KEY PLAYERS: This figures to be a game that will come down to Tennessee's offense vs. Maryland's defense and thus will pit Tennessee starting quarterback Casey Clausen against Maryland inside linebacker E.J. Henderson — the 2002 Butkus Award winner. Clausen will need to account for Henderson's presence at all times and get the Vols into plays that can neutralize his impact. Conversely, Henderson will be the key to shutting down Tennessee's running game between the tackles while his pursuit and pressure can disrupt Tennessee's best laid plans to attack the perimeter or the secondary. These have been the players that have made their teams go this season and that won't change in the post season.
BEST & WORST: Maryland's best win was the 48-17 thumping it put on a good West Virginia team in Morgantown on Oct. 5. It's worst defeat was a perplexing 48-13 setback suffered at Virginia on Nov. 23. That pasting came on the heels of a seven-game winning streak by the Terps. Tennessee's best win was probably its last as the Vols shut out a potent Kentucky offense 24-0, while displaying good balance with an improved passing game. The worst loss? Take your pick: the 30-13 defeat to Florida and the 34-14 loss to Alabama were both at Neyland Stadium and represented the worst performances by a mistake-prone UT offense and an uncharacteristically porous Volunteer defense. Though the 26-3 setback to Miami was the most one-sided of the season, Tennessee did play solid defense and committed no turnovers against the No. 1 ranked and undefeated defending national champions.
POINTS OF INTEREST: Could a loss to Maryland be a good omen for Tennessee's team in 2003? Well if history is any barometer the answer is yes. Both of the defeats the Vols experienced against Maryland came in bowl games that preceded highly successful campaigns. After Tennessee lost to Maryland 28-13 in the 1951 Sugar Bowl, it came back to post an undefeated season and win the national championship. Likewise, after UT was beaten 28-27 in the 1984 Sun Bowl, it bounced back with a memorable 1985 season that ended with an SEC championship, No. 4 ranking and a 35-7 victory over Miami.
UNFINISHED BUSINESS: That was the slogan Tennessee chose to brand a 2002 season ripe with promise and unrealized potential. It began when the Vols lost a chance to play Miami in the Rose Bowl for the 2001 national title after suffering an upset to LSU in the SEC Championship game, also played in the Georgia Dome. Now the Vols return to the scene of the crime, hoping to wipe out memories of that painful defeat to the Tigers and the disappointing season that followed. A victory over Maryland in the Peach Bowl wasn't what Tennessee fans envisioned when the 2002 campaign began, but it's as much as they could hope for when the Vols stood at 5-4 and faced the possibility of their first losing record since 1988. Tennessee's strong finish is a testament to the coaches and seniors who held this squad together through a crippling toll of injuries and adversity. And a win in the Georgia Dome would be a fitting conclusion to a courageous comeback.
GAME KEYS: Tennessee's defense has been its strength this season as demonstrated by a pair of shutouts to end the 2002 regular season. But the Vols will face their toughest challenge since Miami in a Maryland offense that is very balanced, multifaceted and highly productive (averaging almost 400 yards per game). Tennessee will likely look to make Maryland one dimensional by jamming the line of scrimmage and forcing the Terps to pass. That will place a lot of pressure on UT's corners in man coverage which means the Vols have to also get pressure on McBrien. On offense Tennessee needs a couple of its young receivers to finally come of age to open opportunities for tight end Jason Witten over the middle. Maryland deploys a 3-4 defensive scheme that allows it to bring linebackers from inside or the edge. Tennessee has to establish the run to execute its play-action phase which will force the linebackers to play a less aggressive style. Maryland has a solid secondary, but can be beaten deep if Clausen has time to throw and open receivers to throw to.
SUMMARY: Picking bowl games is like picking a number between one and two. The early trend has strongly favored the underdogs, but that figures to swing the other way as we get deeper into the post season. Generally a bowl game is a better gauge of how well a team deals with five weeks of inactivity than it is a gauge of a team's strength. Tennessee's record in that regard has been a mixed bag under Phillip Fulmer, who is 6-4 in bowl games including 2-3 since 1997. Although the Vols will be healthier than they have been been since midseason, they are far from full strength. The latest casualty is senior linebacker Eddie Moore who is unlikely to play against Maryland after responding slowly from a knee scope. He joins fellow linebacker starters Robert Peace, Kevin Burnett and Kevin Simon sitting out the bowl game. To appreciate the toll injuries have taken on Tennessee this year just look at Moore's replacement — DB Steven Marsh (6-0, 180). The Terps are sure to test Marsh early by running at him and the senior's ability to take on the challenge could be key to the Vols success on defense. Maryland will show a lot of different looks on offense and the Vols must be disciplined as well as fundamentally sound. Tennessee should have an edge in the kicking game and its defense will be solid. If the Vols can put together a couple of scoring drives with a couple of big plays, they should prevail in what figures to be an entertaining contest.
PREDICTION: Tennessee 23, Maryland 17