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Tennessee and California

By request...

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.

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Reader Comments (94)

104,000 crazy fans... just remember that.
August 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterHeath
That's true but Cal has already been (and done well in) LOUD enivrons. Tedford teams historically don't let that stuff get in the way. Oregon and USC (esp. '04 USC w/ the game on the line 1st and 9)
August 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMarshawn Lynch
CFR, you pac(1)0 homers just can't help yourselves can you? Slipping in that Tenn.'s NC was ill-gotten. There's not too many teams that have won the NC that can't point to a game or two that they shouldn't have or deserved to win. I don't have to provide that info do I? That 1998 Tenn. team was a very talented team and, beat a very good FSU team for the NC who was 11-1 and had the #1 ranked defense in the country. It's not like they played a pac(1)0 schedule or anything like that.

BTW, you haven't forgotten how to pen those "Mea Culpas" have you?
August 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDawgy1
The teams that Cal beat were a combined 22-66 last year. The best of them was a 6-6 BYU team. They lost to all three teams they played with a winning record plus a 5-6 Oregon St team. Five of their 8 wins came against teams with 3 wins or less. IOW's, Cal ran up stats against weak opposition. Their OOC opponents were a pathetic 4-32 combined.

UT conversely beat teams with a combined record of 22-22. Their losses came to teams with a combined record of 50-22.

Like Cal they lost to a team with a 5-6 record. Unlike Cal that team, Vandy, was QB'd by a first rounder.

BTW, Cal and ND have a common opponent: USC. USC put 35 points on Cal whacking them by 25... the margin of victory might have lessened their urgency to score more. USC eeked out a 34-31 win over ND in a game where they had to do all the could to score enough points. Foster ran for 125 against ND while Bush had 160.

IOW's, if ND is a matador defense having played USC down to the last 3 seconds and then only losing on a questionable no-call... what does that make Cal?
August 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterST
Both teams will have to play 7-8 in the box to stop the other team's run. "IF" Cals backs are really better than UT's backs then that is at least partly leveled by the o-lines where UT will have the edge.

This makes it a game of WR's and DB's. UT's DB's are better than Cal's WR's. UT's WR's are also better than Cal's DB's.

X-factor. In spite of the naysayers, stats speak. During Cutcliffe's tenure at UT, they averaged 34+ ppg. Under Sanders, they averaged around 25 with the same level or possibly even better talent. Cutcliffe has put 3 first rounders into the NFL in the past 13 years. He definitely knows two things: How to develop QB's and how to score points.

IOW's, your "narrow" window to claim victory argument is bunk.

For reference, Cal has averaged 34.4 ppg under Tedford in the wide open Pac10 and playing mostly weak OOC teams.
August 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterST
"ill-gotten national championship that immortalized two absolutely forgettable figures in college football: Clint Stoerner and Marcus Outzen."

A reader on my blog pointed to some items you failed to include about the above comment. Outzen and Co beat a very good Florida team that year and Tennessee was without its star Jamal Lewis for the same game.
August 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterVoluminous
Oh... and what DID Lynch do against the only decent defense he played last year? 87 yard vs USC.

Classic. You give Cal high praise for being a juggernaut running attack since they ran over powerhouse defenses like Sacramento State, Illinois, UW's, UCLA, New Mexico State, WSU, Stanford, and BYU but somehow Foster's performance as a true Freshman is diminished by a lack of competition?
August 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterST
Any idiot can tell Lynch is a great back. Yes, most of his yards came against crap competition but even against a legit defense like USC's he ran well.

Keep in mind he was injured almost the entire year.

I brought up the soft opponents Foster had success against to pre-empt the talking points I knew were going to come from Vol fans.

Watch both of those guys run, and tell me Foster's even remotely in Lynch's league. You can't. Lynch is dynamic and can make things happen against tough defenses, whereas Foster is physically limited, he has to play a more disciplined inside game and get lucky a little with inside runs to make an impact.

That's why I think Tennessee's going to have trouble at times, because they don't have the threat out of the backfield to test Cal's (or any other talented defense) defense and balance their attack.

As far as Outzen, yes he did beat Florida, but lightning doesn't strike twice and FSU's offense was destined to fail against Tennessee. The game was over before it began where it would likely have been an FSU win with the starting QB.

Remember that FSU team had diminuitive Travis Minor at tailback and an offense that passed to set up the run. Not having a competent QB out there allowed Tennessee to tee off and attack all afternoon without worrying much about the FSU run game or passing game because Autzen was so bad of a passer.

I'm not disputing Tennessee's NC, they won it the way it was set up, but they went from likely underdogs and losers to a team that was all but assured of a victory before the game even began because of FSU's QB situation.

I mean it's like having, say, USC going from playing Vince Young's Texas in last year's Rose Bowl to some anonymous backup who clearly would be unable to do anything against that USC defense. Different game, USC all but assured of a title, and ILL-GOTTEN just the same.

And that's not even getting into that whole Stoerner thing :o).
August 21, 2006 | Registered CommenterCFR
Is this College Football Resource or PAC-10 College Football Resource?
August 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterVoluminous
God forbid someone side against the Vols.

