It seems every day that passes brings more good news for the Vols—and more bad news for the Bruins.
As more crutches show up in Westwood and more players are declared eligible in Knoxville, many in Vol Nation have worked themselves into a frenzy that envisions Dave Clawson's new offense ripping into a vulnerable UCLA defense. Meanwhile, the Vol D puts the clamps on UCLA's third team quarterback in a game Tennessee wins by scoring at least 40.
But let's pump the brakes for a second.
Kevin Craft wasn't the primary option at quarterback for the Bruins, true. They also haven't fully sorted out the offensive line, which could spell trouble for their most viable offensive option in RB Kahlil Bell.
However, Tennessee's biggest problem on the West Coast last year—tackling in space—has been a concern in a few preseason scrimmages as well. UCLA doesn't have Cal's offensive weapons from last year, but if Rico McCoy and the rest of a somewhat inexperienced front seven don't make the tackles they should make, UCLA is going to find some yardage.
The Vol secondary is being counted on as the strength of the defense, and that should hold true from the first snap. But don't look for Norm Chow's offense to try to throw over the top of Eric Berry and Demetrice Morley either. If UCLA plays disciplined, mistake-free football, there's no reason why they shouldn't be able to find some production.
Tennessee struggled all year in 2007 to get pressure on the quarterback. Anyone good enough to play at a BCS conference school is going to find success if given enough time. The Vols will look for marked improvement in the pass rush with more speed and a better secondary in coverage, but even Kevin Craft can hurt you if he's got all day to make decisions.
And what effect will Rick Neuheisel's home debut in powder blue have on the game?
On the other side...really, no one knows exactly what we're going to see from the Vol offense. UCLA's defense is equally inexperienced at key places, and the Vols are breaking in (again) Jonathan Crompton at quarterback.
While some have made rash comparisons to Tim Tebow based on Crompton's playing style, toughness, and effort in a 2006 game against LSU...let's give him a chance to just go out there and see what he can do before we anoint him.
The Vols do have Arian Foster and a host of solid wide receivers. TE Brandon Warren is eligible from Florida State, where he was a freshman All-American in 2006, but again, let's wait and see exactly how he's going to operate in this offense. Yards will be there, even if we're not exactly sure how they're going to be gained.
I'm very curious to see the offensive line in action. Five players with starting experience are back on a unit that allowed four sacks in 14 games last year. But how much of that was David Cutcliffe's "Throw it away!" offense, and what'll happen now that Dave Clawson is calling the shots? Can UCLA's defensive front get penetration?
This brings us back to Crompton, who jacks up the risk/reward issue for the Vol offense by a factor of at least 10. Erik Ainge and David Cutcliffe were disciplined, and so was the Vol offense. Dave Clawson repeatedly emphasizes getting the ball to the playmakers, while Crompton's got some playmaker in his blood too.
As a Vol fan, my hope is that Crompton is educated in the Tee Martin School of Quarterbacking: Make the plays you have to make, don't get your team beat, and win games.
The Vols probably don't need Crompton to turn into a Heisman candidate. They do need him to play within himself and lead the team to victory on the strength of 11 guys, not the strength of his arm and legs. While you may not learn a lot about the Vols as a whole, I think you'll learn (or remember) an awful lot about Crompton Monday night.
There's no doubt this is a game Tennessee should win. Generally speaking, however, I think UCLA isn't being given quite enough credit despite the injuries, while an offense that none of us have seen is already facing way too many expectations for the Vols.
If you're looking for the definitive answer on how good this Tennessee team can be, wait for Florida, no matter how good it may look Monday night. Any win, no matter how bad it may look, will be a good one coming out of the season opener on the road. If Vol fans didn't learn to value each victory after last season, they'd better learn it now.
I think you'll see some questions and some answers coming out of this one from the Tennessee offense. I also think the Vol defense is good enough to take care of most of what UCLA, in their limited capacity, will throw at them.
So color it orange...just maybe not quite as bright as Vol fans would like it to be. We'll see.
Will's Pick: Tennessee 27, UCLA 13