Pac-12: Phillip Fulmer
But Tennessee has experienced as much upheaval as any program in the country over the past two years. First, Fulmer was pushed out the door and replaced with Lane Kiffin. Some of you may have read this: Kiffin then bolted after a single season for USC, inspiring near-riots in Knoxville. Next, after being rebuffed by a number of higher-profile candidates, Tennessee hired Derek Dooley away from Louisiana Tech. He's the son of SEC coaching legend Vince Dooley, who won a national title at Georgia, and he's in charge of returning the Vols to past glory.
But that ain't happening this year. The roster Dooley inherited doesn't much look like the NFL factory once quarterbacked by the likes of Peyton Manning.
"Everything is new," said Oregon coach Chip Kelly, speaking specifically about the Tennessee coaching staff, which has brought in new offensive, defensive and special teams schemes, the nuances of which certainly weren't revealed in a 50-0 beatdown of Tennessee-Martin.
Still, making a cross-country trip to play in the Southeastern humidity in front of more than 100,000 fans isn't an easy task even when the Vols are down. Just ask California. In 2006, a talented Bears team wilted in Tennessee in a 35-18 route that wasn't nearly as close as the final score suggested. More than a few Bears later admitted they got wide-eyed taking in the Neyland Stadium frenzy.
Neyland is no joke. It's going to be loud and rowdy and orange. Lots of orange. And Oregon's sophomore quarterback Darron Thomas will be making it the venue for his first road start.
No matter how cavalier Oregon fans want to be on that -- well, UCLA's Kevin Prince did just fine last year! -- it's an issue until Thomas makes his mark.
"It's still an unknown -- he hasn't played in this environment," Kelly said. "There aren't many stadiums in college football that have 100,000 [fans]. We've got a lot of young guys it's going to be new for."
One of the most interesting statistics coming out of the Ducks blitzkrieg versus New Mexico was zero rushing yards from Thomas. Oregon quarterbacks ALWAYS have rushing yards. By design? No, said Kelly. But it was hard not to wonder if Kelly -- a certifiably tricky guy -- has something up his sleeve.
If Oregon handles the atmosphere in a businesslike way, the Ducks roll. They're just too fast, too experienced and too talented on both sides of the ball for the Volunteers. But the Vols also have enough talent that if the Ducks make mistakes or get distracted by 105,000 screaming Volunteers fans, then things could get interesting.
Oregon didn't punt vs. New Mexico. Kelly said Tuesday that's he's sure that won't be the case in Knoxville. This one, whatever the word coming out of Vegas is, won't be easy.
"We're going to be tested," he said.
This is annoying: The SEC and Pac-10 only play one game in 2010 and, on paper, it doesn't look like much of a game.
Oregon, which figures to be ranked in or near the preseason top 10, visits a Tennessee team on Sept. 11 that is on its third coach in three years and is clearly rebuilding.
(Volunteers fans: Release your Lane Kiffin curses ... now!)
While Ducks fans over on the Pac-10 blog seem to believe this is going to be a butt kicking, I'm not so sure. Maybe it's because I was covering Auburn during the Phillip Fulmer glory days and can't imagine the Vols ever being anyone's patsy (in fact, I was covering preps and recruiting for the Mobile Register when a guy from Williamson High School by the name of Tamaurice Martin -- some called him "Tee" -- picked the Volunteers over Auburn).
Or maybe it's because the last time a highly ranked Pac-10 team thought it was going to deliver a whipping in Neyland Stadium, California face planted in 2006.
My hunch is this will be a competitive game. So, with that said, here are three keys for Tennessee to score the upset over the Ducks.
- Tauren Poole & Luke Stocker: The Volunteers are completely -- completely as in all five 2009 starters are gone -- rebuilding their offensive line. Oh, and their QB, whoever that ends up being between junior college transfer Matt Simms and true freshman Tyler Bray, will be seeing his first college action the previous weekend vs. UT-Martin. That's not good. But Poole at running back and Stocker at tight end are good. Perhaps even very good. The Ducks' defense is a veteran unit and extremely fast. They also run a lot of stunts, which can confuse a young O-line. But they aren't very big. So keep it simple on offense and get the ball to your money guys. Word on the street is Poole can make plays even when the blocking isn't perfect. And when the Ducks start obsessing about Poole, that would be the perfect time to dump it to the 6-foot-6, 253-pound Stocker and see what he can do in the secondary. A big target like Stocker could help a young QB gain some confidence, at which point he can start looking for his wideouts.
