Devil's Advocate

Welcome to Devil's Advocate — Inside Tennessee's version of punch/counter punch — where each week analysts Randy Moore and Jeffery Stewart choose sides and make their cases for our readers' regular amusement and occasional edification.



One bee in your bathroom is a problem. Twenty bees in your bathroom is a disaster.

Tennessee's 1-3 record may feel like a disaster but the Vols really have but one problem – an unproductive passing attack. The ground game is very good, with a veteran line and four quality tailbacks. The rushing defense is surprisingly stout. The pass defense, as expected, is excellent. The kicking game has come around after a slow start. The return game is in the capable hands of Gerald Jones and Dennis Rogan.

There is just one bee in the Big Orange bathroom – an AWOL air game – and the coaching staff spent the past six days attending to that problem. Whether Jonathan Crompton or Nick Stephens starts Saturday night against Northern Illinois, the quarterback play WILL be better than it was last weekend at Auburn.

Why? Because it can get no worse. Your Aunt Minnie could complete 8 of 23 passes blindfolded and standing on one leg. OK, that's probably an exaggeration ... Minnie would need both legs in order to plant and step.

Moreover, the Auburn defense UT faced last Saturday might be the best the Vols encounter all season. It certainly is vastly superior to the Northern Illinois stop unit that they'll see this weekend.

Appearances to the contrary, Tennessee isn't a lousy football team with a rash of problems. It is a struggling football team that needs merely to find someone who can throw passes that, more often than not, are caught by someone else wearing orange. If Jonathan Crompton isn't up to that simple task, Nick Stephens surely will be. If Stephens can't handle it, there's always B. J. Coleman. And if that doesn't work, there's always the G-Gun.

Bottom line: The Vols don't need to throw for 300 yards and three touchdowns per game. All they need is to develop an adequate passing attack that can make the opposing safeties stop crowding the line of scrimmage. The rest of the load will be shared by the ground game, the rushing defense, the pass defense, the kicking game and the return game.



Normally making a case for Northern Illinois to beat Tennessee in Knoxville would be mission impossible, but you don't have to strain the quality of credulity to make these Huskies hunt. And I can make that case in five points.

(1) What's in a name when UConn, Vandy and Fresno State are in the top 25 while Tennessee, Michigan, Notre Dame and Nebraska are not? Everybody has skill players and everybody has proven strength programs. Everybody has the same number of scholarships. It's surprising there aren't more major upsets than there are.

(2) Tennessee will come out eager to polish off the Huskies but because this is a step down from the caliber of Florida and Auburn it won't provide anything approaching redemption for a team that has stumbled to a 1-3 start. So if the Vols can't put Northern Illinois in a hole early they may not have the emotional energy to beat then late. There's no way you can come off conference defeats against Florida and Auburn with Georgia on deck and not overlook NIU to a degree.

(3) Okay Nick Stephens is Tennessee's new starting quarterback and the assumption is he has to be better than what the Vols have gotten to this point. And he may be against NIU but it's his first start and it's impossible to predict how effective he will or will not be.

(4) Northern Illinois is not without success in the SEC, beating Alabama back in 2003 in Tuscaloosa at a time when the Crimson Tide were struggling much like the Vols are currently. The things about a disenchanted fan base is sometimes the home team doesn't have an advantage.

(5) The 2008 edition of the Volunteers is much like famed movie director M. Night Shyamalan — who debuted with the super successful Sixth Sense — they don't scare anybody anymore. That means teams will tend to play more loose and are less apt to kill themselves with mistakes as some past cupcakes have done. Meanwhile the Vols have only forced one turnover in their last two games.

The Vols aren't likely to lose to Northern Illinois today, unless they believe they can't be beaten.

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