If Tennessee's defense really is as soft as it played in losing 45-31 to the Golden Bears, the Vols have no chance to win the SEC East Division.
Maybe Tennessee will do what Cal did a year ago after Jeff Tedford's team was spanked in Knoxville – rebound to win eight in a row en route to a 10-3 season.
Tennessee sure didn't put to rest the three main questions leading into the opener.
- Can Tennessee improve its run defense? It didn't against Cal. The Bears averaged 6.2 yards per rush against a defense that allowed 4.1 yards per attempt last season. Only two other SEC teams were worse.
- Can Tennessee improve its pass rush? It didn't against Cal. Last season, the Vols had three sacks and harassed Nate Longshore with constant pressure. This time, UT didn't come close to getting a sack and was credited with just one pressure. Fulmer said Cal often used maximum protection and Longshore got rid of the ball quickly.
- Can Tennessee improve its run game? The Vols had 111 net yards – 115 fewer than against Cal last season. But that is misleading. The Vols did run with some effectiveness as Arian Foster had 13 carries for 89 yards, a 6.8 average. Foster and Hardesty combined for 116 yards on 22 carries, 5.3 yards per rush.
One other question arose: Can UT convert in short-yardage situations?
Instead of trying to pound the ball at Cal, the Vols chose to pass or run a trick play. It failed on a third-and-1 screen pass late in the first half. It failed on three attempts from just inside the 2 on the first series of the second half.
Fulmer said the problems in short-yardage weren't runs but failed passes.
So, why are you passing so much in short yardage?
``They sold out to stop the run,'' Fulmer said.
That didn't bother UT in the past. You know Fulmer would rather pound the rock in those situations. So I asked Fulmer if passing when you need 1 or 2 yards reflects a lack of confidence in the offensive line.
``Not really,'' he said.
I don't buy it.
One problem is Tennessee doesn't have a burly blocking fullback like Roland Poles to clear a path. Maybe the Vols should take an offensive lineman, like Jacques McClendon, and insert him as a blocking fullback on short-yardage plays.
FASTER CAL CAUSED MISSED TACKLES
It was apparent that Cal played faster than Tennessee, just as it was apparent last season that UT played faster than Cal.
``It looked like polar bears chasing water bugs,'' said former Tennessee offensive lineman Tim Irwin of UT's defense.
Fulmer said he felt Cal played faster during the game, but he had a different take after watching the film.
``It was more that they made us miss a lot,'' Fulmer said.
UT had 22 missed tackles by Fulmer's count.
NEW RULE MAKES KICK COVERAGE A CONCERN
Tennessee's kick coverage was poor. Daniel Lincoln booted one out of bounds and had a couple of kicks that didn't reach the 15-yard line. Chad Cunningham was used on the last two kickoffs.
``Kickoff coverage starts with the kick,'' Fulmer.
From that perspective, the Vols missed Britton Colquitt, who punted but didn't kick off because he suffered a pulled quad muscle two weeks ago. Fulmer isn't sure if Colquitt will be available for kickoff duty against Southern Miss this Saturday.
Cal's average starting position after a kickoff was the 36-yard line.
``You can't allow a team to start on the 35 or 40 very possession,'' Fulmer said. ``Britton, if he's 100 percent, can kick it to the end zone or near it.''
Cal didn't cover kicks any better than UT. The Vols' starting position was its 38, helped by Arian Foster's 68-yard return.
``One of my friends in pro football is a special teams coach and he said, `Welcome to the real world,'" Fulmer said. ``You've got a talented athlete in open space with blockers in front a lot more often than not because it's very difficult to kick it into end zone (from the 30-yard line).''
FANS BLAST FULMER FOR LATE PUNT
A number of UT fans were upset when Fulmer elected to punt facing fourth-and-17 from his 13 with about 90 seconds left and trailing by 14.
Bob Kesling, UT's play-by-play announcer, said he thought UT would go for it.
Irwin was more emphatic, calling the punt ``a most foolish gesture.''
EXTRA POINTS: Tennessee has never had a 10-win season after losing the season opener. The Vols have had two nine-win seasons and three eight-wins seasons after starting 0-1.… UT defensive linemen were credited with only 13 combined tackles. Fulmer said tackles Demonte Bolden and Dan Williams played well. J.T. Mapu and Walter Fisher were ineffective. … UT wide receivers caught 20 of Erik Ainge's career-high 32 completions. Tight ends caught seven and running backs five. … UT's net punting against Cal was 28.0 yards. Cal's was 38.4.