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Will Vols follow Auburnís 2003 or 2004 path of grid success as kickoff nears?

So, weíre nearing zero hour in Big Orange Country to start grading the highly-touted 2005 UT football team.

Many of you know that Sporting News Magazine has the Vols No. 2 behind everyoneís preseason No. 1 ó the New England Patriots of college football, Southern Cal.

Most of you know, on the other hand, that Tennessee must play Florida in The Swamp and the very next week head to Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge vs. LSU, in mid September, no less. (A quick question to the UT Athletic Department: Why canít the Vols do anything about its top-heavy SEC schedule, with so many games vs. the SEC elite before mid-October?)

Many of you college football junkies have witnessed the ill-effects of pressure on highly-touted preseason teams through the years.

Auburnís 2003 season is the most recent example of how closing fast the season before can be misleading.

After a heartbreaking loss to eventual SEC champ Georgia, the 2002 War Eagles convincingly whipped a solid top-15-in-the-nation caliber Alabama team in Tuscaloosa then proceeded to beat Penn State in the Citrus Bowl.

And remember, Alabama and Penn State are a lot better than UTís late season victims of 2004, Kentucky, Vandy and Texas A&M.

So, a solid 9-3 Auburn team from 2002 became the SEC favorite in 2003, and a preseason No. 1 choice by some. The start couldnít have been uglier on the so-called Loveliest Plains.

After being blanked and humiliated at home by Southern Cal to begin the season, the Tigers rolled into Atlanta and managed only three points against a very ordinary Ga. Tech team in a 17-3 loss.

Auburn ended up losing five games as LSU passed them by en route to a co-national championship.

Funny how Auburn overshadowed LSU in the preseason 2003 hype before Nick Sabanís Tigers took over.

And made funnier when LSU overshadowed Auburn in the 2004 preseason hype before Tommy Tubervilleís guys took over and went unbeaten last year.

But back to the point ó what are the differences in 2003 Auburn and 2005 Tennessee?

Will Erik Ainge steadily improve with a yearís maturity, or will the pressure of expectations result in a decline? Can Gerald Riggs Jr. stay healthy? Is the offensive line, without a proven center, versatile enough to both run- and pass-block effectively?

Defensively, will the secondary solidify behind Jason Allen?

Note of interest ... Georgia is the only team to beat UT in Neyland Stadium on an odd-numbered year since 1983, having won the last two on Rocky Top.

Interestingly enough, in 1983 all three Vol losses came at home ó Pittsburgh, Auburn and a tough loss to Ole Miss that cost UT a Cotton Bowl bid.

But that 1983 season may have lit the first spark of consistent success the Tennessee program still enjoys after a major slump of non-top-20 season from 1975 through 1982.

Led by Reggie White in his final, and by far best, season at UT, the Vols finished 9-3 and closed with a Citrus Bowl victory against Maryland. Tennessee enjoyed its first nine-win season since 1972.

Another note of interest ... Remember that little 19-14 Vol victory in Sanford Stadium against Georgia last fall? Well, it came seven days after Georgia played the game of its life by thrashing an LSU team in Athens that was probably as good as the Vols last season.

Does Georgiaís letdown against UT ó yes, thatís what it was Vol fans ó remind you of any UT letdowns of in recent years?

Hereís a hint: 34-32 in Gainesville followed by a parade at Tom Black Track, then a giant Big Orange thud in Atlanta.


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