Opening pansies

I can't count the number of times I've heard Tennessee head football coach Phillip Fulmer say, "You should make your most progress from Game 1 to Game 2."

That being the case, why schedule a team who can beat you in Game 1? Why not wait until Game 2 or 3 to play someone with a pulse?

After going 13-1 in his first 14 season openers, Fulmer is 0-2 in his two most recent lid-lifters. His 2007 Vols were trounced 45-31 by an 18th-ranked California team playing at home and his '08 Vols were stunned 27-24 in overtime by a half-decent UCLA team, also playing at home.

Each time the Vols made a rash of costly mistakes – the kind teams sometimes make in Game 1, then correct by Game 2. Odds are, Tennessee will make these corrections during this open-date week, then play much better Sept. 13 en route to a comfortable defeat of UAB. Of course, the win will leave the Vols 1-1, instead of 2-0.

I think a 2-0 start would've been a virtual cinch if Tennessee had merely left the schedule as it originally was made. The Vols were to play UAB on Aug. 30 and UCLA on Sept. 6. ESPN waved a bunch of money, however, and asked the Vols to play UCLA on Monday night, Sept. 1. Tennessee agreed to the switch, figuring the national exposure would help recruiting.

The problem is, national exposure only helps recruiting if you play well and win. Tennessee played miserably and suffered an embarrassing loss. If anything, that putrid performance may have cost the Vols a recruit or two.

I'm not one of those writers who waits until after the fact to second-guess a decision. I questioned the wisdom of the UAB/UCLA switch in this very space when the move was announced last spring, citing the same reason outlined above: You don't play anyone capable of beating you in Game 1. It angers the fan base and takes the luster off a new season almost before it has begun.

Naturally, a lot of observers feel otherwise. They think losing to a superior foe in Game 1 can be just as beneficial as beating an inferior foe in Game 1. I suggest they consider Tennessee's 1988 and 1989 seasons. Ranked No. 18 in preseason, the '88 Vols suffered a season-opening loss to No. 12 Georgia. They wound up limping home with a 5-6 record.

Conversely, the '89 Vols were unranked when they squeaked past a mediocre Colorado State team 17-14 in the opener. They wound up going 11-1 and winning the SEC championship.

That's just one example, though. Tennessee's recent history is replete with successful seasons that began with Game 1 pushovers. The '93 Vols hammered Louisiana Tech 50-0 en route to a 10-2 record. The '95 Vols trounced East Carolina 27-7 en route to an 11-1 finish. The ' 96 Vols mauled UNLV 62-3 en route to a 10-2 record and the '97 Vols ripped Texas Tech 52-17 en route to an 11-2 mark.

The fact is, I believe the first TWO games on a football schedule should be sure wins. A 2-0 start, even at the expense of lousy opponents, builds confidence among the players and builds excitement among the fans. In addition, you can suspend players involved in offseason mishaps for two games and still be 2-0 when they're reinstated. (I may be callous, but at least I'm not hypocritical.)

Frankly, I thought UAB was a perfect foe for Tennessee's 2008 opener. Coming off a 2-10 season in '07 and breaking in a new coaching staff, the Blazers virtually guaranteed a 1-0 start for the '08 Vols. Even with all of the mistakes UT made vs. UCLA, the Big Orange would've been able to dispatch UAB and start the season on a victorious note. Granted, Tennessee fans still would be grumbling about a sloppy Game 1 performance, even if it had come in a defeat of UAB.

There's one thing I've learned, though, in three decades covering UT football: The fans don't gripe nearly as much after a lackluster win as they do after a lackluster loss. That's why athletics director Mike Hamilton should take my advice and schedule Game 1 pansies each year.

It's a sure cure for the 0-1 start.


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