CALIFORNIA 45 - TENNESSEE 31
The Bears clearly have some gamebreakers on offense, and got championship-level performances from Justin Forsett (160 yards, 6.2 per carry) and all the receivers, including the Heisman-material punt return from DeSean Jackson. Nate Longshore didn't get them beat, and the defense played the bend game all night, but sometimes giving up 31 points and 380 yards doesn't get you beat when your offense does what it did, and its only turnover doesn't hurt them. Cal will be talented enough to beat everyone they play until they play USC, they play that one at home, and they deserved to win tonight.
Will the AJ Suggs/Rick Clausen offense work for Erik Ainge against SEC competition?
There's a tendency to look at the game and the stats tonight (Lucas Taylor 6 for 102, Chris Brown 7 for 54, Erik Ainge 270 and 3 TDs) and think that everything is fine in the passing game. But the reality is, even with 31 points, if no credible downfield threat is established, you'll find this dink and dunk offense won't work forever, and it wasn't enough to win tonight.
Brent Musberger - who scores serious, non-politically affiliated points for his "3 for 1's a good deal, even for a tree hugger!" passionate comment in the first half - said that Kenny O'Neal wasn't playing more because he couldn't line up right in the Vols' no huddle offense. He was thrown to, as were Brent Vinson and Denarius Moore. But if someone doesn't emerge downfield, the Vols will struggle.
The offense has playmakers - Arian Foster ran well and the offensive line was excellent. And the frustrating moments offensively were few and far between; the Vols had one penalty (even though that was a killer, Luke Stocker's false start with the Vols down 38-31 with the ball on 2nd and 7), and two dropped balls, which is a number I'd expect to live with all year (Stocker and Josh Briscoe). And although whoever keeps trying to revive the "let's put an athletic player in at quarterback, because it'll work this time after a decade of blown plays" and the "let's spread them out on 3rd and goal at the 2!" needs to be shot in the street, this offense has some potential that 31 points will attest to. But without a downfield threat, it won't get better from here, it'll get worse.
Great offensive line play or terrible pass rush?
The one time Erik Ainge was really hit, it cost the Vols off a corner blitz. Otherwise, Ainge had time. Is Tennessee's offensive line that good, or is Cal's pass rush that bad?
Nate Longshore had it even better - and this is a serious question - was he even touched? Once? That's beyond alarming. We need a new word for how serious of a problem that is.
What little sleep I get tonight will be filled with dreams of Florida's speed running literal circles around Tennessee defenders who are diving at air and/or not wrapping up.
Important stat of the night:
Of Cal's 4 offensive TD drives, all of them started beyond their own 30 yard line. Britton Colquitt's quad better start healing, because our kick coverage and and the leg strength of our backup kickers (though credit Daniel Lincoln for hitting a big field goal) kept giving Cal an extremely short field. This, combined with our defensive inexperience and weaknesses, cannot continue if the Vols are to be successful.
Where do we go from here?
Well, I do know that beating Florida would make it all better. But I also know that anyone who uses the word "Florida" this week should be shown, in order, the tape of the sandwich Air Force game last year, then the tape of the Appalachian State game today, then the tape of every Cal offensive possession from tonight, and then slapped around somemore for looking anywhere but at Southern Miss.
This Tennessee team can get better...I have to hope that the defense will, but if the young guys don't emerge at WR, I'm not sure if you can realistically expect the offense to look better than it did tonight. Erik Ainge is great, Arian Foster can run and the offensive line looked good. There was nothing defensively about that you can write home about.
So we'll see...you'll probably learn everything you need to know about this Tennessee team in the next two weeks. If it helps, and it will down the road, Cal doesn't play in the SEC, so the Vols are still even money in that race.
Finally, let's hope Xavier Mitchell is okay, for football and for life.