A loss in its opener last season foreshadowed Tennessee’s season-long struggle to win on the road. The Volunteers will learn very quickly if those troubles are going to carry over into this year.
The 18th-ranked Vols look to get off to a strong start when they open at the Rose Bowl on Monday night against UCLA and new coach Rick Neuheisel.
Tennessee went 9-4 last season to win the SEC East Division, and defeated Wisconsin 21-17 in the Outback Bowl to earn a No. 12 ranking in the final AP poll. While the Vols were one victory away from playing in a BCS bowl, they missed out on any chance to play for the BCS title because of their road woes.
Tennessee lost at California 45-31 in its season opener, and in its next road game two weeks later was crushed by Florida 59-20. The Vols finished the 2007 season 2-4 away from Knoxville - including a 21-14 defeat to LSU in the conference championship game in Atlanta - for their most road losses since dropping four in 1981.
Tennessee had trouble keeping up with its opponents away from Neyland Stadium, allowing an average of 39.5 points and 483.5 yards in road games, compared to 18.3 and 342.6 in seven home contests.
“Our main goal is to get started early,” safety Eric Berry said. “Not just as a defense, but as a whole team. We got started late last season, and we just want to (start) it off right this year.”
The Vols have been picked to finish third in the East behind Georgia and Florida, but even doing that won’t be easy. After opening at the Rose Bowl, where UCLA has won five of its last six against ranked opponents, Tennessee plays its next road game at No. 10 Auburn on Sept. 27. Its third road contest is against the top-ranked Bulldogs on Oct. 11.
“Going on the road, and I’ve talked about it with the team, there is a mental and physical toughness you have to have to go and play and win in those settings,” coach Phillip Fulmer said.
Tennessee’s offense will have a new look this season, with Jonathan Crompton taking over at quarterback under new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson. Crompton has the luxury of playing behind five returning starters on an offensive line that allowed a nation-low four sacks last year.
While Crompton will be taking the snaps, he won’t be expected to carry the offense. Clawson wants Crompton to get the ball to the team’s biggest playmakers, seniors Arian Foster and Lucas Taylor.
Foster rushed for 1,193 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, and is 685 yards away from breaking Travis Henry’s school record of 3,078 yards. Taylor had team highs of 73 receptions for 1,000 yards last year.
The Bruins, picked to finish fifth in the Pac-10, will also look different.
Neuheisel, a former Bruins quarterback, replaces Karl Dorrell, who was fired after UCLA went 6-7 last year and lost to BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Neuheisel and new offensive coordinator Norm Chow, however, are experiencing the same problem the previous UCLA coaching staff had - injuries to their quarterbacks.
Patrick Cowan was expected to be the Bruins’ starting QB, but he injured his knee in spring practice and will miss the season. Ben Olson hurt his foot Aug. 9 and is expected to be sidelined for two months, continuing the pair’s run of injuries over the past two seasons.
The Bruins’ early season success will now depend heavily on the play of third-stringer Kevin Craft, a junior college transfer who started five games at San Diego State in 2006, and backup Chris Forcier, a redshirt freshman.
“I do think Kevin and Chris Forcier are on the verge of blossoming into very good players. Hopefully it could be as soon as Monday night,” Neuheisel said.
Despite the injuries and a tough schedule that continues with a game at No. 16 Brigham Young on Sept. 13, Neuheisel is thinking positive.
“I just believe that we’ve got to be relentlessly optimistic about what can be and keep giving ourselves chances to win football games,” he said.
“So we’re going to work hard to be in every game and give ourselves a chance for good things to happen at the end. I think we’re going to find a way to surprise some folks.”
These teams have not met since Tennessee’s 30-24 win on Sept. 6, 1997 at the Rose Bowl. The Vols are 7-4-2 against the Bruins.