By: Randy Moore
Saturday night's college football battle between Tennessee and Cal is a rematch between two quality heavyweights. In fact, it should resemble the rematch between George Foreman and Joe Frazier.
Foreman and Frazier fought twice in the 1970s. Foreman scored six knockdowns in the first meeting before the referee stopped the mismatch in Round 2. Smokin' Joe had all of the motivation for the rematch but Big George still had the heavier punch, stopping Frazier in Round 5.
That's how I see this weekend's Tennessee-California rematch unfolding, with the Vols playing the role of Foreman and the Golden Bears playing the role of Frazier.
Tennessee essentially posted a second-round knockout of Cal last September in Knoxville. The Vols registered five knockdowns (touchdowns) en route to a 35-0 lead, then began pulling their punches. The 35-18 final score was in no way indicative of the disparity between the two programs.
Still, the Golden Bears are eager for the rematch. They say the quest for redemption will motivate them in the second meeting. That's probably true but Tennessee still has the heavier punch.
Cal's determination to save face might be enough to reverse the outcome if the first meeting had been a split decision. But it wasn't. It was a frightful beat-down ... like the one Foreman gave Frazier.
Granted, the Vols aren't the same team they were last September. Robert Meachem, who had touchdown catches of 42 and 80 yards in the 2006 Cal game, is gone. So is Jayson Swain, who had a 50-yard TD grab last time. Obviously, Tennessee will miss them. Then again, Cal will miss tailback Marshawn Lynch, who was selected a few picks before Meachem in the first round of last April's NFL Draft.
It's true that Vol quarterback Erik Ainge has an injured pinky on his throwing hand that could affect his performance Saturday night. It's also true that Ainge has a top-quality backup in Jonathan Crompton.
Whoever plays quarterback for Tennessee will spend most of Saturday evening handing off the football instead of throwing it. The Vols shredded Cal's defense for a season-high 216 rushing yards last time, and UT's offensive line is much better now than it was 12 months ago. The ground game also benefits from the return of two veteran runners in Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty (who had a 43-yard TD burst vs. Cal last year) and the arrival of an eye-popping freshman in Lennon Creer.
Although Tennessee's defense was somewhat shaky in 2006, it still managed to dominate Cal. The Vols held the Golden Bears scoreless for three quarters. A Tennessee pass rush that recorded just 17 sacks all year posted four of them against Cal.
Bottom line: What the Vols did to the Golden Bears last year was a lot like what Foreman did to Frazier in meeting No. 1. So, unless the Golden Bears are 35 points better than last year – or the Vols are 35 points worse – the UT-Cal rematch should look a lot like the Foreman-Frazier rematch ... not quite as dominant as the original, but still convincing.
REVERSAL OF FORTUNE
By: Jeffery Stewart
Remember Robert Meachem the sophomore compared to Robert Meachem the junior? Same guy, different player. Meachem as a third year sophomore was a productive receiver with flashes of brilliance, but last year he was simply sensational.
Tennessee's receiver corps was also improved, as was quarterback Eric Ainge and the Tennessee offense. David Cutcliffe deserves a lot of the credit for that turnaround, as does Trooper Taylor and his work with the wideouts. But the biggest difference maker was Meachem. It's ironic to think Meachem in absentia may still be the biggest difference between last year's UT vs. Cal game and this year's.
Last season against the Golden Bears, Meachem had five catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns, as he turned a pair of five-yard passes into scores of 80 and 42 yards. Replacing those type of numbers on Saturday is a huge task. Sure you can distribute the ball more but it's not the same as having a go-to receiver you can count on in the clutch, or a playmaker that commands double coverage and can pop the quick pass into a quick six.
The depth of UT's pass-catching talent may actually be better than last year, but it remains to be seen if there is a go-to wideout on campus. Plus if there is a go-to guy how long will it take him to display it consistently under big game conditions? After all, it took a receiver the magnitude of Meachem to make that leap.
Whether Tennessee has that big-play wideout is a question that is unlikely to be answered on Saturday. Getting consistency would be an acceptable tradeoff but even that may be too much to ask of players that will be playing their first D-I game or at least their first as a starter.
Adding to that challenge is the hostile crowd, road venue and speed on defense Cal possesses. Interestingly, California faced a similar situation last year when they played before a Neyland Stadium crowd of 107,000-plus which was the largest the Golden Bears had ever played before.
Reexamine that hot September night in which the Vols bolted to a 35-0 first half advantage and it's clear to see California was shellshocked by Meachem's offensive outburst, the deafening din, a three-hour time change and nine months of building frustration that was part of Tennessee's first losing season in 17 years. In other words: the Golden Bears were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They recovered enough in the second half to make the final score 35-18. Yes UT was substituting a lot but the first-team offense play virtually the entire second half and couldn't produce any points.
Now Tennessee is adjusting to the time change, the hostile venue and a year of pent up frustration from last year's rout. The Golden Bears also have DeSean Jackson who is every bit as dangerous as Meachem and just as capable of burning an inexperienced secondary like Cal had last year and the Vols have this year.
It's not uncommon to see a drastically different result from teams that meet twice in the same season to say nothing of teams playing back-to-back seasons. Vol fans undoubtedly recall UT's loss to a LSU team in the 2001 SEC Championship game that they beat in the regular season. In 1996 Florida lost to Florida State in the regular season finale and then beat the Seminoles handily in the Sugar Bowl to win the national title.
Some of that has to do with the very nature of emotional swings. However it also has a lot to do the losing team making adjustments as opposed to the winning team that is forced to anticipate what adjustments the opponent will make. You see the same scenario in the NBA playoffs and in NCAA basketball where teams may play multiple times in the same season.
A better indicator of how Cal may play Saturday can be found in last year's undefeated (7-0) home record. The Golden Bears beat Minnesota 42-17, Portland St. 42-16, No. 22 Arizona St. 49-21, No. 11 Oregon 45-24, Washington 31-24, UCLA 38-24 and Stanford 26-17. That's an average of 39 points scored per game and an 18.5 point margin of victory.
Here's one more thing to consider. During the last five years under Jeff Tedford Cal has lost to an opponent on consecutive years only twice. Both times the opponent in question was USC, and one of those was by a score of 23-17 in 2004 when the Trojans were ranked No. 1.