sports (2006-35)

The Vols should get off to a rousing, if ugly, start

Sensational September?

by Tony Basilio

I pen this a few days away from what promises to be the most interesting season in my close to 20-year association with the Vols. Coming off a 5-6 season, Tennessee debuts luxury box seats with a head coach clutching firmly onto his ever-so-tenuous lap of luxury.

Two-million-dollar salaries are not born from losing seasons. Therefore, it’s imperative for Tennessee, in Larry The Cable Guy terms, to Git-R-Done in September. That they will see a top heavy, home-heavy schedule in the season’s first month looms ominous. What follows is my patented Sensational September Scenario.

National media darling California comes to town on Sept. 2. Will the Vols continue their brutal run versus ranked teams at home? Needing a quick start, the fragile Vols need to make something happen early against a powerful and talented Cal team. Like Tomkat, it’s Mission Unaccomplished. Erik Ainge offers up two first half interceptions as the Vols struggle mightily in falling behind 20-6 at the half. Second string QB Jonathan Crompton, a redshirt freshman, comes off the bench in the second half late to lead the Vols to a pair of fourth quarter scores. Can you say quarterback controversy? DeSean Jackson’s second touchdown of the day late seals the game for the Golden Bears who get their biggest road win east of the Mississippi in school history 27-20.

With the Cal game in the rearview mirror, the shaken Vols host the option-oriented Air Force Falcons. It is, however, Tennessee who has the option in this one. Will the Big Orange put Cal behind them or will they wilt under the missed opportunity of the season opener? That question is answered emphatically with a resounding 21-point first quarter capped by a 48-yard touchdown run from Arian Foster to close the stanza. The Vols, behind a solid Ainge effort, roll to a 42-10 win.

With a 1-1 record and some newfound confidence, Tennessee gets a shot at the hated Florida Gators in what surely is a loser-leaves-town match. This will be almost-Vol Chris Leak’s final crack at the Vols, and more importantly his last shot at an SEC East Title. If the Gators have designs on winning the division, they must win this game. John Chavis and staff come up with a brilliant game plan that forces four Gator turnovers while holding Florida to only 120 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, Tennessee’s offense musters just enough production for UT to escape with a 20-17 win. James Wilhoit cans a 47-yarder in the game’s final minute. Florida gets one final crack after the Vols elect to pooch kick, but misses a 55-yard field goal with time expiring. Tennessee improves to 2-1 and finds themselves in the division’s driver’s seat. Chris Leak, who chose Florida over Tennessee following a public flogging of Phillip Fulmer by his father Curtis, will lose his starting quarterback job in November to hotshot freshman Tim Tebow. Touché.

Sept. 23 sees Marshall providing the backdrop for a festive homecoming before a hard sell-out in Neyland Stadium. The Big Orange Train of Love is back on track after last week’s win over Florida shook Knoxville all week! Tennessee continues its hot play as the Vols lay waste to an undermanned Thundering Herd squad that leaves Neyland Stadium with a three-touchdown defeat. Erik Ainge struggles early but the Vols are aided by three Herd turnovers in the early going. Jonathan Crompton comes in late in the game and is flawless in leading the Vols to a late scoring drive. Despite the Vols 3-1 September start, a quarterback controversy is brewing.

Sept. 30 sees the red-hot Vols shake rattle and roll to the Bluff city for a sold out Liberty Bowl. Memphis, looking to avenge a close loss last year in Knoxville, has an impotent offense that has already contributed to an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Ole Miss QB Brent Schaeffer in the season opener. Both offenses struggle with an aesthetic quality not displayed off Beale Street since the King’s debut of the new jumpsuit for his comeback in ’74. A late field goal helps the Vols escape with a 20-17 win. That caps an ugly yet successful month of September at 4-1. The victory vaults the Vols up in the polls as the once low-ranked team cracks the top 15 for the first time on the year.

With one month in the books, the surprising Vols have a pulse. With trips to Athens, Fayetteville and Columbia on the horizon along with home tussles against Alabama and LSU, the question is: Will the pulse get stronger or is it one last gasp for Fulmer and company? Stay tuned next week!

Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM. Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.