably won the national championship, as its only defeats were a 9-6 loss to Alabama and a 34-27 setback against No. 1 ranked Notre Dame.
The 1989-90 Tennessee football teams compiled a 20-3-2 record as the 1989 team rolled to an 11-1 mark and a Cotton Bowl victory. What made this run so impressive was the fact the Vols suffered a 5-6 mark in 1988 which was their last losing season before 2005, a span that covers 17 years.
This is intended to point out that while the random losing record does pop up every couple of decades on The Hill, it tends to be an aberration — not a trend. Tennessee has the resources to recover without rebuilding, and the disappointment wrought by a losing campaign serves as impetus for a comeback.
In fact, expectations were low in 1989 until an unranked UT went to UCLA in week two and knocked off the No. 6 ranked Bruins in the Rose Bowl, 24-6. Before the game UCLA players referred to the Tennessee contest as a tune-up for Michigan. After the game one Vol would serendipitously remark: "I guess they're tuned up now."
Here are some other examples of great rebounds in recent years.
• 1995 — After struggling to an 8-4 mark in 1994 the Vols roared back with an 11-1 mark, a victory over No. 4 Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl and No. 2 finish nationally.
• 2001— After finishing 8-4 with an 0-3 start in SEC play in 2000, the Vols promptly posted an 11-2 record the next year, including the first victory in Gainesville in 30 years and a 45-17 bowl victory over Michigan, in the only meeting ever between the perennial powers.
• 2003 — After limping to an 8-5 record in the injury plagued 2002 season, the Vols responded with a 10-2 regular season mark, scoring another victory over Florida in the Swamp, a six-overtime win at Alabama and a 10-6 shocker over the Canes in Miami.
Those happen to be the three worst seasons in Phillip Fulmer's tenure before the disastrous 2005 campaign. In the ensuing seasons of 1995, 2001 and 2003 the Vols post 11, 11 and 10 victories.
This underscores it is truly great to be a Tennessee Vol, unless the team is losing. That leads to a long offseason of discontent in which the Vols get plenty of motivation just from hearing a constant stream of complaints about the year before.
UT players, coaches and fans come back hungry and determined to see the whole thing come down a different way. Ultimately, football is an emotional game and the team with more incentive can overcome deficits in experience, strategy and matchups.
Similar dynamics in Big Orange Country preceded the 1998 national title campaign, as the Vols lost a ton of talent to the NFL — led by No. 1 draft choice Peyton Manning — following a 42-17 defeat to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Expectations weren't high as fans bemoaned prime-time players lost, but the talent was still on hand to put together a school best 13-0 record. So was the determination and that can be a powerful combination, especially playing in the high-intensity of a capacity crowd.
That's a point that a very good California team may well get pounded into it on Saturday afternoon.