Five Defining Moments for Tennessee Vols Football in 2009
Following a BCS National Championship in 1998, the Tennessee Volunteers began to slide down the mountain they had ascended and settled into mediocrity 10 years later.
In order to head their way back up the mountain in new coach Lane Kiffin's debut season on Rocky Top, the Volunteers need to at least get bowl eligible after missing out last year.
Here are the Top 5 moments and match-ups that should define whether they'll be successful or not.
Moment No. 1: vs. UCLA, September 12th
Tennessee's record coming into this game: 1-0
The Bruins actually helped change the course of Volunteer football history when they upset No. 18 Tennessee, 27-24 (OT), in the 2008 season-opener.
The loss made it clear that respected former coach Phillip Fulmer’s time was up in Knoxville and change was indeed coming.
Naturally, a win over UCLA can help to exorcise some of those ghosts.
Key Match-up: UCLA offense vs. Tennessee Defense
Last season, the Tennessee defense limited the Bruins' ground game to 29 net yards and picked off UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft four times—but the Volunteers still found a way to lose.
Craft ended the season with seven touchdowns and 20 interceptions, so if the collegiate version of the Tampa-2 defense can duplicate or surpass the 2008 gameplan, they should win this match-up and the game.
The rest of the story: Tennessee kicker Daniel Lincoln missed three field goals that night in the Rose Bowl, which allowed the Bruins to hang around and ultimately steal the victory.
And though Jonathan Crompton and the offense weren't exactly stellar against the UCLA defense, they did more than enough to win.
Prediction: If the defense can do its job again, the Volunteers should be off to a 2-0 start before heading to The Swamp to take on the defending national champions.
Moment No. 2: at Florida, September 19th
Tennessee's record coming into this game: 2-0
This match-up used to have national championship implications and also determined the early favorite to win the SEC.
But this year, it'll merely be an indication of how far Tennessee has come in a short time under Kiffin.
Even the most feverish Volunteer fan shouldn't expect a win—but they'll take it if they can get it all the same.
Key Match-up: Tennessee Defensive Line vs. Florida
As crazy as this might sound, I'd rather have Florida quarterback Tim Tebow running the ball instead of throwing it.
He can't simply sit in the pocket unmolested where he'll shred the Tennessee defense, so the pass rush must flush him out.
Although the defense did a good job in last year's match-up (96 yards passing, 26 yards rushing), the Gators only punted once. So why tempt fate—especially in The Swamp?
The rest of the story: Punt and kick coverage must also improve if Tennessee hopes to stay in the game.
The Gators averaged 46 yds per punt return in last season's 30-6 loss. So limiting Tebow was great, but the return team gave him a short field to work with that canceled that great effort out.
Prediction: Florida has both Tebow and an overall edge in talent right now. The Volunteers should hang around, but ultimately will suffer their first loss of the season, 20-10.
Moment No. 3: vs. Georgia, October 10th
Tennessee's record coming into this game: 4-1
Key Match-up: Georgia Offense vs.Tennessee Defense
One of the most baffling things about this match-up since the 2002 season is that the Bulldogs have always had the edge in overall talent, but sport just a 4-3 record against Tennessee in that timespan.
The Tennessee defense is solid, but the Georgia offense minus Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and Mohamed Massaquoi will be in transition.
It reminds me of the 2006 game when a supposedly overmatched Tennessee squad went between the hedges and walked the Bulldogs straight to the woodshed in a 51-33 runaway.
The rest of the story: 15 rushes for one yard isn't going to get it done for Montario Hardesty and the Volunteers ground game. Just as in the UCLA game earlier on, if the offense can avoid mistakes, the defense should carry the day.
Prediction: Expect the usual Saturday night head knocker between the two with the Volunteers improving to 5-1 with a hard-fought 17-13 win.
Moment No. 4: at Alabama, October 24th
Tennessee's record coming into this game: 5-1
Key match-up: Tennessee Running Game vs. Alabama Defense
Nick Saban is 2-0 versus Tennessee thanks to his defense which held the Volunteers to 1.7 yards per rush in last season's 29-9 loss in Knoxville.
The only thing that kept it from getting worse was Britton Colquitt's 43.7-yard average on a whopping seven punts. Hungry for another shot at the national title, the Tide should come into the match-up undefeated (although they do face a trip to Oxford to take on the much-improved Ole Miss Rebels).
Establishing the run is the only way to keep the Alabama defense off Crompton and if the offensive line can't open enough holes to run through, the Tide pass rush will run over them.
The rest of the story: Just as in the Florida game, there's no question that Alabama has a talent advantage. But the Tennessee-Alabama rivalry is also about attitude.
If Tennessee can survive Alabama's early surge, their confidence will grow and this could turn into a game.
Prediction: Alabama won't take the Volunteers lightly—although the average margin of victory in the two Saban-era games is 22 points—because the rivalry is just that big.
It'll be closer this time, but the Tide will walk away with Saban's third straight win in the rivalry, 30-21.
Moment No. 5: vs. South Carolina, October 31st
Tennessee's record coming into this game: 5-2
Key match-up: Lane Kiffin vs. The Old Ball Coach
Steve Spurrier, a Tennessee native, loves to play against and beat Tennessee—especially in Knoxville. So Halloween night is a good night for the Old Ball Coach to dig deep into his bag of tricks in attempt to ouwit Kiffin and his dad's defense.
The Gamecocks are 2-2 against Tennessee in the last four match-ups with the last South Carolina win in Knoxville coming in 2005.
Kiffin can't allow Spurrier's sly trash talk in the week leading up to the game to affect him or he'll fall into the trap of making his gameplan about emotion rather cold, logical precision.
The rest of the story: The Volunteers should be looking to become bowl-eligible with a win over South Carolina.
Although they'll probably get that sixth win the following week against Memphis, there's no doubt the Volunteers would rather get it against Spurrier. The Old Ball Coach may not be at Florida anymore, but he's still Public Enemy No. 1 on Rocky Top.
Prediction: Spurrier gets the last laugh and keeps the Volunteers waiting one more week for that bowl bid with a 24-22 win.
The Volunteers should take three out of four to close out the season with wins over Memphis, Vanderbilt and Kentucky to balance out a loss at Mississippi.
An 8-4 record isn't a bad start for Kiffin and should get the Volunteers back in the 2010 preseason poll and on their way back up the mountain.