|OFFENSIVE GRADES: Tennessee Vols vs California Bears|
Kudos to Coaches Cutcliffe, Taylor, Atkins and Roper for preparing the Vols physically, mentally and emotionally to go against an athletic Cal defense with a trio of potential All-American players. Timing is difficult to attain, especially in opening games, but Tennessee appeared to be in midseason form.
Here's the top to bottom offensive ratings for the Tennessee-California game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are winning marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but problematical and won't be good enough to defeat a quality opponent. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. Special teams are included among defensive ratings but they aren't factored into the defense's total score.
|EXPLAINATION OF THE GRADING SYSTEM|
Offensive ratings - Tennessee vs California.
There were more questions about the O-line than any other unit on UT's team coming into Saturday's opener. With four new starters and virtually no proven depth, concerns mounted about the Vols ability to generate yards and produce points consistency. Instead UT's front five played as a finely tuned group, getting off the ball together and staying with blocks until the whistle sounded. Tennessee running backs averaged 5.3 yards per carry against the Golden Bears, and the O-line built an impenetrable wall of protection around junior QB Erik Ainge, who was only hurried on one throw and never sacked.
No position players improved in terms of performance more than UT's wide receivers. Robert Meachem finally lived up to the promise that had been predicted for him since the day he signed with UT in 2003. Meachem had five catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns, as he turned a pair of five-yard passes into scores of 80 and 42 yards. Senior teammate Jayson Swain got wide open for a 50-yard score and tight end Chris Brown fought his way into the end zone with second effort on a 12-yard pass to give UT a lead in the first quarter than it would never surrender. Moreover, UT's receivers got down field to throw some great blocks that helped produced long scores. Trooper Taylor took a group of players that had woefully underperformed for two seasons and turned them into a stellar unit. Bret Smith and Meachem also picked up positive yardage on reverses.
Easily Erik Ainge's best college game ever and the statistics — 11-of-17 for 291 yards and four TDs — demonstrate it better than any words that could be added here. Ainge did throw an interception but, unlike last season, recovered quickly and directed the Vols to a 35-0 lead before UT's coaching staff called off the dogs. No, he didn't have any pressure on him in terms of a pass rush, or playing from behind, however, there was a great deal of pressure coming off last season's disaster and he didn't show any signs of buckling under it. A larger sampling under more adverse conditions are required to pronounce Ainge born again. Former high school All-American Jonathan Crompton saw his first game service and displayed good toughness running over a Cal tackler for a first down. Because UT enjoyed a big lead, he wasn't called upon to pass much (2 of 3, 7 yards).
Another championship grade for a largely untested unit that featured a sophomore and a pair of redshirt freshmen. Arian Foster took up where he left off last season, gaining 69 yards on 17 carries with a long run of 20 yards before giving way to Montario Hardesty and LeMarcus Coker. Second and third effort freed Hardesty for 43-yard TD gallop, while Coker was steady while picking up 53 yards in 11 carries, including a 22-yard run. David Yancey's fumble knocks this grade down, but the overall results indicate the ground attack is in good hands.
There's room for improvement, but not a lot, particularly by first game standards. It would have been good if the Vols had been able to score again in the final 23:30 of play, but considering how far they've come in a year that would be quibbling. Cutcliffe had an outstanding game plan that exploited California's man coverage and inexperience in the secondary. The usual assortment of wasted time outs, delay of game and motion penalties were ironed out in the opener and the offense was able to achieve a rhythm that has been lacking in recent years. There will be bigger tests down the road... still this first step on that arduous journey was impressive.