Tennessee opener looks safe enough 

Marvin Westwestwords

There are several types of opening football games.

Some are marshmallows or cupcakes. A few are conference matchups. Some national spotlight events are arranged by and for television.

Many openers are meaningless. Some are deadly.

Eric Gray

This one, Georgia State, is not projected as a major challenge. Tennessee will be judged more on how it looks than what it accomplishes. There will be questions about who controlled the line of scrimmage and how good was freshman running back Eric Gray on first glance.

A victory is absolutely necessary. Next in importance is who gets hurt. After that, take notice of attendance.

Little opening games are, ideally, sophisticated practice sessions. The band and many players get to play. Big openers are often a harbinger of things to come.

Some are misleading. In 1967, Tennessee lost the opener to UCLA in Los Angeles. Those Vols didn’t lose again until the bowl game.

Tennessee managed to lose the first game of 1976 to Duke in Knoxville. The score was 21-18. Three times the Vols failed on conversion attempts. Other bad things happened later. The season slid down to 6-5, the end of the Bill Battle era.

When Johnny came marching home, his inheritance was something like what Jeremy Pruitt started with as UT coach.

John Majors’ teams went 1-6 in opening games before they mastered the art. Some of Majors’ first foes were nationally ranked.

This was about the time of the redeployment of a wise, old saying: “It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish.”

That led to “They remember what you do in November.”

We also remember September.

On Sept. 6, 1980, Tennessee safety Bill Bates and Georgia fourth-string tailback Herschel Walker met in one of the most famous encounters in SEC history. If you don’t know how that turned out, send me an e-mail for a comprehensive description.

General Robert R. Neyland took no risks in openers. Beginning in 1926, his Tennessee teams defeated Carson-Newman, Maryville, Centre, Chattanooga, Sewanee and Mercer. In 14 such season debuts, Centre scored six points and Sewanee three. All others were shutouts.

The Flamin’ Sophomores of 1928 made their start at the expense of Maryville, 41-0.

Bowden Wyatt was not so fortunate as coach. In the opening game of 1958, Tennessee lost, 13-0, to Auburn in Birmingham, on national TV, with UT alum Lindsey Nelson and the immortal Red Grange doing the honors.

The net result was one of the more forgettable days in the entire history of Tennessee football. In 60 hard-hitting minutes, the Vols failed to make a first down. They had minus-49 yards rushing but gained 30 passing.

Any time you think things can’t possibly get worse, consider this all-time low for the once-famous Tennessee single-wing.

Doug Dickey’s first game as coach, Sept. 19, 1964, was the introduction of the T formation. Included in the show was a less than awesome 10-6 triumph over Chattanooga. If you are doing a timeline, checkerboard end zones first appeared in Game 4, Boston College.

Some openers are only the first nugget of a gold mine. With Tee Martin replacing Peyton Manning, Tennessee 1998, aided by an unlikely pass interference call against the home team, survived a tough test at Syracuse.

From week to week, Tee proved better than adequate. The Vols went undefeated. They won the national championship.

Two years later, the 13th-ranked Vols stumbled, bumbled and fumbled their way to a 19-16 opening victory over Southern Miss.

In their first game of 2005, the fifth-ranked Vols looked dull or flat. They defeated UAB, 17-10. That turned out to be a warning. Tennessee went 5-6 that season, scored 205 points and gave up 205 points.

You may have thought 2007 was worse – a 44-yard fumble return and a 77-yard punt return in a 45-31 loss to California. File that one under the heading of not ready for the beginning.

Derek Dooley’s first game didn’t tell us anything. His Vols ripped UT Martin, 50-0. Butch Jones’ opener was 45-0 over Austin Peay.

There was a lot of excitement this time last August. We had a new sheriff in town. He was going to establish law and order. Alas, West Virginia got away, 40-14.

Forecast: This opener will be easier.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected]

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