California @ Tennessee
September 2, 2006
It's the [tired stereotype] tree-huggers from Berkeley[/sterotype] against the [tired stereotype] yellow-tooth brigade[/stereotype] from Rocky Top. Pac-10/SEC madness in week one. Rejoice!
This game should be the most anticipated of the three Pac-10/SEC battles this year. Cal is getting top-10 hype and Tennessee's looking to disassociate itself from the disaster that was last year's 5-6 season. The Volunteers fired offensive coordinator Randy Sanders and replaced him with former OC David Cutcliffe. As such people in Tennessee have delusional visions of 1998 and that ill-gotten national championship that immortalized two absolutely forgettable figures in college football: Clint Stoerner and Marcus Outzen.
Cal must also escape strange ghosts, namely that ouch ouch ouch heartless effort against Texas Tech in the 2004 Holiday Bowl. Mind you Cal deserved to be in the Rose Bowl and didn't unfairly leverage its connections with conference coaches and media friends into a suspicious last-minute poll boost to get into the game, but that's neither here nor there. This game's in September and neither team has yet been cheated of its prestige---so play ball.
Aside from the obvious homefield advantage, I hunch Tennessee's coaches will prepare for this game with a healthy dose of realism and sobriety. They know that their offense is fitful at best, and unlikely to outgun what should be a talented and legitimate California defense. Quarterback Erik Ainge has been adeqate at times but is mostly scattershot and neurotic behind center, the SEC's answer to last year's Cal starter: Joe Ayoob. For their part, the Vol receivers dunk their hands in country crock before taking the field most Saturday afternoons. That's a bad mix when you're up against a team that can score points in a hurry.
Never fear, though, the Volunteers usually have a good run game. Except when they don't. Like last year, this year may be another "don't". Le sigh.
Sophomore Arian Foster came on strong with five hundred-yard efforts to finish the woeful 2005 season, but the SID's don't want you to know those efforts came against matador defenses (ole!) South Carolina, Notre Dame, Memphis, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Shhh. Foster doesn't have the look or feel of another all-SEC, future NFL great back from Tennessee, though. He's got good size and can handle the workload, but lacks burst, elusiveness and a nose for the open field. He's the kid who can get steady B's on his report card but the Volunteers desperately need that "A" student in the backfield. Foster's not that guy.
Both the Tennessee and Cal coaches know what's coming here: ball-control, nose to the grindstone running game from the Vols, eating the clock and the goal of gradually overwhelming the talented Cal defensive line with a little boost from that 100,000 seat stadium and the South's magnificently humid September evenings. It could work, especially if Ainge is having a good day, but neither the strategy nor the idea of successful quarterback play is a guarantee.
For Cal, they're going to be facing a very fast and athletic Tennessee defense. The Vols graduated three starters from last year's defensive line that was a top-10 unit against the run and will probably start a very young group of linebackers, but their secondary can legitimately rotate a good 7-8 players in the four DB spots without much dropoff. The numbers game in the secondary plays to Tennessee's advantage, as Cal's receivers likely won't out-athlete/out-number Tennessee's DB's. They'll have to win with scheme, efficient quarterback play and enough balance from the run game.
As of today it's still a little unclear who Cal's starting quarterback will be, but I hunch it will be Nate Longshore. He has a good arm and is in his third year in coach Tedford's system. He lacks experience and that may cost him at times in this game, but he has the tools around him to direct what could be one of the nation's most explosive offenses. For all the hype about Cal's passing game and quarterbacks, the power run attack has long been their bread-and-butter.
The obvious name to mention here is Marshawn Lynch, possibly the NCAA's best back. He's a herky-jerky runner, but has great speed, strength, size, vision... everything.
Injuries have shortened quite a few of his regular season appearances, but when he's in the game he's making plays averaging a ridiculous 8.8 and 6.4 YPC the last two seasons. He's backed up by Justin Forsett, the West Coast answer to Northwestern's Tyrell Sutton. Both are elite college running talents and should find ways to challenge Tennessee's defense.
The big question here is what condition Cal's offensive line will be in. They lost three very good starters to the NFL and must adjust on the fly for this game. Expect a few breakdowns that kill a handful of Golden Bear drives, but not enough to put the brakes to their fantastic offense.
With all that in mind, I'm favoring Cal here. Tennessee isn't Texas Tech, they aren't going to surprise California here or dazzle them with an unfamiliar offensive attack. The Vols are certainly a talented and proud team and should put up a fight in this game and could indeed make this a very close matchup, but I think their winning options are limited. I'd be very surprised to see Cal's balanced, diverse and efficient offense held under say, 20-25 points.
But I'd be equally surprised to see Tennessee score that many. In other words, their window of opportunity to claim victory here is narrow. They'll probably try to win with ball control, turnovers and intimidation and sneak out a 3-7 point victory or pray for a Cal meltdown that pushes that margin upward and onward. We don't know until the teams hit the field how the Cal players will react, how confident they'll perform and if they get psyched out of this game. If they aren't, they should all but assure themselves of victory. Their defense doesn't appear to be a pushover, and has All America candidates at defensive tackle and corner and one of the nation's finest sets of linebackers. They'll make the Vols work on offense just as Tennessee's defense will challenge Cal.
However, Cal has an efficient offense with schematic balance and very good offensive talents in players like Lynch, like Forsett, like receivers DeSean Jackson and Robert Jordan and tight end Craig Stevens. It's a fine group whereas the opponent continues to sort out its offensive woes in real time.
If Cal's intimidated this game can and will go south on them, but otherwise I simply don't see a consistent offensive threat materializing from the Volunteers. Cal's not the stereotypical Pac-10 team that is all-pass, no toughness along the lines and no run game. They play physical, they do run the ball, they do have depth and speed along the defense and have assembled what looks like a top 10 team for 2006. That cannot be ignored.
In other words, this matchup looks more like the 2003 (USC 23 Auburn 0) Pac-10/SEC opening week battle than 2004's (LSU 22, Oregon State 21), in my eyes.