The most interesting matchups of the season, chronologically.
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The Stakes (We Think): I like these early games that seem destined to define the course of the season, even of they rarely do in practice. Like Tennessee’s games with Cal the last two years, which seemed to show such great promise for the Vols in ‘06 and the Bears last year, and such doom for the losers: the momentum and optimism that comes with charging out of the gate at full speed over a worthy victim that had hoped to do the same had faded by midseason, and the loser in the opener finished much closer to its goals in both cases. This time of year, we tend to look at the season as a whole, and over three months, the starting point becomes more and more irrelevant.
For both of these teams, though, neither of which is expected to make any serious noies in their respective conferences but both of which hold out some hope that they can if things "gel," a little affirmation at the start of an uncertain voyage seems essential. For LA, unveiling the Neuheisel administration with a top 20 win vaults the Bruins from a slowly-building, middle-of-the-pack nonfactor in the Pac Ten to a serious contender, a threat to everyone on the schedule short of USC, with no small measure of the "Oh shit" factor going forward: Slick Rick’s oiled the craps of the sputtering Dorrell jalopy into a functioning machine.
Tennessee has the opposite concern: the Vols have to expect to win in the Rose Bowl, over an apparently less-talented team with holes on both lines and no identity except inconsistency. If they can’t, their hopes of defending the East title against loaded Florida a few weeks on, or at Georgia in October, dwindle even further. UCLA can instantly give its season a higher purpose. Tennessee can ensure its season still has one.
First Berkeley, now L.A. ... we’re gettin’ to be quite the jet set, ma!
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Stars, Themes, Petty Grievances and Other Reasons to Watch. Speaking of purposes and identities, I’m not certain Tennessee necessarily has either on offense –– as I’ve written before, the Vols evolved the last three years into a pass-oriented team, the result of having an NFL-bound quarterback and an offensive coordinator who’s thrived on molding big, pocket-bound slingers for more than a decade. Erik Ainge and David Cutcliffe are gone, gone with the wind and the sweet aroma of temporarily-guaranteed cash wafting with it, and the returning personnel –– five veteran offensive linemen, including three all-SEC possibilities, and 1,000-yard mudder Arian Foster –– favors a return to the hard-thumping physicality of Phil Fulmer’s best teams in the late nineties. There’s not much indication in these spread-happy times that new OC Dave Clawson shares the same vision of restoring the Volunteer legacy. This is the first chance to see exactly how UT lans to define itself offensively. No doubt the larger goal is ‘balance,’ but that means a sizeable contribution from Jonathan Crompton, whose appearances from the bench were rare and underwhelming.
For what it’s worth, DeWayne Walker’s defenses have been more successful the last two years against more conventional offenses, like Oregon State, Notre Dame, Arizona State and USC –– that is, the kind Tennessee has tended to favor. The Bruins have manned up pretty well against teams that want to run right at them. The much bigger question for LA is that its offense is the walking wounded. The top two quarterbacks, top two running backs and top receiver all missed at least a third of last year’s games for mostly major injuries, and their blocking this time around is inexperienced, to say the least.
The Early Edge. The SEC has generally struggled on the West Coast this decade; I think this means nothing. UCLA has been a much better team when actually healthy –– 8-4 over the first half in ‘06-’07, 5-9 in the second half. That’s significant, especially if there’s some rejuvenative fire for the new staff. I look at this as a toss-up, one Tennessee should win on athletes, experience and continuity, but a dangerous assumption because LA is a blank slate that could go either way. Given a healthy Ben Olson vs. Crompton, I’ll take Olson; many a young quarterback has met his demise on an early road trip. The head says Tennessee in a cloud of dust; the gut says fine –– but they don’t cover.
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Previously in "The Games": Missouri vs. Illinois