- Boise State & Ohio State: QB Jeremiah Masoli running coach Chip Kelly's spread-option offense was often a thing of beauty. But, you may have heard, Masoli won't be a problem in Knoxville. Further, it seems like defenses that have more than just one week to prepare have more success against the Ducks' spread-option -- see a pair of early-season losses to Boise State and the Rose Bowl defeat to Ohio State. The Vols will have the entire summer to familiarize themselves with Oregon's misdirection, as well as to get accustomed to the Ducks' extraordinary pace (their no-huddle is as fast-paced an offense as you will see). Ohio State often won one-on-one matchups up front. The Vols have some solid talent, experience and depth with their front seven, though it won't match the Buckeyes. Boise State often out-flanked the Ducks with an outstanding game plan. Wait a second! Where did that new, hotshot defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox come from? Boise State! Wilcox has faced the Ducks each of the past two seasons. He knows their scheme and their personnel. That's a huge advantage.
- Atmosphere: Before Cal's 2006 visit, the Bears downplayed the experience of playing in front of 100,000-plus fans. Southern humidity? Who cares! And then the Bears wilted, mentally and physically. One Cal player told me later that Neyland was such a "freak show" -- his term -- that it was a significant distraction. My guess is Vols fans thought their trip to Berkeley, where student protesters were living in trees, was a bit of a "freak show," too. But the Ducks won't be used to the atmosphere -- both the stadium size as well as the weather (summers in Eugene often demand a sweater at night). Aggravating matters, they will be sending out a mostly green QB to handle the pressure on the road. Senior Nate Costa has started only one game: at UCLA in 2009. Sophomore Darron Thomas came off the bench as a true freshman vs. Boise State in 2008 and led a stunning comeback, but he redshirted last year. In other words, instead of a two-year starter leading the Ducks' complicated offense in a hostile environment, they will be relying on an unproven guy. A couple of early mistakes, and that atmosphere could prove a significant factor.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Feel like I'm leaving a lot of questions and comments out each week... thinking about adding a Mailbag II on Thursday or Friday.
Aaron from Chicago writes: Ted, Please explain to me why Michigan State is ranked ahead of Cal in all of the polls? Did nobody watch the game in week 1 where the Bears owned the Spartans? State lost to the only 2 good teams that it has faced this year (Cal, OSU) other than that they have beaten 8 cupcakes (the woeful big 10, Eastern Michigan, FAU, and overrated Notre Dame). By the same token Cal lost at Maryland but they are ranked ahead of the Terps. All 3 teams have 2 losses each, this makes no sense. Do the pollsters watch the head to head football games anymore or do they just vote based on rosters and who is getting more press?
Ted Miller: A seven-point, Aug. 30 victory at home doesn't earn Cal the right to be ahead of Michigan State in the polls the entire season, nor does Maryland get a season's pass over the Bears for its eight-point win at home. Pollsters take into account what happens throughout a season. A good win, such as Cal over Oregon, gets a team a poll boost, just as a loss -- say getting thumped at Arizona -- can be a downer. And you can't be serious asserting that MSU's schedule, which it is 8-2 against, is less impressive than 6-2 Cal's. The Spartans' slate is ranked 36th by Jeff Sagarin, while the Bears is 53rd.
That said, I had Cal 17th and MSU 18th in my vote for the ESPN.com power rankings. Why? I think Cal is better than Michigan State.
And, trust me, if the Bears upset USC on Saturday, you won't have to worry any more.
Aaron from Roseburg, Ore., writes: Can you please, for all of us hoping there is still hope, explain how a 2-team and multi-team tiebreakers work in the Pac-10.
Ted Miller: You can read the complete explanation here.
The short version:
1. Two team tie: head to head.
2. Multi-team tie: a. did one team beat each of the others? b. did one (or more) of the teams have a superior record vs. the other tied teams? c. if those two steps eliminate one or more teams, then repeat step 1 and 2.
If these steps don't produce a winner, then the process continues in esoteric ways that I refused to paraphrase. So hit the link.