Key matchup

Tennessee's offensive line has not permitted a sack in helping the team to a 2-0 start this season. If that streak remains intact another week, the Vols should be 3-0 by Sunday morning. That's asking a lot, however.

The California defensive line Tennessee faced in Game 1 featured one standout (Brandon Mebane) and three solid players. The Air Force front the Vols faced in Game 2 featured a few extra bodies crowding the line of scrimmage. The Florida line Tennessee will face Saturday night at Neyland Stadium features more talent, quickness and depth than any the Vols will see all season.

"They have an outstanding front – three seniors and a junior," Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer notes. "All have played a lot of football. All are physically very gifted. They play a lot of guys in the defensive front. And they have two veteran linebackers that seem like they've been there forever. They create a lot of problems for you from a scheme standpoint."

Tennessee's offensive line exceeded expectations in Games 1 and 2 but clearly faces a different level of challenge this weekend.

"Cal has a tough defensive front but I don't think they have nearly the quickness Florida has," Fulmer says. "Air Force tried to stop the run with numbers. This (Florida) will be the best defensive team we've played."

Coach speak? Hardly. Three members of Florida's front four – Marcus Thomas, Ray McDonald and Jarvis Moss – are on the watch list for the Lombardi Award, given annually to the NCAA's premier defensive lineman. Thomas also is on the watch list for the Outland Trophy, awarded to the NCAA's finest interior lineman on either side of the ball. Moss and McDonald are on the watch list for the Ted Henrdicks Award, honoring the NCAA's premier defensive end.

Clearly, Florida's front four can bring the heat. It will be up to Tennessee's youthful offensive line to deflect that heat away from quarterback Erik Ainge this Saturday night.

"We know we're going to be under pressure," offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe concedes. "How we handle that and how we perform at every spot (is crucial). You've got to protect the quarterback and find ways to run the football. None of that is easy.

"And when you get a chance to make your plays, you've got to make ‘em. That's the key to having a chance to be successful. It doesn't guarantee you'll be successful but it gives you a chance to be successful."

Florida's secondary is green and potentially vulnerable. To exploit it, however, Tennessee's offensive line must give Ainge sufficient time to make his reads and then make his throws. That won't be easy to accomplish against a pass rush as relentless as Florida's.

"It helps any coverage to have the pass rush they've got," Cutcliffe notes. "They've got an outstanding pass rush."

Tennessee features one star-quality offensive lineman in left tackle Arron Sears, who already had 24 career starts entering this season. Conversely, his line mates had seven starts among them. Center Michael Frogg had zero starts, right guard Anthony Parker had one, right tackle Eric Young had two and left guard David Ligon had four.

Despite the relative inexperience of the 2006 line, it has performed better to date than the Vols' 2005 line.

"I think we've been more consistent," Fulmer says. "Athletically, we're a little better in terms of movement."

It's a safe bet that Florida's front four will keep Tennessee's offensive line moving on Saturday night.

"Our young offensive line has played reasonably well to this point," Fulmer says, "but this will be a tremendous challenge for us."


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