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VOL. 39 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 11, 2015

At long last, a compelling home opener for Vols

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Tennessee tailback Travis Stephens outruns Syracuse’s Christian Ferrara during the Vols’ 33-9 home-opening win against Syracuse in 2001.  Stephens rushed for 111 yards on just 14 carries. UT went on to lose the SEC Championship game to LSU and defeat Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.

-- Ap File Photo/Wade Payne

Finally, Tennessee’s football team has an attractive home opener in Neyland Stadium. It’s been a while.

The No. 23-ranked Vols (1-0) play host to No. 19 Oklahoma (1-0) Saturday at 6 ET in their best home opener in years.

Oklahoma is coming off a 41-3 home win last Saturday against Akron, while the Vols beat Bowling Green 59-30 at Nissan Stadium in Nashville.

Unlike those games, this looks like a good one.

Utah State last year was an OK home/season opener, but the Vols still won 38-7.

Austin Peay was UT’s home/season opener in 2013. Who scheduled that game? The Peay isn’t even a good FCS team.

In 2012, the Vols opened with a win over North Carolina State in Atlanta, and followed with a home opener against Georgia State, a mid-major Sun Belt team. Ugh.

UT started the 2011 season against Montana in Neyland Stadium. Ugh again. Easy win.

Not as easy as the 2010 home/season opener, when Derek Dooley’s first UT team beat Tennessee-Martin 50-0. UT-Martin is better than Austin Peay, but still an average FCS team.

I have to go back to 2006 to find an opener in Neyland Stadium as attractive as Oklahoma. So let’s take a look at five good home openers in Neyland, and what happened.

Sept. 2, 2006:
No. 23 Tennessee 35, No. 9 California 18

This game couldn’t come soon enough for UT coach Phillip Fulmer, whose 2005 team finished 5-6 and lost to Vanderbilt 28-24 in its final home game.

Cal entered the 2006 opener with its highest ranking since 1952 and expecting to contend for the Pac-10 title and even a national championship.

A crowd of 106,009 fans watched UT quarterback Eric Ainge complete 11 of 17 passes for 291 yards and four touchdowns with one interception while his uncle, Boston Celtics director of operations Danny Ainge, watched from the stands.

Robert Meachem caught five passes for 182 yards. His 42-yard TD catch late in the second quarter and James Wilhoit’s PAT kick gave the Vols a 14-0 halftime lead. Meachem’s 80-yard TD catch early in the third quarter led to a 21-0 lead and sent the sellout crowd into a frenzy.

“We all felt disrespected,” Ainge said in an Associated Press story. “This game tonight wasn’t just for Tennessee versus California. It was for the South versus the West Coast, the SEC versus the Pac-10.”

The game also marked the return of David Cutcliffe, who returned to his old job as UT’s offensive coordinator after a head coaching stint at Ole Miss. Cutcliffe replaced Randy Sanders, who resigned after the 2005 season when UT’s offense was one of the worst in the nation.

Cal’s Marshawn Lynch, a preseason candidate for the Heisman Trophy, rushed for 74 yards on 12 carries, but never got into the end zone.

“We wanted to win very, very bad because we never felt like we were as bad last year (2005) as everybody said we were,” Fulmer said in the AP story. “We just had bad things happen to us. Now, we’re all even.”

UT finished the 2006 regular season 9-3 (5-3 in SEC) and ranked No. 17, but lost to unranked Penn State 20-10 in the Outback Bowl.

Three years later, Fulmer was fired with two games left in the 2008 season when the Vols were 3-6, 1-5 in the SEC. Fulmer coached UT in its last two games that season, victories at Vanderbilt (20-10) and at home against Kentucky (28-10).

Sept. 1, 2001:

No. 8 Tennessee 33, Syracuse 9

Fulmer hoped this game would be a springboard to a second national championship, two years after the Vols won the 1998 title, and it was good enough of a start.

On the Vols’ first offensive play, Casey Clausen threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Donte Stallworth, and the Vols, their offense struggling much of the game, cruised to a methodical victory.

Fifth-year senior tailback Travis Stephens, who was previously a backup to Travis Henry and Jamal Lewis, rushed for 111 yards and 14 carries.

