Cal is a much stronger team than the Texas Tech squad Manning drubbed 52-17 in '97. The Golden Bears are considerably stronger than the Wyoming squad Martin trounced 42-17 in '99 and they are somewhat stronger than the Fresno State team Clausen dispatched 24-6 in '03. Moreover, Ainge has the added hurdle of winning his senior-season opener ON THE ROAD. Manning, Martin and Clausen opened their final seasons in the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium.
Still, Fulmer believes having a senior behind center in Game 1 is a real plus.
"It's a huge asset for us," the head man said this week. "If you picked one position any year that you hope to have experience, it's quarterback. We've cycled up into having a senior quarterback who's coming off a great year as a junior."
Ainge has experienced the dramatic ups and downs that go with being a major college quarterback. He was an instant hero as a freshman in 2004, then suffered through the mother of all Sophomore Jinxes in 2005. He bounced back to set a school record by completing 67 percent of his passes in 2006.
"He's seen it all," Fulmer said, "and we're excited that Erik's here."
Ainge is no stranger to hostile arenas. He guided the Vols to road wins at Georgia in 2004 and 2006, at South Carolina in 2004 and 2006, at Ole Miss in 2004, at Kentucky in 2005, at Memphis and at Vanderbilt in 2006. His supporting cast may be suspect but he should be rock-solid Saturday night at Berkeley.
"Erik has become a complete quarterback," Fulmer said. "He understands protections, understands defenses. He can get you out of bad plays and into good plays. On the field and off he has become an exceptional leader. He's played in a lot of big games and handled himself really well the last couple of years."
Ainge is looking forward to Saturday night's game. So are his teammates. After a month spent working against one another, the Vols are eager to face someone in different-color uniforms.
"We're very excited to play," Fulmer said. "I'm anxious to see our team on the field against somebody else. I know they're ready to see someone else after a demanding camp."
Despite routinely battling 100-degree temperatures, the Vols have managed to maintain a pretty high energy level during preseason workouts. The veterans are providing good leadership and the freshmen are providing incredible enthusiasm.
"The attitude of our team is very good," Fulmer said. "We're continuing to develop chemistry as we go along. We have outstanding leadership from our upperclassmen and a nice infusion of youth.
"I told the team that we've invested well in this season – the offseason, the summer and the preseason camp. Now it's time to put it together and see where we are."