Vols' start may be crucial

Given the intensity of (a) the rivalry and (b) the disdain for Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, Alabama fans are sure to be at their absolute loudest when Saturday's 11:30 CST kickoff arrives at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Should the Vols stumble out of the gate the crowd will get even louder, the Tide will get even more pumped and the Big Orange could be in for a long afternoon. Spurred by the home crowd, Bama grabbed a 21-0 lead against Arkansas on Sept. 15 and a 23-0 first-quarter lead against Houston last weekend.

Bama is 5-0 this year when it scores first. Conversely, the Tide is 0-2 when the opponent scores first. So if Tennessee can strike early, quiet the crowd and seize the momentum, Saturday could be a long day for the Crimson Tide.

"Starting well is huge," Vol center Josh McNeil said this week. "If you take that first drive, drive it down the field and punch it in, that's a huge motivation."

Apparently unaware of the pun, McNeil added: "It really turns the tide, as far as momentum goes. Then that gives you the confidence that 'Hey, guys, we can do this all day. We're going to be able to score.'"

The benefits of a good start – and the detriments of a bad start – are obvious, particularly when a team is playing on the road. Consider Tennessee's first three road tests of 2007:

The Vols fumbled on the fifth play of the opener at Cal. The Golden Bears returned the miscue 45 yards for a touchdown and led 7-0 less than 2 minutes into the action. The hosts went on to win 45-31.

The Vols gave up an 83-yard punt return touchdown on the fourth play of Game 3 at Florida and trailed 7-0 less than 2 minutes into the action. The Gators went on to romp 59-20.

The Vols got a defensive stop on the opening possession of Game 6 at Mississippi State, then marched 77 yards to take a 7-0 lead on their opening drive. Tennessee went on to win 33-21.

The decibel level Saturday in Tuscaloosa will be just as loud as it was in Gainesville and considerably louder than it was at Berkeley and Starkville. Thus, scoring on their opening possession would be big for the Vols, especially if they can establish their ground attack in the process. That gives the offensive line a lift and gives offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe the luxury of mixing his play calls.

"When we're getting out ahead early and hitting people in the mouth," McNeil noted, "he (Cutcliffe) knows that if he makes the run call it'll be there for us."

A quick touchdown by the Vols also would provide an emotional boost for a Tennessee defense that has struggled at times.

"That hypes the defense up, too," McNeil said. "It's like how them getting a three-and-out really excites us.

"Starting well is more of a motivation and a mental factor than anything."


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