SEC Out-of-Conference Games in '09: Tennessee vs UCLA

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SEC Out-of-Conference Games in '09: Tennessee vs UCLA

There was one thing that you could say about last year’s Volunteers/Bruins matchup on Sept. 1:

Classic

Classic, but not in the ways that we normally think of.

In fact, the game was incredibly ugly in a lot of ways.

It was ugly when the two starting quarterbacks combined to throw five interceptions.

It was ugly for the UCLA running game, managing only 29 yards on 31 attempts for the game.

Tennessee kicker Daniel Lincoln might still be having nightmares of his dismal performance that night. Lincoln missed three field goal attempts in the game. Had he made even two of his attempts, Tennessee doesn’t lose 27-24 in overtime.

And let’s not even get started on what Phillip Fulmer must have thought about the debacle.

Is it reasonable to assume that this one game played a major role in the Tennessee collapse last year that ultimately led to a coaching change in Knoxville?

Maybe the best analogy one could use to describe last year’s matchup is that of the 10-car pile up on the interstate.

You know what I’m talking about.

You’ve been there and done it.

You slow down as you drive by (or, as you flip through the usual ESPN channels in the Lazy Boy) and you take a quick glance.

At first you’re embarrassed and hope that no one sees you looking. But then you realize that everyone is slowing down to look. As nasty, brutal, and ugly as the situation is, you just have to look.

That’s what this game was. It was the proverbial 10-car pile up.

Here’s the thing though.

If you slowed down and looked long enough at the carnage, you were ultimately rewarded with an incredibly exciting second half of football (along with an overtime period).

To see UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft throw for only 66 yards, with three picks in the first half, and then come out in the second and TORCH the vaunted Volunteer defense was amazing!

It was actually one of the better quarterback performances (for a half) that I can recall seeing recently.

Craft finished the game going 25/43 for 259 yards and a score.

Conversely, Tennessee signal-caller Jonathon Crompton tanked in the second half, making crucial mistakes that kept the game close and allowed the Bruins to stay in it until the end. When it was all said and done, the Bruins kicked a 47-yard field goal in overtime to send the Vols home wondering what just hit them.

Will this season’s game provide the same level of entertainment as the 2008 version? That remains to be seen, but one thing we do know is that this one will feature an all-new cast of characters.

To start with, don’t expect to be seeing Kevin Craft under center for the Bruins.

In an ironic twist, the hero of last year’s game actually enters the this one in the same situation this season as he was in last year. As a backup. Third-stringer, to be exact.

Even though Craft went from zero to hero in the span of one half in last season’s game, the fact is, he would never have seen the field that night had it not been for a rash of injuries to the quarterbacks in front of him on the depth chart.

And aside from his magical moment against Tennessee, Craft did himself no favors whatsoever as the season wore on. Twenty interceptions, freshmen or not, is hard to live with.

Going into this season, UCLA appears to be counting on freshman quarterback Kevin Prince to lead the offense. It will be interesting to see how Prince responds to the hostile environment he will encounter in Knoxville.

Starting a freshman at quarterback in major college ball is rarely a good thing these days. Starting that freshman on the road in Neyland Stadium, against what is expected to be a very solid defense, is even worse.

The starting quarterback for the Vols will once again be Jonathon Crompton, but that’s due to a lack of options, not because Crompton actually earned the starting job.

Crompton played so poorly last season that he was actually demoted in favor of Nick Stephens halfway through the season. Stephens might have entered this season as the starter, but a spring injury has thrown a monkey wrench into that scenario, at least for the moment.

Sophomore B.J. Coleman was considered by some to be the best passer of the group, but being unhappy with his current situation, has decided to transfer and seek his fortunes elsewhere. All this has led to coach Lane Kiffin to name Crompton as the starter heading into the 2009 season.

One can almost hear the collective groan coming from Knoxville.

Regardless of who lines up under center, the going is expected to be tough. The offensive line is already down to almost the bare minimum number of players required to run a play. If injuries strike, Tennessee coaches might have to resort to moving tight ends inside. Seriously!

