Opener vs. Cal could loom large

Last summer, many people felt Tennessee's game against top-10 California would be the most important season opener of Phillip Fulmer's career. The Vols were coming off their only losing season under Fulmer and a poor start would further erode confidence in the Vols' head coach.

Tennessee responded with a terrific performance, jumping to a 35-point lead in the third quarter before settling for a one-sided 17-point victory.

While the win helped the Vols rebound from a horrible year, a promising season ended in disappointment as the Vols failed to protect 10-point second-half leads against Florida and LSU, failed to win the East Division and failed to win 10 games as Penn State upset Tennessee in the Outback Bowl.

Is the opener at California just as important as it was in 2006?

No. But it is significant. It could answer several questions about this year's team. Will the Vols mount a passing attack with a group of young receivers? Will the Vols be a better running team? Will the Vols be able to stop the run? Will they be able to stop a prolific passing attack?

Many of those questions will be answered Sept. 1.

But you can't make judgment on just one game.

For example, Tennessee appeared to be a much-improved rushing team after ripping through Cal or 216 yards last season. It was the Vols' best running game of the season. They were held to fewer than 100 yards six times and averaged just 108 yards per game on the ground – the worst since 1964.

But if Tennessee can't run against Cal, can you expect them to have success on the ground against Florida, Georgia, Alabama or South Carolina?

Tennessee figures to have a better rushing attack, but you can't expect the passing game to be as prolific or the pass defense, after losing three starters.

Cal's offense will be a stern test for Tennessee. The Bears lost Marshawn Lynch, a first-round draft choice, but they return Justin Forsett, who rushed for 999 yards and averaged 7.6 yards per carry in 2005, and James Montgomery was a pleasant surprise during spring drills.

Tennessee's run defense should be better than a year ago, with Xavier Mitchell, Antonio Reynolds and J.T. Mapu anchoring the front four. But don't expect UT to hold Cal to 64 yards on 23 carries.

The Bears might have the best passing attack of any team Tennessee faces this season. Sophomore quarterback Nate Longshore, intimidated by the Neyland Stadium crowd a year ago, blossomed last season and should be mature enough to handle the bright lights of an ABC prime time game.

``He had never played in an environment like Neyland Stadium before and he was absolutely shell-shocked, like a lot of Cal players,'' said Rusty Simmons, who covers Cal for the San Francisco Chronicle. ``But now, it's almost like having a coach on the field with him out there.''

Longshore has terrific receivers. DeSean Jackson is listed as a top five candidate for the Heisman Trophy. He's also a top punt returner. Lavelle Hawkins, a transfer from LSU, and Robert Jordan each run 40 yards in about 4.4 seconds.

``It's an unbelievable group,'' Simmons said. ``It's a pleasure to watch those guys run around. They're really improving on their route running and their hands are getting better and better. I think this group is an amazing, amazing unit.''

If so, the Vols better be ready for the challenge. UT shut down Cal last season with the help of Inky Johnson, Jonathan Wade, Demetrice Morley and Antwan Stewart. Each is gone.

The projected starters: Marsalous Johnson, Antonio Gaines, Jarod Parrish and preseason All-American Jonathan Hefney.

While Cal's offense should once again be explosive, the defense took a hit. Gone are such star players as tackle Brandon Mebane, linebacker Desmond Bishop and cornerback Daymeion Hughes, as well as both starting ends.

The defensive line will be a deep unit but Cal will be breaking in a new cornerback, just as it did a year ago when the Vols passed the Bears silly.

Considering the relative strengths of the teams, the UT-Cal opener could be a high-scoring affair. Cal coach Jeff Tedford's teams usually average 30 points per game. If UT's passing attack proves productive, the Vols could light it up.

You would think Cal would have revenge on its mind. That might not be the case.

``Football isn't No. 1 on very many people's minds,'' Simmons said. ``And the players got so up for last year's game. They were listening to Rocky Top for a month heading into the game.

``The players are trying to take a different view of this: We need to get ready for a good team, but let's not put too much into this. Let's not get so excited and amped up about it. Let's go out and play football.''

A Cal win would help bring more notoriety to an emerging program.

A Tennessee win could set the stage for an outstanding season.

Of course, that wasn't the cast last year. Cal went on to have a fine season, routing Texas A&M in a bowl game. UT went 9-4, falling out of the top 20.

While the Cal game might not set the tone of the season for Tennessee, a win would get the Vols confidence in an effort to win the East Division.

And you've got to figure, if you can't beat Cal, you'll have trouble beating the likes of Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas.


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