|Tennessee at California Matchups|
Tennessee Offense vs. Cal Defense
The Vols got a scare in the offseason when QB Erik Ainge missed most of the spring after having knee surgery, but he has shown almost no effects of the injury during summer camp. Ainge made significant strides under first-year coordinator David Cutcliffe in 2006 and he should be even more polished as a senior this fall. Ainge displays good mobility for his size and he has a strong arm to fit the ball into tight spots in coverage. However, gone are Ainge's top-three receivers from last season, including first-round draft pick Robert Meachem (Saints). Without those veteran receivers to rely upon, Ainge's margin for error will be much smaller. He still has a reliable target in TE Chris Brown, who is the team's leading returning receiver with 31 receptions in 2006. However, if the Vols are to keep the Bears' defense honest, Ainge needs help from his inexperienced wide outs. So far, junior Lucas Taylor, sophomore Quintin Hancock and sophomore Austin Rogers are the three most promising at the position. Taylor is the speedster who can stretch the field, Hancock is the bigger possession target and Rogers is the most athletic, but also the least polished, after missing most of last season due to injury and illness. Cal will certainly miss the playmaking skills of third-round NFL draft pick Daymeion Hughes at cornerback, but Syd'Quan Thompson returns as a solid starter on one side and there are a lot of talented youngsters competing for the other starting cornerback job. The unit also returns Robert Peele, who emerged as a playmaker at the Rover position last season and can also play some cornerback if necessary.
When: Sept. 1, 8 p.m. ET (ABC)
Where: Berkeley, Calif.
Like the rest of the Cal team, QB Nate Longshore's 2006 Knoxville visit was a forgettable one. But in his own backyard with 12 more starts under his belt, it will take a lot more for the Vols to rattle Longshore this time around. Cal's 6-foot-5 junior signal caller shed nearly 15 pounds in the offseason, which will give him more agility to sidestep pass rushers from within the pocket. And with time to survey the field and step into his throws, few quarterbacks in college football can shred a defense with Longshore's precision. It also helps to be equipped with one of the nation's deepest and most talented wide receiver corps. Longshore's top weapon is DeSean Jackson, the most dangerous open-field runner in the country. Jackson is complemented well by No. 2 WR Robert Jordan, No. 3 WR Lavelle Hawkins and TE Craig Stevens. Jonathan Hefney is a versatile playmaker with experience at cornerback and safety. He is likely to spend most of his time at safety in this game, but don't be surprised if the Vols use him occasionally to match up one-on-one versus Jackson. Tennessee is breaking in new starters at the other three defensive back spots, which places a great deal of pressure on the front four to establish a consistent pass rush on its own. While the Vols have some talent returning along their defensive line, the group's ability to rush the passer is very much an unknown at this point. Defensive ends Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds had huge springs, but the pair combined for only five sacks last season. Tennessee could run four-deep at defensive tackle with Dan Williams, Demonte Bolden, J.T. Mapu and Walter Fisher, but Bolden and Fisher are coming off injuries and Mapu is coming off a two-year Mormon mission. RB Justin Forsett is an undersized but shifty back with very good vision as a runner and hands as a receiver. While he should put up some big numbers in Cal's offense this season, we think he will have some trouble getting untracked in his first game as the team's fulltime starter now that Marshawn Lynch (Bills) is gone to the NFL. The Vols had some problems stopping the run last season but they should be much improved in that regard this fall. The front line is bigger and should be stouter versus the run, which should allow the playmaking linebacker trio of Jerod Mayo, Ryan Karl and Rico McCoy to flow freely to the football. Mayo is the leader of the group at middle linebacker and he's fast and instinctive enough to limit Forsett's big plays. McCoy is only a sophomore, but he showed tremendous potential in his first season and he's athletic enough to keep with Forsett when he releases as a receiver out of the backfield.
| Cal QB Nate Longshore vs. Tennessee DS Jonathan Hefney |
Longshore's biggest challenge will be accounting for the whereabouts of Hefney, the Vols' returning leader in total tackles and interceptions. What the 5-foot-9, 185-pound roaming defensive back lacks in size, he more than makes up for with speed, athleticism, instincts and toughness. A year ago, Hefney was crafty enough to keep Longshore guessing and Longshore wasn't patient enough to ignore the bait. But the Jeff Tedford protégé has made lots of progress since last season's opener and he should show far more poise the second time around. Hefney will spend a majority of his time sliding over in deep-coverage support to limit the big-play potential of Longshore's most dangerous weapon, WR Jackson. When that's the case, Longshore will have plenty of real estate on the opposite side to utilize complementary receiver's Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins. Eventually, Longshore will catch the Vols gambling with Hefney cheated up near the line in run support. That's when the deep ball will open up with Jackson exploiting rare man-to-man coverage. With three new secondary starters being broken in around him, Hefney may simply be outnumbered.
Tennessee enters this contest with a mental edge after dispensing Cal in a 35-18 smackdown in Knoxville last season. One year later, the Vols do the honors of traveling cross-country for a tough season-opening nonconference tilt. While Neyland Stadium is in a class of its own, the Bears will certainly enjoy the comforts of Memorial Stadium while seeking revenge for last year's embarrassing defeat. The key to last year's game was Tennessee jumping out to an early lead. Once it did, Cal's offense was forced to abort the running game, which put too much pressure on the inexperienced Longshore. But a lot has changed in one year. Ainge no longer has WR Robert Meachem to rely upon and Longshore is far more capable of carrying the Cal offense if necessary. In fact, the game's biggest playmaker is now Cal's Jackson, who is a threat as a receiver and as a punt return specialist. The Bears' inexperienced defense will keep Tennessee within striking distance deep into the fourth quarter. However, we do anticipate Tedford's team evening the score in a Week 1 game with major national implications.
Prediction: Golden Bears 28, Volunteers 24