Sunday, September 03, 2006

California Rest in Peace...

The idea behind the 50 Best Vol Games list was to get it done before the start of the 2006 season, spread some Vol cheer, remember the good ol' days in the midst of our darkest hour, and then the list would be done and open for addition after the 2006 season.

Well, with six games to go, there's been a late addition.

Tennessee's 35-18 victory over #9 California on Saturday at Neyland Stadium was one of the most enjoyable experiences I can remember on the banks of the Tennessee River. Because when it kicked off, you just didn't know. You didn't know if 2005 was really behind us or not, you didn't know how good Cal was, you just didn't know. And while some of us still believed that the Vols were the Vols, you needed to see it in person. And even the brighest optimist didn't expect that to happen all at once, in one night - really, in 2 1/2 quarters - but maybe the Vols could pull out a win over a team picked to win the National Championship by some.

Well, win they did - but my oh my, did we have some fun along the way.

Let's start with Erik Ainge. Confidence? Check. Whether that's David Cutcliffe (a sidenote - my thoughts are with Randy Sanders today, getting Kentucky ready to face mighty Louisville, because he's getting ready to get the blame for a million things that aren't his fault) or Ainge, or both, when you knew it was all right was after the interception. Did he go into a shell? Nope - he got better.

If you thought Arian Foster didn't show you enough, consider that the Vols ran for over 200 yards when it was all said and done against what it still a very good defensive line. #27 had a workmanlike day, 16 for 68 (still over 4.0 per carry), and will still be the man - but it's nice to know that Hardesty and Coker can play too. Methinks you'll feel better about Foster in about six days.

The wide receivers? Well, for the second time in three years, Trooper Taylor needs a raise. Ainge talked about being due for some big plays, and he's right - but Robert Meachem is the real deal, finally. You don't do what he did if you're just due - this kid is a gamebreaker. And when you pair him with Jayson Swain, who's been reliable for the last three seasons, and you see that yes, we really do throw to the tight ends (paging Brandon Warren...)...Tennessee's receivers made more big plays in 2 1/2 quarters than they did in all of 2005. That's not an exaggeration, that's a fact.

The offensive line? Cal tried different fronts and often put eight and nine in the box, even when it was just a show - and Ainge and Crompton have probably never felt better after a game in their entire lives. Did they even get dirty? And again, I think the running will come - credit the defensive line of Cal. The biggest question mark going into the season was answered, and answered well.

The defense? Shame on any of us who had any questions about these guys. As they continue to find depth on the defensive line, the linebackers showed that there isn't going to be much drop-off - these guys are like a less talented but faster version of our best linebacking corps. Ryan Karl might be my new favorite player. Jerod Mayo is for real. Marvin Mitchell is the glue. Rico McCoy can't even get on the field.

The secondary, as expected, is great. J-Wade is on the ball. D-Morley is going to be a star. The other guys are spot-on as well.

Even the special teams - because I couldn't get enough use out of "we put the special in special teams" in 2005 - were exceptional. Britton Colquitt showed the leg for a 59 yard (in the air) punt. James Wilhoit pinned them back. Kick coverage? Check.

I've rarely heard Phillip Fulmer sound happier in the postgame show. And what's great too is, David Cutcliffe is talking like it's business as usual - because to him, it is. He wasn't around in 2002 or 2005. This is what he knows. This is what he does.

It's been seven years - since the 1999 Georgia game - that the Vols have dominated an elite opponent in Knoxville. And I don't think we'll have to wait that long again.

Is Tennessee that good, or is Cal that bad? The Golden Bears have talent, without question. Though I'm thoroughly unimpressed with Forsett, Marshawn Lynch is clearly talented, as is DeSean Jackson and the entire defensive line (and that Bishop LB is a player too). But they better find a quarterback that can get their head on straight. To Cal's advantage, they may not play a better team all year, at least not until the Trojans, and they certainly won't face the problems they had with the crowd and the atmosphere again. We all should be pulling for these guys from here on out, because I want to believe that they can be 11-1 at year's end.

For now, before we go any further - and there are always things to work on, especially our depth - just enjoy it. Breathe it. Live it.

Tennessee is back.

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