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BlogPoll Roundtable: Great Expectations edition

Bruce Ciskie is hosting the BlogPoll Roundtable this week.  Many thanks to the RTT readers that chimed in with feedback to this week's questions.  Here we go.

1. What team best met your overall expectations of them in their opener? In other words, which team that you expected to be either really good or really bad (or somewhere in between) came the closest to making you look good?

I didn't really go out on a limb for any team in my first poll, so any claim that I have mastered the art of ranking college football teams would justifiably be met with contemptuous rebukes.  "Everybody thought that, you coward!"  Still, I thought Ohio State and Texas would look good and they did.

But I will take this opportunity to reaffirm the acquittal of Frank McGrath, the Preseason Mr. Bold.  You may recall that Bold was accused of the following:

  2. One count of Malicious Intent: LSU at No. 20.

  4. One count of Cattle Rustling: Texas at No. 11.

  6. Two counts of SEC Fraud: four SEC teams in the top 10, including Tennessee and Georgia.

  8. Three counts of Conspiracy: Florida, Miami, and Florida State all in the top 10.

  10. Two counts of False Advertising: Tulsa at No. 17 and UTEP at No. 22

  12. One Cardinal Sin: Louisville unranked.

As Mr. Numb Existence, I found him guilty of Malicious Intent, Cattle Rustling, and False Advertising, and acquitted him of SEC Fraud, Conspiracy, and the Cardinal Sin.  Newly discovered evidence proves Bold's innocence beyond all doubt, at least as to the charge of SEC Fraud.  Florida and Auburn looked good in their first games, and Tennessee and Georgia each made a good case for cracking the top ten as well.  Even Bold's Cardinal Sin is looking like it might pan out, since Louisville's Heisman-contender Michael Bush is now out for the season with a broken leg.  Who knows?  As evidence mounts, Frank McGrath may prove to be the most wrongly accused man since the Fugitive.  If that's the case, His Numbness should either resign or be impeached.

2. What team jumped off the map and surprised you the most? (Bonus points to anyone who can make an argument for someone besides Tennessee.)

You just about have to forego the bonus points and go with Tennessee here.  I don't believe there were any other major upsets.

Here's a slight twist, though.  As a Vol fan, nothing would have surprised me about Tennessee this year.  Despite The Season of Which We Do Not Speak, I was in fact optimistic about Tennessee's season.  Still, I really didn't know what to expect.  Phil Steele tugged at my heart, naming the Vols his No. 2 Surprise Team, his SEC East Champ, and his No. 12 overall, but my head agreed with Athlon, who gave Tennessee more swing games (6) than any other team.  Tennessee was indeed the toughest team to figure in the preseason.  They would not have surprised me if they failed miserably, and they did not surprise me by thumping Cal.

3. What team best moved themselves into a position to surprisingly contend for a national title?

Again, the only major "upset" of the first weekend was Tennessee, so you have to go with the Big Orange on this one.  I'll repeat here what I said right after the game:

Tennessee players and fans have been starving for offense, not just since the end of last season, but since the end of the season before that.  Tonight, the all-you-can-eat buffet opened, and the Vols went on an all-out binge.  They gorged themselves so much that after three quarters, all they could do is waddle to the sofa, fall into the cushions, and unbutton their britches.  They remained in that position for the rest of the game, but they had already been satisfied.

If they maintain the same ravenous appetite for offense, Tennessee can in fact compete for a national championship.  I think that they can.  Just before the season kicked off this year, I spent two miserable weeks poking and prodding at the corpse of the 2005 season in an attempt to learn something from it.  As I went through that exercise, I found myself more and more optimistic about the 2006 season.  I was struck by how small the margin of victory or defeat can be on both a macro and micro level.  A 5-6 season for the Volunteers is horrible, but when you look closer, you find that a wicked combination of little things conspired to contribute to a negative tipping point.  The loss to Florida?  A handful of special teams goofs.  Georgia?  A penalty-plagued field position nightmare.  Alabama?  Two lost fumbles inside the ten when one measly field goal would have tied it and two would have won.  South Carolina?  A fumble within a blade of Bermuda of the goal line meant a one-point loss.  Vanderbilt?  An inability to convert on fourth down and inches within three yards of the goal line.

What came out of that exercise was a cementing of a belief that little things can lead to catastrophic change, especially in a game of inches, and if a team's inattention to detail can tip the season to 5-6, refocusing on the little things can tip the season the other way.

What you saw Saturday against a good Cal team was the Vols' re-attention to detail under the guidance of coaches Fulmer and Cutcliffe.  They did all of the little things better than last year and it showed in the game.  They practiced at game speed without green jerseys.  They minimized penalties and other errors.  They limited their receiver rotation, and their QB made good decisions.  They re-focused on the little things, and it paid off against Cal.

Caveat:  Don't get too crazy about the Vols just yet.  The offense looked good against Cal largely due to a weakness in the Golden Bears' secondary that was exploited on several occasions.  The defense looked good primarily due to a redshirt freshman quarterback whose experience playing in an SEC stadium was obtained by playing EA Sports' NCAA Football.  Several long pass plays by Cal were just barely avoided when cornerback Jonathan Wade arrived at the defender just in time, either stripping the ball or jarring the receiver and causing him to drop it at the last second.

Still, Tennessee did more than any other team to improve its chances at a national championship, and it did it with a whole bunch of little things.