(I'm going to continue to refer to them as "I would like to have seen" Montana, and I was going to link that clip here, but this is actually much better. I would say spoiler alert, but if you haven't seen The Hunt for Red October by now there's something wrong with you.)
Montana, by classification, is lesser competition. But by comparison to Tennessee-Martin, and perhaps even Western Kentucky two years ago, the Grizzlies are a more formidable opponent. But as Tennessee or especially SEC fans, it's hard for us to measure exactly what it means that Montana is ranked 12th in the preseason FCS Coaches Poll.
I'm like you - I watch a lot of college football and digest a ton of information about the sport. But looking at that FCS poll, you know what I can tell you about those teams without doing any research? Eastern Washington has a red field. Joe Flacco went to Delaware. Northern Iowa beat Kansas in the NCAA Tournament two years ago. Richmond gave us Dave Clawson.
These are the sort of small details we usually associate these teams with. But with greater frequency every season, I can also tell you that this year's preseason #2 Appalachian State beat Michigan in 2007. That #9 Jacksonville State beat Ole Miss last year. And #16 James Madison did the same to a Virginia Tech team that won the ACC.
There are some great quotes in this story from Mark Schlabach (which includes a list of other FCS-over-FBS games) after the JMU-VT game last year, most of them from JMU head coach Mickey Matthews:
"The dirty little secret is the top six to eight teams at our level can play with anyone," Matthews said. "We struggle to find guaranteed games because no one wants to play us. I don't know if we're a Top 25 team on the FBS level, but I'm sure we're better than Virginia Tech wanted us to be. They needed to play somebody they could dominate."
"I think when Appalachian State beat Michigan, you didn't hear any football coaches saying it was a big upset," Matthews said. "You heard a lot of media saying it was the greatest upset in college football history, but you didn't hear any football coaches saying it."
"Their top 50 players are better than our top 50 players," Matthews said. "But when you get out there 11-on-11, we can play with anyone."
Montana may not be James Madison, but the Vols may not be playing in a BCS bowl the way Virginia Tech did. Most of us armchair quarterback types usually feel like we've got some idea what we're up against going into each game. But I've never seen Montana play before. I can't even tell you what their helmets look like.
On the spectrum between, "They're an FCS team, we're going to kill them" and the sort of coachspeak that makes Montana look like a Super Bowl contender, where should we fall?
If the Grizzlies are the 12th best team in the FCS, how does that relate to the FBS? Conveniently, only 12 FBS teams won less than three games last season: Akron, Memphis, New Mexico, and San Jose State each won just one game, and Bowling Green (give him time!), Buffalo, Eastern Michigan, New Mexico State, UNLV, Vanderbilt, Washington State, and Western Kentucky all went 2-10.
That's two Vol opponents from last year and one we'll see on October 1 this year. Are the best 12 teams in FCS better than the worst 12 teams in FBS?
Granted, the Vols destroyed Memphis, so even if Montana was in the conversation with a team like Tiger High it woudn't be saying much. And though the Vols struggled with the Commodores, the only reason Vanderbilt is on that list is because they play in the SEC.
But here's the point: don't expect what you've seen in the last two season openers.
The Vols may still be able to line up and go right at Montana to win, but it won't be 50-0 or 63-7. And that's okay. There have been several UT teams in the past that didn't perform as well as we probably felt like they should have against lesser competition in the season opener, and still went on to have a great year. The '89 Vols beat Colorado State 17-14 in the season opener. The next week they won at #6 UCLA by eighteen points, en route to an 11-1 SEC Championship season. The '95 Vols beat East Carolina 27-7, a number that didn't make anybody feel extra special about sophomore Peyton Manning and his offense. They finished 11-1 and second in the country. And the '03 Vols won a pair of games against solid mid-major competition to open the season with closer scores than we might've wanted - 24-6 over Fresno State, 34-24 over Marshall - then won at Gainesville in week three.
Tennessee is currently a four touchdown favorite, which has jumped about ten points since the line opened. But even if Tennessee covers that original spread - say, 35-17 - it's not going to make anyone feel like we're a champion, but I'll take it. I don't need this team to blow out Montana to prove anything to me. I just need them to win, and I'd prefer to not be worried about it in the fourth quarter.
And here's the key to that: get off to a good start.
Here's one more from JMU coach Mickey Matthews:
"The biggest thing when you play Virginia Tech is surviving the first quarter," Matthews said. "They blow everybody out in the first quarter at Lane Stadium. I told the kids, 'Let's make sure it's a game at the end of the first quarter. Let's survive the noise and the crowd.' I told them we weren't playing the concrete and their fans."
If the Vols come out and turn the ball over and give up points, we could be in for a longer day than we originally imagined. This will be an important point next week too, but Cincinnati is the sort of team that not only has the offensive firepower to make a comeback, they have veteran leadership and plenty of FBS experience. Playing in Neyland Stadium will be a big deal to the Bearcats, but not nearly as big as it will be for the Grizzlies. You have to go back to 2005 to find anything like this in their program, when Montana played at Oregon and some of the current players were in middle school.
How much of the coachspeak is true? I don't know, but I do know I've seen enough top-tier FCS programs beat a wide enough variety of FBS programs to know there are no guarantees on Saturday. Tennessee should take Montana seriously. And then the Vols should be good enough to go get the job done.