Clausen completed 14 of 27 passes for 136 yards. Not good enough for Fulmer.

“If we have games like this all year with that part of the offense, I’ll be bald before the end of the season,” Fulmer said in an Associated Press story. “I couldn’t believe some of the things that happened.”

UT defensive tackle John Henderson, who bypassed the NFL draft and returned to the Vols for the 2001 season, played a big role. He recovered a bad snap punt at the Syracuse 4-yard line that went over the head of Troy Nunes, and the play led to a short Henry TD run for a 19-3 lead in the third quarter.

Corey Larkins, Stephens’ backup, scored on runs of 38 and 16 yards as the Vols pulled away.

Syracuse defensive end Dwight Freeney sacked Clausen twice.

“We have the whole season ahead of us, and who’s to say we can’t win them all?” Fulmer said in the AP story.

After a win over Arkansas and an open date, Tennessee beat No. 14 LSU 26-18 in Neyland Stadium, but the next week, also at home, lost to unranked Georgia 26-24 in a game televised by CBS.

The Vols won their last seven games of the regular season – including wins over Alabama in Tuscaloosa (35-24), Notre Dame in South Bend (28-18), and Florida in Gainesville (34-32), a game pushed back to Dec. 1 due to the 9/11 attacks.

UT met big disappointment with a 31-20 loss to LSU in the SEC championship game, and settled for a 45-17 victory over Michigan in the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl.

Sept. 19, 1998:

No. 6 Tennessee 20, No. 2 Florida 17

Huge game. Huge season.

UT entered the 1998 season ranked No. 10 and traveled to play No. 17 Syracuse in the season opener. The Vols needed a late rally to beat the Orangemen 34-33, and came home to play their nemesis, the Florida Gators.

Tennessee had lost five consecutive games to Florida, and Vols quarterback Tee Martin was looking to do what his predecessor, NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, couldn’t do: beat Florida.

It was the first-ever overtime game in history in Neyland Stadium (and UT history) with a 17-17 tie at the end of regulation.

UT had first possession in overtime.

Martin threw two incomplete passes on the first two downs, and a holding penalty backed the Vols up to the 37-yard line. On third down and long, Martin scrambled for a 14-yard game to the center of the field.

Senior kicker Jeff Hall, whose late field goal beat Syracuse in the opener, drilled a 41-yard field goal for a 20-17 UT lead.

Florida got possession and positioned Collins Cooper for a 32-yard field-goal attempt to tie the game.

Then came one of the great calls by legendary UT broadcaster John Ward.

“So, the score: Tennessee 20, Florida 17,” Ward said, his voice raspy from calling a long game. “The Gators with the field goal made will tie the game. Snap. … the kick. … is in the air, and the kick this time is. … No! Sir! Ri! … No! Sir! Ri! … Final score. … Tennessee 20, Florida 17! … Pandemonium. … Reigns!

Certainly, it did.

Many of the 107,653 fans stormed the field and tore down the goalposts. The celebration went long into the night.

The Vols had beaten Gators coach Steve Spurrier, a native of Johnson City, and a team that included linebacker Jevon Kearse, quarterback Jesse Palmer, and tailback Robert Gillespie (now UT’s running backs coach and recruiting coordinator).

Of course, Tennessee had its own stars that day, among them All-SEC first teamers in Hall, linebackers Al Wilson and Raynoch Thompson, defensive tackle Darwin Walker, and offensive guard Cosey Coleman.

Running back Alvin Kamara had a good debut for Tennessee during the season-opening win against Bowling Green, rushing for two touchdowns and a team-best 144 yards.

-- Andrew Bruckse/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

UT went 8-0 in the SEC, beat Mississippi State 24-14 in the SEC championship game, and entered the Fiesta Bowl ranked No. 1 in the nation. The Vols beat No. 2 Florida State 23-16 for the national championship.

And no game was bigger than beating the Gators in Neyland.

Sept. 17, 1994:

No. 1 Florida 31, No. 15 Tennessee 0

This was actually the third game of the season for the Vols, ranked No. 13 for their opener against No. 14 UCLA in Pasadena.

The Bruins beat the Vols 25-23 in a game televised by ABC, but No. 19 UT bounced back the next week with a 41-23 victory over No. 23 Georgia in Athens.

