Expect the Unexpected in Season Openers

Season openers are most often aberrations when it comes to evaluating the relative strength of teams and, consequently, pose more risks for a high-ranked team like Tennessee than they provide rewards.

When you intend on contending for a national title, every game carries equal importance i.e. an upset loss early in the season can cancel out a big win later in the campaign. If your goal is to go to the Fiesta Bowl and compete in a winner-take-all contest for the national crown, any blemish on the record can disqualify a team no matter how well it is playing at the end of the regular season.

Often it seems like anything that can go wrong will go wrong for favorites in season openers. Maybe it's the adjustment to the first live action in eight months. Maybe it's the break-in period required for new players to become acclimated to the speed of the game. Or it could be the lack of timing between a quarterback and his receivers. Or a lack of chemistry that often plagues teams with an abundance of talent. Or perhaps it's the air of optimism that permeates underdog programs whose renewal is reflected by a 0-0 record.

Whatever it is, it's undeniable that underdogs have the capacity to pull off upsets if not shockers in season openers. That's why the Vols can't afford to stumble out of the gate against Wyoming on Aug. 31 in Nashville. Sure the Cowboys were 2-9 last season and lost 42-17 the last time they met Tennessee in 1999, but they are also 20-11 against the spread in their last 31 games as a road underdog, which means they are a bettors darling and capable of competing against stronger opponents in hostile environments.

Maybe Wyoming's secret of road success is training at altitude, or playing in the pass happy Mountain West Conference. Whatever the reason, it is a concern when you consider that UT is is only 15-8-2 in season openers over the last 25 years. The good news is that Tennessee is 9-1 under head coach Phil Fulmer after going 6-7-2 under the direction of Johnny Majors.

There have been a couple of close calls in season debuts under Fulmer like a 34-33 last-second victory over Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in 1998, and a 19-16 win over Southern Miss at Neyland Stadium in 2000. And if you recall the lone loss, 25-23 vs. UCLA in 1994, you realize just how strange season openers can be.

In that contest played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Tennessee's starting quarterback Jerry Colquitt went down with a season-ending knee injury on the first series of the game. It had to be one of the most poignant of predicaments a UT player has ever had to face, as Colquitt was a fifth-year senior who had waited four years behind Andy Kelly and Heath Shuler for a chance to start.

The loss of Colquitt forced Tennessee to use true freshmen Peyton Manning and Brandon Stewart in the first half. Also seeing significant action was future Major League baseball star Todd Helton who probably threw the most impressive block ever by a Vol QB when he peeled back to lower the boom a Bruin linebacker in the fourth quarter. Tennessee's use of four quarterbacks in a loss was also a first and a last for the Vols. The early defeat and lack of experience at quarterback sent UT on a downward spiral and a 1-3 start for the season before the Vols recovered to finish 8-4.

Even if the Vols escape Adelphia Coliseum with a win, an injury to quarterback Casey Clausen could prove catastrophic. Also it's of interest to note that Tennessee also lost its starting quarterback to a knee injury in 1985 (Tony Robinson) and again in 1981 when true freshman Alan Cockrell went down in the home opener. Actuarial tables over the last 20 years would suggest that UT loses its starting QB to a knee injury once every seven years, and it's been eight years since Colquitt's injury.

Of course we're not programming for something to go wrong in the 2002 season opener and Fulmer's track record indicates an average debut will produce a 38-13 victory. However older Vol fans know too well how bad things can happen in season openers. For instance: between 1976 and 1983 Tennessee compiled a woeful 1-7 mark that included such spectrum stretching setbacks as 25-24 against Duke in 1982 and a 44-0 loss to Georgia in 1991.

Even given Tennessee's consistent inconsistency of that bygone era, the season openers were usually a surprise and sometimes shocking. That's another reason why Vol fans will find an unexciting season debut to be most satisfying in 2002.


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