Tough opener help UT?

Many college football teams open the season with a lame opponent, so they can work out some of the kinks before facing a quality foe. Other teams elect to tackle a quality foe in Week 1.

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer believes Option 2 is beneficial. He'll soon find out, since his No. 15 Vols open their 2007 schedule Saturday night at California, tabbed No.12 in the Associated Press' preseason rankings.

This will be the fifth time in 15 years that a Fulmer team has opened against a nationally ranked opponent but only the second time a Fulmer team has opened against a higher-ranked foe.

Here's a recap of the previous four openers against ranked opponents:

1994: No. 13 Tennessee lost on the road at No. 14 UCLA 25-23

1998: No. 10 Tennessee won on the road at No. 17 Syracuse 34-33

2000: No. 13 Tennessee won at home against No. 22 Southern Miss 19-16

2006: No. 23 Tennessee won at home against No. 9 Cal 35-18

"We've typically, more times than not, opened with tough teams," Fulmer said. "I think it makes the summer better, makes camp better because guys know they're not going to (have time to) play themselves into shape."

Tennessee's coaches believe the players work more diligently and focus more intensely when the Game 1 foe is a team capable of beating them.

"We've taken the approach that it helps us," Fulmer said. "And I think over the years it has helped us more times than not."

Then again, maybe not. Consider:

- Tennessee lost its opener and its No. 1 quarterback against No. 14 UCLA in 1994, then had to rally from a 1-3 start to finish 8-4.

- Tennessee needed a last-second field goal to nip No. 17 Syracuse in 1998, but went on to finish with a 13-0 record and the national title.

- Tennessee squeaked past No. 23 Southern Miss in 2000, turned to a freshman QB at midseason and rallied from a 2-3 start to finish 8-4.

- Tennessee hammered No. 9 Cal in 2006 en route to a 7-1 start, then faded down the stretch and finished 9-4.

Bottom line: The Vols have faced a ranked opponent four times in Week 1. One season produced a national title and the other three produced four-loss records.

Cal, which appears to be an offensive juggernaut, is a six-point favorite heading into the 2007 opener. Even so, Fulmer is more concerned with the Vols than with the Golden Bears.

"We want to take care of Tennessee, be what we're supposed to be," he said. "We're still working at that. Last year was good bounce-back year for us but we worked all spring and summer at being a better team, regardless of who we're playing."


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