I've put good reasons forth and a defense of those reasons.

I had a problem with Tennessee's 1998 title, it wasn't a Pac-10 thing seeing as how the Pac-10 had nothing to do with it, right? With Autzen FSU had no shot at the title, it was one of the Vols' easiest games of the year because of that, thus it was arguably an ill-gotten title.

I'd be glad to read a blog or column saying why Tennessee can win, that doesn't bother me. I've said the Vols can win here, it's simply going to be in a manner that's less definitive and less likely than the way Cal can (and probably will) win.

I'm not ignoring the Bears' big-game letdowns so far (mentioned the Holiday Bowl) but there might just possibly, insanely enough be reasons they can win this game.

Challenge my arguments, but juvenile labeling like "Pac-10 College Football Resource" is basically an admission one's on the losing side of an argument. There are some good rebuttals to be made both in defense of Tennessee and Cal and they're welcome to be added here.

I appreciate the links you send my way, but I look forward to more thoughtful rebuttals to what's presented here.
August 21, 2006 | Registered CommenterCFR
Addressing a few other points:

There is no "if" about Cal's backs being better than Tennessee's. It's pretty clear they are superior. Since that great 1990's run of NFL TB's, Tennessee has had very average talent at the position with Cedric Houston, Jabari Davis, Gerald Riggs and now Arian Foster. These guys continue to put up numbers, but they have less of an impact on games and are less talented than their precedessors and simply not as talented as Lynch. Forsett is a similar talent, but he's a dangerous back who can make plays in the mold of Northwestern's Tyrell Sutton, both superb system backs.

Cutcliffe did a great job as OC at Tennessee but he inherits a shaky QB in Ainge, not the talented Heath Shuler, the polished Peyton Manning or a steady performer like Tee Martin. It's going to take time to get that offense humming and his current crop of backs are nowhere near as talented as all the guys he worked with from Garner and Stewart to Graham to Lewis etc. The guys on the roster are 2-3 steps below those great backs, it's a whole 'nother world and the Tennessee offense can only be so much better than last year's until the talent rebounds.

Especially being the first game of the season, Tennessee is most certainly going to be conservative with a new OC in there, even if he HAS coached there before and it's a similar system to what they're already running, it's still a new face and tendencies and offenses usually take time to get cohesive when a new face takes over. Rarely does a team play with cannons blazing against a very good foe, first game into the tenure of a new OC.

Keep in mind Cal averaged 33 PPG last year with a very shaky QB who gave way to a converted fullback, their best back injured much of the year and the leading receiver just a frosh. That is a hell of an offense. They will be much better this year particularly if Longshore gets confidence.

Bush ran for 150 against Notre Dame on about 10 carries, Foster did it on 28 carries, of which 43 came on one carry, thus reducing his average sans the one big run to 3.0 YPC, hardly impressive. I think that's actually what he may do against Cal, but without the big run, average somewhere around 3 YPC with about 30 carries. That's the recipe for a move-the-chains, keep the scoring down type offensive gameplan.

The USC/Cal game was interesting because Cal played great defense against USC. Cal held Bush in check considerably and forced USC to patiently work up and down the field to get its points. Cal's problem was that Ayoob had a terrible game and threw five interceptions, including several in the red zone. That was actually a fairly close game until USC started scoring late in the game to which Cal clearly couldn't answer until it switched to the reserve QB, Levy.

The lesson from that game is that Cal can play against very talented foes (most notably USC) and if it gets consistent QB play it can beat them (nearly upset USC in 2004 and last year's game would have been very close with a competent QB). They were able to run on USC's defense, and Lynch's 87 yards came on just 13 carries (6.7 YPC), so he was hardly in check against that defense despite some nagging injuries.
August 21, 2006 | Registered CommenterCFR
Some other "ill-gotten" NCs:
1996 Florida - barely beat Vanderbilt, lost in the last regular season game of the season and still managed to play for the title (see 2001 Nebraska)
1997 Nebraska - "foot of destiny" against Missouri
2001 Miami - lucky escapes vs mediocre BC (the bounce off the knee interception as BC was driving for the win) and VaTech, then meets division title-less Nebraska in the title game
2002 Ohio State - too many lucky games to count in the regular seasons, plays Miami without McGahee for half the title game, and then receives the benefit of a dubious (at best) PI call
2003 LSU/USC - no need to say anything here, they didn't even play each other
2004 USC - opener against VaTech turned on a bogus PI call, squeaked by a bad Stanford team, was a last minute pass into the endzone away from losing to Cal, just got by average Oregon State and UCLA, and escaped playing what was probably the #2 team in the title game

I could go on and on and on. Pretty much every national champion needs a couple "lucky" breaks (1995 Nebraska notwithstanding). The difference between a national champion and a non-national champion is that the national champion takes advantage of the good breaks and overcomes the bad breaks (yes, UT had bad breaks too that year - see jamal lewis' season ending injury, the botched safety call in the arkansas game).
August 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterQuaker
There are good and bad breaks, yes, and then then are situations where the key to an opponents' entire offense isn't even able to play a game basically making the game a sure Tennessee victory, and another game that was a certain defeat turned on an amazingly unforced error.

