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The man with the gameplan

Vols' Sanders steps into fire in debut as play-caller

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Posted: Saturday January 02, 1999 03:29 PM

  Sanders was named the Vols' new offensive coordinator after David Cutcliffe left to coach Ole Miss AP

By John Donovan, CNN/SI

TEMPE, Ariz. (CNN/SI) -- Tennessee's hopes of winning a national championship Monday night ride largely with a man who is calling the plays in a college football game for the first time ever.

Against a defense that is the best in the nation.

And, you know, no one on Tennessee's team -- least of all Randy Sanders -- seems the least bit worried about it.

"I'm going to call the game," says Sanders, who makes it sound like making the decisions on which plays to pick will be much easier than making a hundred national reporters understand that fact. "Hey, when you're going against a team that gives up only 214 yards a game, not that many plays will work anyway."

One of the biggest questions of this Fiesta Bowl week has been how the offense for the No. 1-ranked Volunteers will function under Sanders, a clean-cut 33-year-old former Volunteers quarterback (1984-88). Sanders was bumped up to offensive coordinator (he was the running backs coach) after the season when David Cutcliffe took over as Mississippi's head coach.

Sanders' new job is simple: Finish off a perfect season and give Tennessee its first national championship since 1951. To do that, his best bet might be to stick with the type of play-calling that got Tennessee to 12-0 and into the Fiesta Bowl in the first place.

There's every indication that's exactly what he'll do.

"We've been running the same offense for 12 games now," says wide receiver Peerless Price, one of the team's main threats. "Why change now?"

Well, one reason might be because of Florida State and its awesome defense, which has allowed only two opponents to gain more than 250 yards this season. Sanders says he does have some new wrinkles in the game plan, mainly because the Volunteers have had nearly a month to figure out something new.

But if the old way of doing things works against the Seminoles, Sanders will let it ride.

Indeed, the game planning part of the offensive coordinator's job has not changed at all. It still begins on Sunday after a game, with input from all the coaches. They choose running plays, passing plays and maybe some trick plays they think might work against the upcoming opponent and, on Thursday, usually finalize the list of plays in that week's playbook.

Against Florida State, Sanders has actually pared down the number of plays the Volunteers might run to between 150-175 because, simply, he doesn't think anything else will work. During the game, once he considers the down-and-distance, the game situation and the field position, Sanders will make a call from a list of anywhere from five to eight plays.

And, as always, head coach Phil Fulmer has the right to veto the call anytime.

There will be one major change under Sanders. Unlike Cutcliffe, Sanders will script between 10-15 plays to start the game, situation allowing, just to see how Florida State will react. Armed with that knowledge, he'll have a better feel on how to call he rest of the game.

While watching films of the Seminoles' defense on New Year's Eve -- he's a coach, all right -- Sanders practiced picking some plays of his own in a kind of imaginary video game. "I called a lot of good ones that night," he jokes.

But on Monday, can Sanders put his signature on this offense? Should he at this point? Are there trick plays in his book? And how aggressive will he want to be when there's a crucial third- or fourth-down call to be made?

"We've got an old saying," Sanders said. "I'm going to live in my hopes, not in my fears."

CNN/SI senior writer John Donovan is filing daily reports from the Fiesta Bowl.

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