These are two teams headed in opposite directions at the speed of light. The Fighting Irish are reborn under first year head coach Charlie Weis, the mastermind behind a potent offensive attack that is putting points on the scoreboard in bunches. With a 5-2 record that includes victories over Pittsburgh, Michigan, Washington, Purdue and Brigham Young, Notre Dame is best known for its instant classic cliffhanger last month against defending national champion and undefeated USC. That near victory propelled the Irish back into the top ten where they remain today at No. 9.
Conversely, Tennessee is in the depths of a spiraling free fall from a preseason ranking of No. 3 through a 3-4 start, until it was finally spit out of the bottom of national polls last week, following a 16-15 defeat to that other USC. The one with the roosters on its helmet and no national championships under its belt.
The Vols dramatic demise is the result of an offense that rarely has a pulse and produces points at the pace of the Tunisian national ice hockey team. If you say it’s not fair to compare Tennessee’s offense to a team that doesn’t exist. Well, I rest my case.
For those of you that need more convincing here we go:
• Tennessee football was shook to the very foundation by the home loss to a rebuilding South Carolina club that led to the resignation of offensive coordinator Randy Sanders on Monday. For a staff that is the very embodiment of stability this type of upheaval is unprecedented. It’s true a team can occasionally get a lift from a staff shakeup, but just as often it will crumble from the continuing buildup of pressures.
• Last stand hill for the Vols was in Tuscaloosa two weeks ago. It’s unlikely at this late date a battered Tennessee could marshall the combination of confidence, energy and intensity it needs to defeat Notre Dame in South Bend.
• The demanding schedule has taken both a mental and physical toll on Tennessee. In addition to the loss of key personnel on both sides of the line, there are gaping holes in the depth chart and a significant percentage of UT starters that are playing hurt.
• Notre Dame has had two weeks to recover and prepare for this game. When Weis had two weeks to scheme for USC, his squad put 31 points on the board. Tennessee’s single-game scoring high this season is 30 points, while the Vols are averaging half that number.
• Weis’ vast knowledge of offensive football means that he understands how to build an offense and how to tear one down. The powerful Trojan offense — led by the two leading Heisman Trophy candidates in quarterback, Matt Leinhart, and tailback, Reggie Bush — had fits against the Fighting Irish. How will Tennessee do with QBs Rick Clausen, Eric Ainge and an injured freshman tailback with no proven backup?
• Notre Dame has a mountain of the momentum and incentive entering in this contest, while Tennessee has none of the former and little of the latter. And there’s not much chance the Irish will be looking ahead to next week’s game against Navy.