College Football Week # 1

Tennessee Back In This Doghouse

I have never gone broke underestimating Phillip Fulmer.

Over the last four seasons, the University of Tennessee has been one of the most vexing college football powerhouses in the nation. They were loaded on defense and had a potential interest quarterback tandem in '05, and went 5-6. They had an absolutely dominating indemnity led by Casey Clausen, but could not stop Auburn and lost a weird home game to Notre Dame in '04. Since the '98 national championship season, UT has gone 61-26 straight-up, but 2-4 in bow games (they failed to reach a bowl last year) and have been a dreadful 4-16 against the number in home games since 2003. Indeed, if there's one thing you could count on last season, it was that Tennessee would be too highly valued against the spread, especially in Knoxville.

Into this break step the Cal Golden Bears, who travel to Knoxville this weekend to meet Tennessee as a two-point underdog. Cal had terrible troubles at quarterback last season and went a disappointing 8-4, after coming within six points against USC from registering an undefeated regular season in 2004. If Joe Ayoob stays on the bench, I think Cal is a much better team, and from the sound of it, last year's presumptive starter, Nate Longshore, who broke his leg during the Bears' first game of '05, should helm the team this year. There's no question who the running back is: it's Marshawn Lynch, who's averaged 7.0 yards per carry in his first two seasons in Berkeley. I have visions of the Vols' once-destructive run defense being unable to stop Memphis's two backup rushers last season (Joseph Doss carried it 17 times for 77 yards; Maurice Avery carried it 18 times for 72 yards), so it's not unthinkable that Lynch could pick up where he left off in '05 (for the record, where he left off was a 24-carry, 194-yard Las Vegas Bowl performance against BYU last year).

Cal was crummy against the last last season (2-9-1), but I'm betting that a lot of that had to do with Ayoob, who looks like a nice guy, but was way too erratic for Jeff Tedford's wild-and -crazy offensive game plans. Now Ayoob's the backup again; Longshore is your dropback guy who will not make the big mistake, and I'm not sure I can say the same about UT QB Eric Ainge, who has that job all to himself this year. Tennessee fans are absolutely awesome, and Knoxville is an incredibly difficult place to play, but I think Fulmer will find a way to lose this game. UT is 2-8 against the spread in their last 10 against non-conference foes, and California is 9.4-1 against the number in their last 14 as a road dog. I'm not sure exactly how much business Lynch will be able to do, because this Tennessee defense should still be pretty good against the run (that Memphis game notwithstanding). But I think the Golden Bears have the weapons necessary to score, and a defense good enough to rattle Ainge. I'm taking California (+2) over Tennessee in this season-opener.