Monday, August 27, 2007

Tri Cities Herald: Vols facing an opponent with a score to settle

Bucky Dent

Sports Writer

Last year, California had to fly across the country and face a team with something to prove. The 35-18 Tennessee rout of the Golden Bears was even worse than it sounds, the Volunteers owning a 35-0 third quarter lead and just coasting to the finish line. One year later, it’s 15th-ranked UT which makes the cross-country trip to the East Bay to face a team which – its coach’s comments otherwise – clearly has a score to settle. Vols coach Phillip Fulmer isn’t interested in parallels, though. "The big thing for us is taking care of Tennessee and being what we’re supposed to be," he said Sunday during his weekly teleconference. "Regardless of who we play, that’s how we’ve approached it." Cal players are certainly itching for Saturday night’s rematch in Berkeley, no matter how coach Jeff Tedford tries to downplay last year’s beatdown.

And one of the reasons for that might just be LSU coach Les Miles, who made some less-than-flattering comments about the Pac-10 Conference’s strength during the offseason.

By impugning the conference which just happens to house consensus No. 1 Southern California, as well as Cal, Miles may have indirectly made Fulmer’s job a little tougher. "We’re not out to make a statement for the Pac-10," Tedford said. "We’re just out to play the best we can play. We’re not going into this thing feeling like we have to carry a torch for the Pac-10." However, there’s no denying that the Golden Bears will be a mighty motivated bunch. And this isn’t exactly a hardened group of Volunteer veterans journeying across three time zones, either. Or have you not looked at the complete lack of proven wide receivers, the almost all-new secondary or the callow defensive tackles which will be wearing orange? There are reasons No. 12 Cal is as much as a six-point favorite in some circles Saturday night. It has more experienced faces, the home field and an itch to scratch after last year’s disaster. The after-effects of their clobbering were even felt after convincing wins. After a 41-13 road rout of Oregon State, Beavers fans consoled themselves with shouts of "Nice job at UT" as the Golden Bears left the field.  "I knew we were better than we played," Tedford said when asked what surprised him about the Tennessee game. "We didn’t even come close to our potential. I’m looking at this as if we need to play our best for ourselves and our program."

Sounds like an echo from his counterpart across the nation, who says his team is craving the challenge of a tough opener.  "I’m anxious to see our football team on the field against someone else," Fulmer said. "First games are always exciting." Just like last year, the opportunity exists for Tennessee to make a major statement right out of the starting gate. Win the week’s only matchup of top 25 teams and the Vols can count on an immediate bump up the rankings. But as Cal can tell UT from first-hand experience, opening night opponents with a point to prove can make for rough starts.

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