Congratulations go to the Lady Vols softball team for their strong finish to the 2006 season.

First, they win the SEC tournament and follow that with an amazing performance at the College Softball World Series. The team, led by junior All-America pitcher Monica Abbott, went into Oklahoma City as an eighth seed in an eight-team field and almost pulled a huge upset. But in the end, playing from the losers bracket and facing the #2 seeded Arizona Wildcats proved to be a huge undertaking for these Lady Vols. Beating them once was great, but the second game against the eventual National Champions on the same day proved to be too much. All Vol fans can be proud of such a wonderful display of grit and fortitude these ladies showed during the tournament. I still feel they would have had a chance to play for the National Championship if they had not run into a very hot Northwestern team which sent them to the losers bracket. Next year's team with Abbott on the mound should put them in the mix once again for the national title but they might have let a golden opportunity slip away this season.

Well, here we are less than three months from the start of the 2006 Vol football season. Are you all as apprehensive as I am going into this season? After last year, nothing is a given and the schedule has not gotten any easier. The University of California comes into Neyland Stadium on Sept. 2 with what many feel is one of their strongest teams in recent years. They are ranked as high as ninth in the country in some preseason polls. If the Vols are to make any noise in the national rankings this year, they must get off to a quick start and beating Cal is almost a must. With highly ranked Florida and Georgia on the horizon in the first half of the schedule, there is reason for concern. And it doesn't get any easier in the second half of the season. First there is Alabama, then a trip to South Carolina with Spurrier in his second season at the helm, followed by LSU, and a trip to Fayetteville to play Arkansas. This schedule has more potential pit falls than an Indiana Jones movie.

Go to sleep with this schedule and you might wake up in December with an 8-4 record or worse. No way you say. In the first six games, they should easily handle the likes of Air Force, Marshall and Memphis. But winning against Cal, Florida and then Georgia in Athens will test the very core of this team. In fact, we should know a lot about this Vol team by the early part of October and have a feel for how they will handle the second half of their schedule. They sure owe a lot of pay back to some of the teams after last year, but then I am sure LSU hasn't forgotten the ambush in Bayou Country last season. Just like Vol fans haven't forgotten the last home game against Vandy.

A little side note — speaking of Vandy and Big Orange revenge, it seems that Vol super fan, Horace Wyatt, has issued a golfing challenge to fellow columnist and Vandy fanatic Jim Butler. Eighteen holes of golf, with the loser wearing the winner's team colors each game day Saturday this fall.

Now, I have to tell you, the thought of Jim all decked out in Orange is almost more than I can stand. But I have to caution Horace, Jim is not just a good golfer; he is somewhat of a golfing legend up here on Ole Rocky Top. Seems he once had a portion of a golf course named in his honor. OK, so it was only a tree. Still, "The Butler Tree" is pretty eloquent sounding if you ask me. So in the tradition of Tennessee, I say come on Jim and let's just "Git it done." I'll even offer to serve as the impartial go-between to set up this match. Now back to more important thoughts.

On paper, the Vols look solid on both sides of the ball but it will be the intangibles this season that will determine the success or failure of this team. Discipline, cutting down on penalties and mistakes, plus playing with enthusiasm are some of the keys for this team to be successful. A dominant running game will also be needed this year to take pressure off the quarterback position, which was less than stellar last year. The Vols should be hungry and full of fire come September; ready to atone for last season sub par campaign. With an offense that should be vastly improved, the defense under John Chavis can once again play rested and without their backs against the wall for most of the game.

It should be a very interesting time down in Knoxville no matter which way this season goes. The only person who really can't win this year is Coach Fulmer. Win and many will credit his new Offensive Coordinator, David Cutcliffe. Lose and the moving vans could be finding their way to his residence faster than he can find an assistant coach to hold responsible. It does appear that Coach Fulmer has done the things that will be needed to get this year's team back on track. Let's not forget that he has a winning percentage of .776 over the past 14 seasons at UT. That is winning better than three out of every four games! After last season, we all need the Vols to bounce back and put the swagger back into Big Orange football.

Remember, it is not too early to start practicing Rocky Top. I can't wait to see the UT Band coming down the hill and a sea of orange surrounding the stadium. Three months seems like such a long time to wait!! Enjoy your summer and buckle up for the ride in September. It should be worth the wait! My prediction for the this season 9-3, Go VOLS!!

Frank Gale is a Chronicle correspondent, and his column appears periodically.