Opener key for UT season

Last season, Tennessee's season-opening game against California was ultra important.

The Vols were coming off the first losing season in the Phillip Fulmer Era. Three coaches had left the staff in the biggest purge under Fulmer. Fans were left doubting the direction of the program.

Tennessee responded with a brilliant performance, leading the ninth-ranked Bears 35-0 in the second half before taking the gas off the pedal in a 17-point win.

The victory set the tone for a turnaround season. Tennessee went from five wins to nine. With a couple of breaks, the Vols could have upset Florida and LSU and won 11.

No doubt, a win over California was big for last season.

Question: Is the California game as important this season?

Answer: Probably.

Going from 5-6 to 9-4 was nice. But now it's time for Tennessee to win a championship. It's time for Tennessee to get back into the SEC title game. It's time for Tennessee to reclaim its spot as a top-10 program.

It's possible that Tennessee could lose to California and still have a great season. It's possible to start 0-1 and beat everyone else on the schedule.

But if Tennessee isn't good enough to beat California, is Tennessee good enough to win at Florida or to beat Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas at home?

Based on previous history, the Vols must defeat Cal to have an exceptional season.

Fulmer has lost only one season opener: 1994 at UCLA. The Vols stumbled out of the gate 1-3 before rallying for an 8-4 finish and a bowl victory.

Not once in UT history have the Vols lost the opener and won 10 games.

Only twice in school history has UT lost the opener and won nine games: 1967 (to UCLA) and 1983 (to Pitt). The 1967 team went 9-2 and won a computer-based national championship. The 1983 team rebounded to go 9-3.

Three times, UT has lost the opener and won eight games: 1957, 1981 and 1994.

Dating back to 1955, Tennessee has lost 17 openers. Twelve times, the Vols won six or fewer games.

History suggests if UT loses to Cal, the Vols won't have a good season.

By the same token, UT could start 1-2 and run the table.

But if I were Fulmer, I wouldn't want to roll those dice.

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