Can Vols Weather Powerful Hurricanes?

By the time the sun sets on Saturday's showdown at Neyland Stadium, the Big Orange may blaze with the radiance of a solar furnace or it may melt like a spring snow on a sunlit hillside.

The Vols could stand toe to toe and trade blow for blow with a gridiron giant, or they could be battered from pillow to post and fold with the ease of a Big East whipping boy.

It could become a game Tennessee faithful will always remember, or one they can't forget; like the difference between the 2001 and 2002 Florida games. It could be the biggest upset in a season of upsets or it could be the latest in a long season of disappointments for Tennessee.

It could end one of the most successful runs in modern college football history and restore respect for UT as national power, or it could continue Miami's march to a repeat and Tennessee's slide to oblivion.

Those are just some of the pathos of an intriguing matchup between perennial football powers headed in different directions with divergent goals and dissimilar incentive. For the Vols, it's a last chance to step to the plate against a highly ranked team at home and prove themselves worthy of the adulation bestowed by a Big Orange nation. For the Hurricanes, it's one more step toward the ultimate prize in college football, the national championship.

Ironically, Miami, a nine-point favorite, comes into this game on the heels of perhaps its worst performance of the season against Rutgers, while Tennessee enters the contest following its best showing of the season, a road victory over South Carolina in which the Vols compiled a season-high 241 yards rushing.

Those results have added an element of interest although they couldn't recreate the lost luster of what many anticipated to be a battle for the title, the game of the year, maybe the century; a showcase for two star-studded programs meeting for only the second time in their storied histories.

Miami is a team that seems confident it will shake off the sluggish play that has produced three straight sub par victories, while Tennessee's upset hopes are overshadowed by one-sided home losses to archrivals Florida and Alabama. Playing in a first half down pour against Florida and through intermittent showers against Bama, the Vols suffered 13 fumbles and nine turnovers combined. If they dissolved so quickly in a Smoky Mountain mist against twice-beaten Bama, what chance do they have against the torrent and tumult of the Category 5 Hurricanes?

Any optimism for a solid Tennessee showing vs. Miami, much less an upset win, has to be based on the Vols resurgence demonstrated on the road against South Carolina and Miami's close call at home against Florida State, followed by below average outings on the road against West Virginia and Rutgers. That last contest ended in a 42-17 victory, but knocked the Canes to No. 3 in the BCS Poll and sparked indignation in Miami's camp.

That means Miami will be fully focused and emotionally charged for the challenge of playing at UT. In fact, the Canes may draw more emotion from the test of playing before a huge, hostile crowd than they would from playing in the friendly confines of the Orange Bowl. It's no coincidence that Miami's best showing of the season came in The Swamp against the Gators.

Despite ranking third in the BCS, Miami appears to be a better team than either Oklahoma or Ohio State. The Sooners offense is suspect while Ohio State's passing attack is short a passer. Miami has depth and balance across the board and its 30-game winning streak speaks for itself.

The key for Tennessee is to make the crowd part of the game by getting off to a good start and keeping it close. The Vols failed to score a single offensive point in the first half of either the Florida or Alabama game. Tennessee was outscored by a collective margin of 38-7 in the first half of those contests (only scoring a kickoff return in the final minute of the second quarter verses the Tide). It's inability to maintain contact effectively eliminated the impact of the home crowd.

The Vols don't have the firepower, depth or confidence to spot a ranked opponent a big lead and get back in the game. Even in its victory over South Carolina, Tennessee only scored 18 points < the most in regulation play vs. five SEC opponents, and missed a pair of extra points. Instead they have to draw strength by staying close and feasting on a late adrenaline rush which can be provided by a packed house of passionate partisans.

Tennessee has to reduce its turnover total to two or less and strive for a plus-two edge over Miami. It must squeeze every inch of field position from its superior special team units and rush for 200 yards. UT's defense must hold the Canes to three touchdowns or less and create scoring opportunities for the offense. That means stripping the ball, getting some blind side pressure, breaking on the ball in the secondary and hitting with unrelenting rage.

The coaching staff must come up with an effective game plan particularly on defense. Allowing Ken Dorsey too many pre-snap reads could add up to too many big plays. The Vols defense has to mix up and disguise its coverages. Liberal use of zone coverage and zone blitzes could provide the element of surprise needed to confuse Dorsey enough to take him out of his comfort zone. Likewise, UT's offense has to make Miami pay for chasing the ball with impunity.

Senior Alex Walls needs to break out of his season-long slump and kick with the unerring accuracy he exhibited during his first three seasons on The Hill. The Vols also need for one of its young receivers to become a big-time play-maker and for a couple of its rookie defenders to raise the level of their game.

All in all it's a tall order for the Vols, who are woefully shorthanded but most certainly not unarmed. Tennessee has the weapons to pull off a shocker, but there seems to be just too many things that must fall into place for that to happen. Look for the Volunteers to give a valiant fight and come up short. In the process, they will regain respect and reestablish the foundation for a strong stretch run.

Final score: Miami 31, Tennessee 23.

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