Just posted this on the SEC blog. Sorry for acting as a double-agent.
This is annoying: The SEC and Pac-10 only play one game in 2010 and, on paper, it doesn't look like much of a game.
Oregon, which figures to be ranked in or near the preseason top 10, visits a Tennessee team on Sept. 11 that is on its third coach in three years and is clearly rebuilding.
(Volunteers fans: Release your Lane Kiffin curses ... now!)
While Ducks fans over on the Pac-10 blog seem to believe this is going to be a butt kicking, I'm not so sure. Maybe it's because I was covering Auburn during the Phillip Fulmer glory days and can't imagine the Vols ever being anyone's patsy (in fact, I was covering preps and recruiting for the Mobile Register when a guy from Williamson High School by the name of Tamaurice Martin -- some called him "Tee" -- picked the Volunteers over Auburn).
Or maybe it's because the last time a highly ranked Pac-10 team thought it was going to deliver a whipping in Neyland Stadium, California face planted in 2006.
My hunch is this will be a competitive game. So, with that said, here are three keys for Tennessee to score the upset over the Ducks.
Tauren Poole & Luke Stocker: The Volunteers are completely -- completely as in all five 2009 starters are gone -- rebuilding their offensive line. Oh, and their QB, whoever that ends up being between junior college transfer Matt Simms and true freshman Tyler Bray, will be seeing his first college action the previous weekend vs. UT-Martin. That's not good. But Poole at running back and Stocker at tight end are good. Perhaps even very good. The Ducks' defense is a veteran unit and extremely fast. They also run a lot of stunts, which can confuse a young O-line. But they aren't very big. So keep it simple on offense and get the ball to your money guys. Word on the street is Poole can make plays even when the blocking isn't perfect. And when the Ducks start obsessing about Poole, that would be the perfect time to dump it to the 6-foot-6, 253-pound Stocker and see what he can do in the secondary. A big target like Stocker could help a young QB gain some confidence, at which point he can start looking for his wideouts.
Boise State & Ohio State: QB Jeremiah Masoli running coach Chip Kelly's spread-option offense was often a thing of beauty. But, you may have heard, Masoli won't be a problem in Knoxville. Further, it seems like defenses that have more than just one week to prepare have more success against the Ducks' spread-option -- see a pair of early-season losses to Boise State and the Rose Bowl defeat to Ohio State. The Vols will have the entire summer to familiarize themselves with Oregon's misdirection, as well as to get accustomed to the Ducks' extraordinary pace (their no-huddle is as fast-paced an offense as you will see). Ohio State often won one-on-one matchups up front. The Vols have some solid talent, experience and depth with their front seven, though it won't match the Buckeyes. Boise State often out-flanked the Ducks with an outstanding game plan. Wait a second! Where did that new, hotshot defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox come from? Boise State! Wilcox has faced the Ducks each of the past two seasons. He knows their scheme and their personnel. That's a huge advantage.
Atmosphere: Before Cal's 2006 visit, the Bears downplayed the experience of playing in front of 100,000-plus fans. Southern humidity? Who cares! And then the Bears wilted, mentally and physically. One Cal player told me later that Neyland was such a "freak show" -- his term -- that it was a significant distraction. My guess is Vols fans thought their trip to Berkeley, where student protesters were living in trees, was a bit of a "freak show," too. But the Ducks won't be used to the atmosphere -- both the stadium size as well as the weather (summers in Eugene often demand a sweater at night). Aggravating matters, they will be sending out a mostly green QB to handle the pressure on the road. Senior Nate Costa has started only one game: at UCLA in 2009. Sophomore Darron Thomas came off the bench as a true freshman vs. Boise State in 2008 and led a stunning comeback, but he redshirted last year. In other words, instead of a two-year starter leading the Ducks' complicated offense in a hostile environment, they will be relying on an unproven guy. A couple of early mistakes, and that atmosphere could prove a significant factor.