August 31, 2006

Cal at Tennessee

How in the world could Cal have dropped from a two point favorite to a two point underdog? The line should have gone the other way.

After all, Cal is ranked much more highly (#12 in the USA Today poll, #9 in the AP poll) than the Volunteers (#23 in both polls). Sagarin’s preseason calculations rank the teams closer at #20 and #30, giving the Volunteers the two-point edge due to home field advantage. The Volunteers finished 5-6 last year and stayed home during bowl season; the Bears stumbled to a 7-4 finish and then hung on to beat BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl.

The first game of the year is, of course, the most difficult to predict. Player turnover, coaching changes, and injuries all have an effect. The emotion of the college game inspires more intensity among the fans, the players, and even the media.

But in the end, the fans and media don’t play the games. And I am not one who subscribes to the idea that a packed house of 100,000 Tennessee fans will equate to a four point or even a seven point swing. In fact, I think the size and intensity of the venue is a benefit for and Tedford-coached Bears squad.

You may be getting the sense that I think Cal will win. You would be right.

Sizing Up The Vols Offense
Tennessee is coming off a losing season, a huge disappointment to everyone involved in the program. The coach has challenged everyone to redouble their efforts, practice harder, study harder, come out harder. The players are “angry” and “have a chip on their shoulder,” says the coach. If the Vols are to win, it will be due to this singular increase in effort.

On offense, the Volunteers are not overwhelming. They rushed for under 130 yards per game in 2005, and it was often posited that the defense did more than their fair share to win more than five games. Part of the problem was at quarterback. After a good go as a freshman, Erik Ainge came back to have a mediocre sophomore season. Only a fool would think he would be bad again, and in fact he is one of 21 preseason candidates for the Manning Award.

Ainge has a few good players to throw to, but the three top receivers have only 13 combined career starts. Still, they’ve been around as backups and are capable of scoring. Robert Meacham is six foot three and led the team in receiving yards in both 2004 and 2005 despite having just two career starts. Given the Bears’ recent loss of Tim Mixon and the loss of key coverage men to graduation, east-coasters must be excited at the prospects of seeing Ainge come back to form against a depleted Cal secondary.

Supplementing the Tennessee passing game will be a two- or even three-headed rushing attack. Sophomore tailback Aaron Foster leads the way after a freshman year of over 800 yards rushing and ending last season with five straight 100-yard games.

The weakness, though, is that pesky offensive line. Despite the return of 320-pound preseason all American LT Arron Sears, the offensive line is young and constitutes the weakness of the team. Only this week did the lineup solidify with the selection of Michael Frogg at center. If the Tennessee depth chart is accurate, outside of Sears, the other four offensive linemen return a total of seven career starts.

Although I expect Tennessee wants to present a balanced attack on offense, I think they will look to establish a running game out of the gate. With an inexperienced, big offensive line, they will want to get some success on the ground before laying into Cal’s depleted secondary.

Unfortunately for them, it won’t work.

Cal’s defensive front is outstanding, and despite the loss of a few key players, the depth and speed of the Cal defense is probably greater than in recent years. It is not impossible for this Cal defense to average 10 or fewer points over the season, and we know what kind of schedule the Pac-10 offers. The linebacking corps has two freshman all-Americans on the bench, and the speed is unparalleled.

I believe the Volunteers will have to draw on every ounce of anger and motivation to establish any offensive rhythm. They won’t be held scoreless, but they will have to work hard for every point.

Defensive Turnover
The biggest question for the Vols besides QB play is whether their depleted defense will reload or rebuild. The turnover for Tennessee was remarkable, losing three defensive linemen to the NFL and all three of their linebackers to graduation. The defensive backfield is in better shape and looks to be a very strong unit, but gone are the biggest factors that led to Tennessee being #2 nationally against the rush in 2005.

Big DT Justin Harrell (300 pounds) provides the only experience in the front seven, with 22 career starts in 32 career appearances. He is a force and can plug up the middle. The remaining six of the front seven, however, return just nine career starts; there is some significant game experience among the DL, however, with all four linemen having appeared in at least 20 games.

I think over time, the Tennessee defense will become known as a strong side with impressive statistics. They will create some problems down the road. Unfortunately for them, however, they face what may end up being the nation’s best rushing attack by season’s end (barring injury). Add in a bevy of speedy wide receivers and a crafty, deceptive offensive scheme, and the youngsters in orange are likely in for a long day.

My Prediction
As with any opening game, there are too many questions that can not be answered by statistics, media guides, or speculation. If the Bears can’t field a competent quarterback, Tennessee’s defense may gain confidence and momentum. If Cal’s secondary goes cold and Ainge catches fire, the Vols could rip off some long plays.

But I think it’s more likely that the Bears will control the game through a strong running attack, quieting the huge crowd and confusing the young defenders. I also look to the Bear front four to get pressure on Ainge every time he drops back, keeping him from getting into rhythm with his receivers and allowing the linebackers and safeties to make big plays.

The usual caveats about turnovers and injuries apply. If the game goes as I think it will, however, the Bears will show a level of class that will surprise the betting public and will impress the pollsters. Meanwhile, Tennessee will make a good showing but will, ultimately, not be able to keep up. I expect good things from them later in the year, but they’re too young in all the most important places to win this one.

Final score: Cal 28, Tennessee 10.

Go Bears!

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