UCLA game could shape Tennessee's season

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Tennessee’s Lane Kiffin says he wants Neyland Stadium rockin’ for UCLA’s visit on Saturday.

And with good reason.

In so many ways, this is a game that will shape Kiffin’s first season in Knoxville -- one way or the other.

The first thing it will do is shed a little perspective on the season-opening 63-7 thrashing of Western Kentucky. Were the Vols as good as they looked, or were they simply beating up on a helpless foe?

The Bruins aren’t going to be mistaken for an SEC contender, but they’re good on defense, even better on special teams, have plenty of team speed and know they can beat the Vols. See last season’s 27-24 overtime win in Los Angeles.

It’s a loss Tennessee never fully recovered from and was the beginning of the end for veteran coach Phillip Fulmer.

A year later, it has a chance to be the beginning of what could be a surprising season for the Vols, who’ve taken on the swagger of their new head coach and are setting their sights high.

In other words, what rebuilding season?

“We expect a lot more out of ourselves than anybody else,” said junior All-American safety Eric Berry, who only played about 25 snaps in the opener. “There’s talent on this team and a lot of it, and the way we’ve been working and going about things has only raised the stakes.

“It’s like I’ve been saying. Everybody’s going to see the new Tennessee this season.”

If last Saturday is any indication, and Kiffin says it is, the new Tennessee is going to play a bunch of freshmen. The Vols aren’t a deep football team, and Kiffin said it’s the only way they can develop their depth right now.

Tennessee played 11 true freshmen in the opener, and three of them scored touchdowns.

“Coach Kiffin is going to get his best players on the field. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a freshman or a senior. He’s done everything he told us he was going to do when he was recruiting us,” said Bryce Brown, who became the first Tennessee player in 18 years to rush for 100 yards in his college debut.

“The only way you’re going to play on this football team is to earn it. That’s week-to-week, too. It’s on us to step up our game (against UCLA), and I know we will.”

If you break down Tennessee’s schedule this season, the UCLA game is one of four home games for the Vols that are critical if they’re going to have a chance to get to that eight- or nine-win plateau.

The other three are Auburn on Oct. 3, Georgia on Oct. 10 and South Carolina on Oct. 31.

Sweeping all four would propel the Vols to a terrific season, and winning three of the four would put them in good shape to win eight games.

But it all starts with UCLA, and Kiffin himself is reserving judgment until the Vols face some stiffer competition.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us and a lot of improvement to make,” he said.