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October 10, 2008

Mailbag: Tennessee hopes to salvage season

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There was a time when Tennessee scored points in bunches.

Times change.

Just last season, the Volunteers scored at least 31 points in eight games. In their past three games, the Volunteers have scored 31 points combined.

Yeah, they're hitting rock bottom on Rocky Top as the offense sputters like a never-oiled machine. What in the name of Peyton Manning or even Erik Ainge, for that matter has happened?

Well, first of all Ainge, last year's starting quarterback, is gone, and his replacement, Jonathan Crompton, struggled so much that he's been replaced by Nick Stephens.

Will that be enough to jump-start the Vols' offense? That's one of the questions in this week's mailbag.

Better days ahead?

Michael from Andrews Air Force Base : Do you think the quarterback change at Tennessee will be enough to give the offense some confidence and swagger? If not, what is it going to take to salvage something good out of this season?

Nick Stephens, who has replaced the struggling Jonathan Crompton, has some swagger, and he had a solid performance in last week's 13-9 victory over Northern Illinois.

The Volunteers certainly need better play from their quarterback. But they also need much, much more.

The line has not played well. The running backs have been largely ineffective. Sophomore running back Lennon Creer receives great praise for his running ability and he's averaging almost nine yards per carry with two touchdown runs, including one from 45 yards. Yet he has only 13 carries. Talented tight end Brandon Warren hasn't really been a factor.

Tennessee's offensive issues might start at quarterback, but definitely do not end there.

Though this has obviously been a disappointing season for the Vols, there remains opportunity to at least have a respectable year. Don't count on the Volunteers defeating Georgia or Alabama there has been nothing to suggest that will happen. Tennessee's defense has played well, but its offense doesn't figure to be able to keep up with the Bulldogs or Tide.

But should Tennessee win its other games against Mississippi State, South Carolina, Wyoming, Vanderbilt and Kentucky the Vols would finish 7-5 and go to a bowl.

They also would not have to endure 365 days of gloating from Kentucky and Vandy fans. That would be positive.

Husker hopes too high?

Matthew in Fort Benning, Ga. : Do you think that, even in college football, people should be careful what they wish for? Nebraska fans seem to be wishing for too much, maybe even the impossible, in the current college football environment. First, they fire a coach (Frank Solich) who went 10-3 because that wasn't enough; they fire a coach who produced top recruiting classes and top offenses (Bill Callahan) because of a down year on defense. Then, they hire Bo Pelini, a master on the defensive side of the ball. Yet, the program continues to struggle, and it appears that it might even be getting worse with blowout losses to Missouri and a very weak Virginia Tech team. Have these high demands come back to bite the Huskers? Or did Tom Osborne just set us up for disappointment with all his wins?

Well, Nebraska fans probably were spoiled by Osborne's tremendous success, and that's not likely to be repeated because there is so much more parity now.

Don't bail on Pelini yet. Yes, the Huskers allowed 52 points to Missouri last week, but anyone in Lincoln who didn't anticipate a blowout win for the Tigers last week was either blissfully unaware or merely delusional.

Pelini is a proven defensive coach and has changed the attitude at Nebraska. But attitude and coaching will only go so far. It's going to take time for Pelini to recruit the defensive players who are going to fit into his system. And when he does, it's going to take some time for them to develop.

No conference is less forgiving for defensive deficiencies than the Big 12, so Pelini has his work cut out. But he'll make the Huskers better this year. Look for the Huskers in a lower-tier bowl, which is obviously better than no bowl at all.

I believe the Huskers will steadily improve under Pelini, and in two or three seasons, they will be in a position to contend for the Big 12 championship.

But I don't think they're going to be as dominant as they were under Osborne. Probably no team will.

Pleasant surprise

Nathaniel in Glen Burnie, Md. : I am a North Carolina fan. I have been shocked by the Tar Heels' play this year. In the past, Tar Heels football has been a joke. I have been pleasantly surprised by their performance, except for their loss to Virginia Tech. What are the chances of a victory against Notre Dame this Saturday? I would love to see them win, but I understand that Notre Dame can be a tough shell to crack.

The Tar Heels have a good chance to post a victory in that matchup of teams with 4-1 records. In fact, I'd expect a win.

While acknowledging that Notre Dame is definitely improved and Jimmy Clausen is developing into an effective quarterback, North Carolina appears the superior team.

Notre Dame hasn't defeated a team with a winning record, and Michigan and Stanford practically gave away victories to the Irish with turnovers. All of Notre Dame's wins have come in South Bend, too. This game is in Chapel Hill.

North Carolina quarterback Cam Sexton began the year as the third-stringer, but he throws to one of the best receiving duos in the nation Brandon Tate and Hakeem Nicks so he has the potential for a big game against the Irish, who have had some problems with pass defense.

The Tar Heels lead the nation with 12 interceptions and are good on special teams. If they avoid turnovers, they should post their third consecutive victory.

BCS for Bulls?

John in Tampa : After South Florida's loss to Pittsburgh, do you think it's still possible for USF to win out and get to a BCS bowl?

It's absolutely possible. The Bulls are a solid team and the Big East isn't top-heavy with elite teams.

Cincinnati and Connecticut have lost their starting quarterbacks. West Virginia quarterback Pat White is banged up, and the Mountaineers haven't played that well. Rutgers? Don't ask.

At this point, I'd expect USF would be favored in the rest of its games, with the possible exception of its finale at West Virginia. But USF has beaten West Virginia in each of the past two seasons.

Of course, even if USF wins the rest of its games, that wouldn't ensure the Bulls would go to a BCS. They would need Pitt to lose two Big East games.

Championship chances

Duke in Chickasha, Okla. : What are the chances of Oklahoma State winning the Big 12 behind Kendall Hunter and Zac Robinson?

To be up front, I'm going with Missouri this weekend. Before the season started, I picked Mizzou to reach the BCS Championship Game and I'll stick with that.

It would be a gross mistake, though, to overlook the Cowboys, who are averaging 52.6 points per game. Robinson is having a good season, Hunter has emerged as a brilliant runner and wide receiver Dez Bryant is among the Big 12's most explosive receivers.

The Cowboys have sprung leaks on defense, but so has Missouri. Oklahoma State is one of the few teams with the potential to stay with Missouri in a high-scoring game.

But beyond that, you have to consider the psychological outlooks of the teams. There still are questions about Oklahoma State because its strongest opponent so far might be 2-3 Houston. So, Missouri is a chance at validation for the Cowboys.

Maybe Missouri won't be as focused or intense. Last week, the Tigers played Nebraska. Next week, they play Texas. This could be a trap game.

But I think the Tigers will avoid that trap.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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