UT had upset on its mind against the Gators. Didn’t happen. Not even close.

Florida, which beat New Mexico State 70-21 and Kentucky 73-7 in its first two games, handed the Vols their worst home loss since 1924 when they lost to Centre College, 32-0.

Chicago Tribune football writer Andrew Bagnato wrote: “It has been 70 years since Tennessee was whipped so soundly in Neyland Stadium, a noisy old joint squeezed into a campus hillside along the banks of the Tennessee River.”

Florida’s defense held the Vols to 68 net rushing yards, and many of UT’s 235 passing yards came in the second half after the Gators had a 24-0 lead and the game in hand.

UT started Todd Helton at quarterback – starting QB Jerry Colquitt suffered a season-ending injury at UCLA – but soon brought in freshman Peyton Manning, and then brought in freshman Brandon Stewart. Manning later re-entered, and so did Stewart. Didn’t matter.

Florida had five sacks against a highly touted UT offensive line that included tackles Jason Layman and Leslie Ratcliffe, guards Kevin Mays and Bubba Miller, and center Jeff Smith.

With 3:24 left in the game, Fulmer sent his field-goal unit onto the field, and John Becksvoort missed a 38-yard attempt amid a chorus of boos.

“We wanted to get something on the board and salvage what pride we had,” Fulmer said in a Los Angeles Times story.

UT dropped to No. 23 in the rankings, lost to Mississippi State 24-21 the next week in Starkville, Miss., and fell out of the rankings for the rest of the year. The Vols went 7-1 the rest of the regular season – with a 17-13 home loss to No. 10 Alabama – and beat No. 17 Virginia Tech 45-23 in the Dec. 30 Gator Bowl to finish 8-4.

The 1995 season was much better: UT went 11-1, its only loss at Florida (62-37), and beat Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl 24-14. The Vols finished third in the Associated Press poll.

Sept. 14, 1991:

No. 11 Tennessee 30, No. 21 UCLA 16

UT opened the 1991 season ranked No. 11 under coach Johnny Majors, and stayed there after a 28-11 road victory at Louisville in the season opener.

They returned home the next Saturday and played UCLA in what some say is the hottest game ever in Neyland. (One report had field-level temperature at 112 degrees, so hot Smokey, the Vols’ hound dog mascot, had a heat stroke).

The game was originally scheduled for 7 p.m., but when TBS acquired the rights to televise the game as part of its SEC package, it was moved to a 12:40 start.

“I can’t remember more uncomfortable weather for a game,” UCLA coach Terry Donahue said in a Los Angeles Times story. “The heat was a bigger factor than the crowd. Of course, Tennessee had to play under the same conditions. Guys were cramping up, and we both had to do a lot (more) substituting than usual.”

UT quarterback Andy Kelly completed 25 of 35 passes for 275 yards and a touchdown, but was intercepted three times. Carl Pickens had six catches for 104 yards and one touchdown.

Tight end Ethan Wolf is congratulated by Tennessee Coach Butch Jones following the first of two touchdowns scored against Bowling Green in the season-opening win at Nashville.

-- Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

The Vols’ Tracy Smith, a converted tailback filling in for Floyd Miley, intercepted a Tommy Maddox pass and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown and 23-9 lead. After UCLA’s Kevin Williams scored on a 74-yard screen pass, UT drove 75 yards and scored on J.J. McCleskey’s 3-yard reverse run for a 30-16 lead.

UT climbed to No. 4 in the rankings after victories over Mississippi State (26-24) and Auburn (30-21), but lost the next two weeks to No. 10 Florida in Gainesville (35-18) and to No. 14 Alabama in Birmingham (24-19).

After winning their last five regular-season games – including a 35-34 win over Notre Dame in South Bend – the No. 10 Vols lost to No. 6 Penn State 42-17 in the Fiesta Bowl to finish the season 9-3 (5-2 in SEC).

It was the next-to-last season for Majors, whose controversial ouster amid health issues in 1992 started the Fulmer era, which officially began in 1993.