Now, having said all that, what you can expect to see from the Volunteers offense is a steady dose of the downhill rushing attack. This may very well be the key to the game when it’s all said and done.

While Tennessee is deficient in some areas, and will have to play through the season with a smoke machine and a few mirrors here and there, they can usually run the ball downhill with effect. Can the Bruins stop it? That’s pretty much the question.

For all that was said about last season’s “ugly” game, this is exactly what Tennessee wants to turn the contest into this season. While the Tennessee offense lacks numbers on the offensive front, and are not an especially good group at pass protection, they do one thing well.

That one thing is powe-run blocking. With an erratic quarterback and a stable of horses, get ready for Lane Kiffin and company to run it straight ahead, attempting to control the clock, and win with superior defense.

As far as the running backs go, Montario Hardesty is back for his senior campaign, after finishing the ‘08 season with almost 300 yards and six scores (two coming against UCLA). But he’s not really the guy that people are talking about or waiting to see in 2009.

If Tennessee did anything in the recruiting season, they added running backs. They signed Bryce Brown, who was arguably the top high school player in the nation last year, and David Oku, a do-it-all back who would be the jewel in any recruiting class...that didn’t sign Bryce Brown.

There’s a lot of excitement in Knoxville these days when it comes to their running backs. Expect the Tennessee staff to give UCLA a heavy dose of the ground game.

Again, when talking about the Bruins offense, we’re really not sure what to expect at this point. We know that during the Spring, coach Rick Neuheisel (I should get points for spelling that) gave the offense a grade of “incomplete.”

Is it likely to improve much going into the Tennessee game? Probably not. And if last season is any indication, Norm Chow can only do so much.

Yeah, THAT Norm Chow. The same Norm Chow that coached the Matt Leinart-led USC Trojan offense. The  Norm Chow that mentored Phillip Rivers at North Carolina State, and last but not least, the Norm Chow that helped Brigham Young University win a national championship in 1984.

If you didn’t realize that Chow was now the offensive coordinator at UCLA, then don’t feel bad. It’s not like anything they did last season offensively would have led you to think that they were a prolific offense in any way.

To be honest, UCLA could have named last year’s offense “The Legion of Doom”.

Remember when you were like...19 or 20? I meant to say...remember when you were like seven or eight, and watched The Superfriends on Saturday mornings? The Superfriends always faced off against the Legion of Doom, and the Doomers had like, their own alter-ego guys? Like the Hulk had Solomon Grundy, and Super Man had Bizarro?

That was last year’s UCLA offense. It was like...Bizarro-Chow. It was kind of Chow, but not really. It was just like a Norm Chow-coached offense, but without all the scoring and points. Basically the evil, dark, side of Chow’s persona.

Yeah. It was that bad.

But it wasn’t all Norm’s fault.

As a coach myself, I can tell you that there is one truth in coaching, and all coaches know it.

If you don’t have the horses, you can’t run.

At any level of football, be it pee wee or major college, if you simply do not have the talent to make plays, then no amount of game-day coaching is going to make up for it in the end.

That’s what Chow ran into last year. There was no Robbie Bosco under center for the Bruins. No Ty Detmer or Phillip Rivers.

Going into 2009, Chow is relying on an unproven commodity once again, in Kevin Prince. Now, no one knows how Prince will fare in the game against Tennessee, but one thing is almost certain; If the Bruins can play some defense, and if Prince can get some help from his friends at the skill positions, this one has the potential to be a real dandy!

Tennessee can be beaten in this one. While UCLA comes into the contest with a lot of issues and some uncertainty, the Volunteers come in with just as much, if not more.

The freshmen quarterback versus the prodigal son.

Two solid defenses going against offenses with major question marks.

Will Bryce Brown become an emerging star in college football after this one, or will Kevin Prince become the next great Chow-coached quarterback?

I don’t know the answers, but I know one thing; I’m really looking forward to watching this match up. I suspect that what might start out as a highway pileup, could potentially end up as another early-season, out of conference, classic.

Up next:  Oklahoma State faces Georgia.

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