Keys to the game

Keys to the game

Tennessee already faced two top-10 teams this season. No one else in the SEC has faced one. So, the weary Vols may be tempted to look past unheralded UAB when the two tee it up at 12:21 this afternoon.

After all, the Blazers bring a 1-2 record into Neyland Stadium, having lost to Florida Atlantic (32-31) and SMU (28-7) before nipping Troy (34-33) last weekend.

This is the kind of visitor a typical Tennessee team chews up and spits out. This is not a typical Tennessee team, however. Two weeks ago it suffered one of the most lopsided home-field losses (48-13 to Oregon) in program history.

Simply put, the 2010 Vols can't afford to overlook any team with a pulse, and UAB qualifies. The Blazers have veteran coaches and experienced players. They have no reason to be in awe of Tennessee.

"They've got a deep team," Vol head man Derek Dooley said this week. "They have 17 starters returning, and they've played in these kind of games, so they're not going to be starry-eyed."

UT Martin, Tennessee's Game 1 foe, was beaten before the opening kickoff. The Skyhawks, members of the Football Championship Subdivision, were intimidated by the size and decibel level of Neyland Stadium. That won't be the case with the Blazers, now in Year 4 of the Neil Callaway coaching era. Dooley says that's significant, based on his experiences at Louisiana Tech.

"My first year, we got strapped by Cal. We got strapped by LSU. We got strapped by Ole Miss," the Vol coach recalled. "We didn't even compete. And then my third year we had a three-point game with Auburn deep into the second half, and we were beating LSU at the half. And we were outmanned."

So why were the Bulldogs able to hang with superior foes in Year 3 when they couldn't do so in Year 1 of Dooley's tenure?

"It was because they were confident - some guys had been there before - and that's what we're going to see from UAB," Dooley said. "This is their fourth year in the program, and they go play these games (vs. BCS foes) every year. They're going to come up here to win the football game."

Clearly, Tennessee's players had better match the enthusiasm of their UAB counterparts. The Vols promise to do just that.

"We're not going to relax," linebacker LaMarcus Thompson said. "Coach has ingrained in our heads that, no matter who the opponent is, you definitely have to give 100 percent effort every week and come in to work. You have to start over with a clean slate, like this is a top-10 team every week."

Receiver Denarius Moore echoed those sentiments.

"It's not hard to focus," he said. "You never underestimate an opponent. They're coming in looking to beat us, so we've got to look at them the way we do Florida, Alabama or any other ranked team."

Obviously, a good start would be a huge plus for Tennessee. Allowing an underdog to hang around for three quarters can be costly - as Ole Miss already proved in home-field losses to Jacksonville State and Vanderbilt.

Even a good start won't ensure a Vol victory, however. Troy jumped on UAB last Saturday, racing to a 23-0 second-quarter lead. The game appeared to be over but the Blazers didn't get the memo. They rallied frantically and won 34-33.

Thus, Tennessee's keys today are The Two Fs: They must focus and finish.

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