Which non-conference foe west of the Mississippi have the Vols played more than any other? It's the Bruins, with 14 meetings in the books, also good for 6th on the list of FBS non-conference foes the Vols have played all time, behind four ACC teams (Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Duke, Clemson) and Tiger High. The two teams usually play at least one home-and-home series per decade, with UCLA last visiting Neyland Stadium in 1996. The Vols hold a 7-5-2 advantage in the series.
Well, we know how it started.
Kevin Craft's four first half interceptions and UCLA's mere 288 yards of total offense didn't keep them from finding those yards when they needed them the most, in a 4th quarter drive that paved the way to overtime. The Vols failed to take advantage of UCLA's early mistakes, and then made some of their own, including a costly Arian Foster fumble when the Vols were looking to go up two possessions. The Vols ran for 177 yards on 5.2 yards per carry, but Jonathan Crompton went 19 of 41 passing, the Vols went 5 of 17 on third down, and when Daniel Lincoln missed an overtime field goal, Rick Neuheisel had his first win and Phillip Fulmer's career in Knoxville headed for the home stretch.
When BYU rocked the Bruins 59-0 the very next week, it was a sure sign of trouble for both teams. Tennessee would finish 5-7, UCLA at just 4-8, with their only wins over the Vols, Stanford (5-7), Washington (0-12) and Washington State (2-11). Full 2008 Results
Redshirt freshman Kevin Prince unseated Kevin Craft as the quarterback in spring practice, which is a good news/bad news scenario for Vol fans depending on which version of Craft was planning on showing up at Neyland Stadium. At tailback, Christian Ramirez is an enigma, having been academically ineligible last season but now back as a junior with 19 career carries to his name. Vol fans can appreciate the unearned optimism that Prince and Ramirez are building in Pasadena: since neither was a factor in last year's 4-8 season, surely they must be an upgrade...
Taylor Embree was a Freshman All-American last season and returns at WR with 40 catches under his belt. There is experience all over the field here: Terrence Austin returns as last season's leading receiver, and Ryan Moya was second team All-Pac-10 at tight end last year. There are solid options in reserve as well with Gavin Ketchum and Logan Paulsen - if Prince can get these guys the ball, the Bruins will have playmaking potential.
The Bruins have experience up front, but ranked 110th in sacks allowed last season, so take that with a grain of salt. Injuries have also taken their toll on this unit.
The biggest storyline in this game might be the Lane Kiffin vs. Norm Chow playcalling battle, a Southern Cal special. If Kiffin is about competing, don't think he isn't looking forward to this opportunity a little more than others.
DeWayne Walker left as defensive coordinator to become the head coach at New Mexico State, but there is plenty of talent still in the cupboard in Pasadena. DT Brian Price was first team all-conference last year with 4.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss, and DE Korey Bosworth did him one better with 7.5 sacks. For a Tennessee offensive line that will still be playing with an inexperienced tackle and has zero quality depth, this matchup will be absolutely critical and will be UCLA's best chance to take advantage of the Vol offense.
MLB Reggie Carter is another all-conference player who returns on this side of the ball, who led the team in tackles last season. There is inexperience but upside in the rest of the LB corps, with Kyle Bosworth returning from injury and Akeem Ayers stepping into his first full-time starting role.
Alterraun Verner led the nation in passes defended last season and Rahim Moore grabbed three picks as a freshman last year at safety. UCLA was eighth nationally in pass defense last year, another cause for concern for the Vol offense.
Best Case Scenario for the Vols
After a confidence-inspiring win over Western Kentucky, Tennessee plays it smart against the Bruins this time around: a dedicated effort to run and run some more wears down the UCLA defense in the Tennessee humidity, and the Vols minimize mistakes and own time of possession. Meanwhile, UCLA's inexperience at QB and RB shows itself, as the Vol defense completely shuts down the Bruins' running game and makes Prince beat them, and he's unable to pull a Kevin Craft. The defense keeps UCLA at bay all afternoon, giving the Vol offense plenty of opportunities to get the points they need for a solid win for Lane Kiffin. Tennessee moves to 2-0 and feels good about themselves heading to The Swamp.
Worst Case Scenario for the Vols
Let's just go ahead an assume that "Jonathan Crompton hasn't changed" and "an injury on the offensive line" go in this slot for all 12 of these games, okay? UCLA knows what to expect and is tougher on defense this time around, making life tough on Vol RBs and forcing Crompton to make mistakes. The Bruins get the ball to their playmakers on offense enough to put pressure on the Tennessee offense, which is unable to respond. Norm Chow outcoaches Lane Kiffin, and UCLA wins in Neyland Stadium, giving the Kiffin Era a bitter dose of reality in just its second game.
Game Importance Ranking - 8.8
Last week in the Big Orange Roundtable, I said the UCLA game was the most important game of the season because of its position on the schedule...so while a couple of other games will have a higher ranking, those games will be significantly less important if the Vols fail to win this one.
Make no mistake: this is The Gateway Game. Win, and you're 2-0 and will almost certainly start 3-1, with a real chance to still be thinking about 8-4 or better. Lose, and you're already one in the hole with plenty of tougher competition still coming down the pipe, and we're hoping for six wins. If Lane Kiffin wants people to believe in any level of instant turnaround, he has to win this game.
Whether Florida beats the Vols by 1 or 100, it won't affect the confidence of the team and the program the way winning or losing the UCLA game will. The Vols can get dusted by Florida and still feel good about their chances against Auburn, Georgia and most of the rest of the schedule if they beat UCLA.
I expect this to be an ugly football game, much the same way last year's was: if you take away a blocked punt and an interception return, that's a 17-17 ballgame with a world of mistakes. I'm not sure either team is good enough to really pull away from the other (UCLA was picked 7th in the conference at Pac-10 media days), which is easy for us to say now, but if the Vols put a huge number up against Western Kentucky, it's going to be easy to forget. The reality is these are two teams who both have a chance to be above average this season, but it also won't take much to remind you of how they struggled last year. The emotional roller coaster of blowing out Western Kentucky, fighting to the death against UCLA and then getting blown out by Florida - which, like it or not, is the most likely scenario - will be interesting, to say the least.
Losing to UCLA means we're almost certainly looking at a similar year to 2008, seven wins max. Beating UCLA keeps hope alive, and gives the Vols a chance to build on it the next time they play one of these toss-up games, of which there will be several in 2009. If we want to have the sort of rebound season we're all hoping for, that road goes directly through the Bruins.
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