Close games happen and teams survive, that's not what I'm arguing here. I'm talking about two VERY unique situations.

The closest to them might be Neb's "foot of destiny" but even then it was a wild play, not blatant stupidity by a QB who handed a game away.

Injuries etc. happen, Miami lost Willis McGahee against Ohio State, but he wasn't the central figure in their offense the way Leak was. Miami still had hope, they could move the ball and make plays, FSU was dead in the water.

If you don't want to call it ill-gotten, fine, just call it an extraordinarily fortunate and rare path to the title, above and beyond the examples you pointed out.
August 21, 2006 | Registered CommenterCFR
These SEC peeps think Cal is Boise State hahahah. Just wait.
August 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMarshawn Lynch
Wait a minute. Lost in all of this is the fact that Tennessee sucks. Erik Ainge is the QB. If UAB almost beat them to open last year, Cal shouldn't have too much trouble. Wild card: Aryan Foster, a very talented young back. He could be a difference maker, and he might be their only chance.
August 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterCody
Actually, no. Boise St. has a better passing game.
Seriously, Cal does have a potent run game headed by Lynch. Forsett is as formidable backup as any in the nation. However, as you accurately pointed out concerning Foster’s stats, it depends on who you play and how many big run skew your stats… which aptly applies to Lynch as well. Considering Cal played (in order) the 49th, 117th, 111th, 93rd, 116th, 17th, 65th, 39th, 31st, 70th, and (57th counting BYU) run defenses in the Country; it doesn’t look nearly as powerful. Put in perspective, Foster’s 223 yards isn’t so paltry, since Vandy’s run defense was ranked 82nd (better than four of Cal’s opponents) He did in fact, as you correctly mentioned, have a 66 yard run to bump his numbers, equaling 29% of his total for the day. But again, to be fair we need to examine Lynch’s pivotal biggest runs for all of his games, which on average, were 23% of his game totals.

What really stands out to me in reviewing the stats is that the Pac-10 run defenses were ranked so low, given the propensity to pass among its league teams. By contrast, the SEC primarily is a run-first conference; however the run defenses were statistically so much better, with Tennessee ranked 2nd, LSU 6th, Alabama 9th, and Florida 10th, among the notables. California’s run defense was quite respectable, coming in at 24th – But an interesting footnote to that: On their (the defense) worst game, Oregon St.’s Bernard pounded the Bears for 194 yards, and the Beavers’ rushing offense ended ranked 86th. Six places lower than Tennessee’s, coming in at 80th.

In reviewing everything we’ve learned from last year, (and a completely different, but just as telling case can be made for the total defense rankings of each teams opponents, so if anyone is inclined - http://statistics.ncaafootball.com/default.asp?c=ncaa-football&page=cfoot/stat/ncaa-team-totaldef.htm ) I would conclude that Tennessee was neither as bad, nor Cal as good, as you would make them out to be. I expect a good, close game, and feel you err in your analysis. Whoever the victor - which could be either team - and barring a COMPLETE meltdown, this will in fact more resemble the LSU/Oregon St. tilt of ’04.

However, I and the other Tennessee faithful will settle for a 23-0 Volunteer win if you continue to insist. (Kidding. OK, not really.)
August 21, 2006 | Unregistered Commentersnakebrown13
I'm awed by the shocking lack of humility Cal fan in general is showing for the first serious on campus non-conference trip they've taken under Tedford.

And let's not pretend these defenses are equal, Cal gave up 47 to UCLA, 28 to BYU, 35 to USC, & 38 to Washington State in 05. The only team to blow up against Tennessee was Notre Dame, on the road and they scored two def/st tds.

Cal should be in this game all the way and I would imagine it'll be white knuckle for both teams in the 4th quarter, but Cal would be very fortunate to walk out of Neyland with a win considering they don't have anymore confidence in their qbs then Tennessee does.
August 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJarvis Redwine12
BTW, ST: Cal and ND had TWO common opponents. USC, who you mentioned, and Stanford.

Cal put 27 points on Stanford whacking them by 24...the margin of victory might have lessened Cal's need to keep in the defensive starters. ND eeked out a 38-31 win over Stanford in a game where they coudln't stop the Stanford offensive at any point, but they were fortunate to get the ball back with some time left at the end.
August 22, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterCalfan
Calfan, Stanford sucked and so did ND's defense.
August 22, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDawgy1
By no means is it certain that Cal's backs are superior to UT's. UT's back ups are inexperienced but read the CFN preview and you'll find that in their estimation they're perhaps the fastest in the country. Behind Foster, they have 3 guys who go about 200 lbs and run 4.4 or better.

Again, the non-sense that Cal's backs are legit but UT's aren't based on competition simply won't wash.

Also, Lynch ran for 87 against USC. Are you changing the standard for what it means to run well?
August 22, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterST

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