UT vs. Oklahoma: Three Matchups to Watch

Mayfield vs. UT secondary: Junior quarterback Baker Mayfield, the former Texas Tech walk-on who transferred to Oklahoma last year, won the starting job over 2014 starter Trevor Knight. Mayfield threw for 388 yards against Akron – a school record for a season opener – and three touchdowns on 23-of-33 passing with no interceptions. UT’s secondary was shaky at best in the opener as Bowling Green’s Matt Johnson threw for 424 yards and two touchdowns on 27-of-49 passing. The Vols clearly missed starting nickel back Rashaan Gaulden and starting safety LaDarrell McNeil (neck injury), and neither will be back for Oklahoma. Look for the Sooners to exploit nickel Malik Foreman, the starter in place of Gaulden, and cornerback Emmanuel Moseley the way Bowling Green did.

Dobbs vs. Sooners secondary: It’s hard to say if Oklahoma’s secondary is better than last year’s, which wasn’t good, by looking at the opener against Akron (88 passing yards, 6-of-26 completions). Oklahoma was ninth in the Big 12 in pass defense in 2014, giving up a school-record 276.2 yards per game. UT’s Joshua Dobbs completed 15 of 22 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns (both to tight end Ethan Wolf) against Bowling Green. Alton “Pig” Howard, the Vols’ leading receiver last year, missed the opener while serving a one-game team suspension and is back for the Sooners’ game. And Marquez North, who didn’t catch a pass in the opener, won’t stay out of the stats for long.

Hurd, Kamara vs. Sooners’ front: Alvin Kamara rushed for 144 yards and two touchdowns and Jalen Hurd 123 yards and three touchdowns as the Vols were able to showcase their one-two punch against Bowling Green. Will the Sooners’ be a better test for the Vols’ run game?

Oklahoma led the Big 12 in rush defense in 2014, but that was due in large part to teams picking the Sooners apart with their passing games. Senior end Charles Tapper is an All-Big 12 candidate, but the Sooners’ defensive front could have a hard time containing Hurd, Kamara, and Dobbs.

Five things to watch

Return of Martinez: UT defensive backs coach Willie Martinez was suspended by the NCAA for the Bowling Green game due to a Level III recruiting violation that occurred during an evaluation period in May of 2014. Jones didn’t tell the team of Martinez’s suspension until before the game. Was it a big deal? Probably not so much for the players, but it was for defensive coordinator John Jancek. Martinez watches the game from the press box and is in constant communication with Jancek on the sideline. Jones said not having Martinez for the opener “hurt us.”

Air Raid offense: Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops fired offensive coordinator Josh Heupel and brought in Lincoln Riley to run his “Air Raid” offense like he did at East Carolina. Riley, a disciple of offensive guru Mike Leach, has installed a new up-tempo spread offense, and the Sooners hope to get more balance with the run/pass game. Oklahoma threw it all over the field against Akron – so much the run game wasn’t needed. Don’t be surprised if the Sooners look for more balance against the Vols.

UT will be without starting defensive tackle Danny O’Brien, who was suspended this week for violating team rules and policies.

Mixon-Perine duo: Oklahoma has a potent one-two running punch with the return of five-star recruit Joe Mixon, who was suspended for the 2014 season for punching a woman in the face at a bar. Now, Mixon is back as a redshirt freshman, and combines with Samaje Perine to give the Sooners two backs with different styles. Perine (5-11, 237 pounds) rushed for 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns as a true freshman last year. Mixon (6-1, 217) rushed for 1,704 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior two years ago at Freedom High in Oakley, Calif.

Sutton’s Punt Returns: UT junior Cameron Sutton isn’t just a lock-down cornerback; his punt returns were huge against Bowling Green. Sutton’s three returns went for 47, 34, and 21 yards, and all three set up touchdowns. Sutton averaged 11.3 yards on 14 punt returns last year and had a 76-yarder for a touchdown. After this year’s opener, Sutton ranks fourth in the country in return average at 34.0 yards.

Medley Worries: Sophomore place-kicker Aaron Medley was almost perfect last year from inside 40 yards (19 of 20), but only 1 of 6 from 40-49 yards. His start to 2015 didn’t go so well.

Although he made all eight of his PAT kicks in the opener, Medley missed field-goal attempts of 42 and 29 yards (he made a 26-yarder).

You could probably bet one or two UT games will be decided by a field goal this year, so Medley needs to bounce back from a wobbly start.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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