How you start or how you finish

Marvin WestFeature, westwords

I don’t know but I’ve been told that how you start isn’t as important as how you finish. That could apply to a story, a fishing trip or a lifetime.

Tennessee starts football on Saturday in Charlotte against West Virginia. Most of us have no idea what to expect. We know the Mountaineers have a strong offense, one of the top quarterbacks in the country and three or four outstanding receivers.

We can’t count on sacking Will Grier. We don’t even know if defensive Volunteers can get close enough to make him nervous.

We don’t know if the orange team can slow the West Virginia running game or if the secondary has learned enough to compete in the big leagues.

We don’t know if Tennessee has an offense. The line is supposedly improved. That sounds encouraging.

We do know this is a terrific opportunity for Jeremy Pruitt’s people to make a sizzling first impression. That would be unexpected. The Orlando Sentinel ranks Tennessee as the No. 88 team in the country. Athlon, trying to sell magazines, lists the Vols as 58. CBS says 74. The Talisman computer says 123, just behind Utah State and ahead of Ouachita Baptist.

We know West Virginia is favored in the betting line. Smug fans, telling each other that this is their best team ever, are waving their rent money, hoping someone will double it. They may not realize how serious Pruitt is about his Tennessee reconstruction business. He has not explained it to me but I don’t think this is a five-year plan. The coach hasn’t said exactly how confident he is but I doubt that he would be shocked if the Vols won.

Pruitt doesn’t have much experience in losing.

This game, at this point, comes with far more questions than answers and plenty of space for surprises. So it often is with opening games. There were some shockers in the Tennessee-UCLA series.

Doug Dickey’s very good 1967 team found a surprising way to lose the opener in Los Angeles. It failed to tackle Gary Beban on a fourth-quarter weave through the defense.

Back when deadlocks were possible, Tennessee endured a strange opener, 1985, at Neyland Stadium. Tony Robinson was picking UCLA apart, 387 yards, 26-10 lead in the fourth quarter, enough already.

Tennessee cut back the RPMs. It was going to coast in. The visitors made two stops, scored two touchdowns and two 2-point conversions and won a 26-26 tie.

Weird opener in 1994: Quarterback Jerry Colquitt had waited until his fifth year to make a first start. Seven plays later, his career ended with a torn ACL. What happened thereafter was also discouraging. Todd Helton, Branndon Stewart and Peyton Manning took turns producing insufficient results. UCLA won.

Phillip Fulmer’s Volunteers found a surprising way to win at Syracuse in 1998. They trailed by two points with 1:48 remaining. On fourth and seven, Tee Martin fired downfield for Cedrick Wilson. The pass fell incomplete. The game appeared to be over.

But, it wasn’t. After a second or so of meditation (it seemed like an hour), an official decided that Wilson had been hit from behind just before the ball arrived. Out came the yellow flag. Late-game pass interference on the home team is almost never noticed. Amazing.

Tennessee seized the opportunity. Jeff Hall kicked a winning field goal.

Indeed, how you start does not dictate how you finish. Coach John Majors lost six of his first seven opening games. He was more successful after that.

Coach Fulmer enjoyed 12 consecutive opening victories.

Derek Dooley coached three opening wins. Butch Jones had five. You know how those guys ended up.

Marvin West invites reader reactions. His address is

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