Sunday, May 28, 2006
AN ABSURDLY PREMATURE ASSESSMENT OF: TENNESSEE
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SMQ spins the wheel for a hastily-rendered, too-soon look at a random school's prospects for the fall, sans inevitable academic and criminal suspensions, sudden transfe rs, debilitating injuries and other miscellaneous misfortunes of the long summer
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After the worst year of his career, Fulmer feels the heat, looks to the familiar for r elief. But there's still Erik Ainge...
PAST FIVE SEASONS: 44-19 (28-15 SEC) - 2005: 5-6 (3-5 SEC)
STARTERS BACK, ROUGHLY: 13 (7 Offense, 6 Defense)
WHAT'S CHANGED: Tennessee's strength under Phil Fulmer has always been its consistent ability to control the line of scrimmage on both sides with dominant lines, which suddenly didn't work so well for the offense in '05 and is in peril this fall with only one starter back on each side. Those two starters, Aaron Sears on the O-line and Justin Harrell at DT, are likely all-SEC guys, but on defense, especially, the loss of Parys Haralson, Jesse Mahelona and Jason Hall - not to mention leading tacklers Kevin Simon and Omar Gaither behind them - is going to make the prospects of re peating as the nation's 2nd-ranked run defense pie in the sky, and of adding 50 yards or so per game to the 80th-ranked rushing offense just as unlikely. David Cutcliffe was brought back to help the passing game - 85th itself - pick up whatever slack it can.
On the overarching scale, one of the most touted Tennessee teams in the past two decades had its first losing season since 1988 and its first under Fulmer, lost to Vanderbilt for the first time in any of its players' lifetimes and finished fifth in the SEC East. So there's more than a little confidence and aura at stake if UT isn't going to be thought of as a middle-of-the-pack team for the forseeable future.
WHAT'S THE SAME: Graduation and early departures left the defense beref t of its biggest names, but not its effectiveness. The incoming talent is up to the usual standards, and the myriad injuries meant a lot of last year's youth will be this year's experience. Xavier Mitchell, Turk McBride, Marvin Mitchell, Antwan Stewart, J onathan Hefney, Demetrice Morley, Roshaun Fellows and Inquoris Johnson all wound up playing a ton more than expected on defense, with mostly good results; the defense, in the face of consistent adversity, was very good, allowed more than 30 points only on ce and kept the inept offense in every game except the trip to Notre Dame. Except for the inept offense part (probably), that should be largely the case again.
BUT, OH, THE OFFENSE, THE SHAME: Facing an SEC defense in 2005 wound up looking like the alien arrival scene in the desert in Mars Attacks! most of the time, but no offensive meltdown was as surprising or as pitiful as that of Erik Ainge, the allegedly "cool" sophomore star who instead wilted under blitzes, tossed up fat picks, stumbl ed, fumbled and, in the case of that blind, desperate, half-hearted throw from his own end zone into the arms of LSU's Kenneth Hollis to put a flashing neon cap on possibly the worst two quarters of football in school history, sealed his fate as a deer in the headlights better suited for the bench for most of the rest of the season (and why, LSU fans, is this play not You Tubed yet? Just 'cause y'all somehow lost anyway doesn't make it less entertaining.).
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Pierce Brosnan conslts with David Cutcliffe and Erik Ainge in the search for the gridiron equivalent to vinyl Slim Whitman recordings for SEC defenses
Ainge did come off the bench a couple times and put together a solid performance in the finale against dreadful Kentucky, but the record shows his other decent - never great - performances came as a freshman against Louisiana Tech and Ole Miss; Ainge's entire reputation to this point, it seems, has hinged on the Vols' stolen victory against Florida in his second start in 2004, when he was OK but still split time, and his unremarkable, don't-screw-up effort in UT's upset of Georgia a few weeks later. Not the resume of an emerging star.
Maybe he's better - Arian Foster should go over 1,000 regardless of the young line, good, veteran receivers return in Robert Meachem, Bret Smith and Jayson Swain, so they've got to top 30 points in regulation at least once this year - but the security blanket Ainge has had in Brett Schaeffer and Rick Clausen, whatever security those two provided, is no longer an option, and there's nothing very comforting about redshirt freshman Jon athan Crompton coming in at this stage. Ainge, for better or worse, is the guy, and his maturity is the single most important factor in the success, or lack thereof, of the Vols' rebound season.
THINK OF IT AS AN INVESTMENT: The secondary was picke d on a bit, largely because the front seven was impenetrable but also because the only Game One starter still standing by midseason was the safety Hefney. Starting corners Fellows and Jason Allen both had injury problems, pushing Wade, Inky Johnson and fr eshman Morley into the mix, with predictably so-so results (54th nationally). But that experience, resulting in 11 returning lettermen back there, will help offset the new faces in the front seven, who as mentioned shouldn't be so bad themselves. The defe nse may not be top ten again, but won't suffer too much.
OVERLY OPTIMISTICAPPROPRIATELY UNEASY POST-SPRING CHATTER: Let's play Spot the Theme with headlines from various UT Spring practices:
March 14: Vols' Defense Wins Day During Tuesday Scrimmage Work
March 16: Vols Reach Spring Break Missing Offensive Niche
April 1: Defense Shines in Saturday Scrimmage
April 8: White Capitalizes On Orange Turnovers to Win 34-7
On top of that, here is audio from Cutcliffe, who describes the quarterbacks as "fun" and "coachable" and isn't all that worried about their "production." They still have long way to go, agrees rivals...
REASON FOR HOPE: Fulmer's teams often seem to rise highest amidst the most modest - relatively, considering they're always high here - exp ectations (think 1995, '98, 2001, 2004). Ainge's sophomore spastics should be behind him, the new guys aren't green and are typically top notch athletically.
REASON TO BE AFRAID, VERY AFRAID: The same Ainge behind a reconstructed line is a whole co okbook for calamity; the same guys on offense last year couldn't score on anybody, and the defense can't be nearly as good again without Mahelona, Haralson, Simon, etc.
IF THIS TEAM WERE ANY POP CULTURAL, HISTORICAL, POLITICAL, LITERARY OR OTHERWISE NO TABLE FIGURE, IT WOULD BE... New Coke: Randy
ShannonSanders wasn't the worst experience ever, but due to popular demand, we're bringing back the original formula.
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1999-2005: Did David Cutcliffe orchestrate one of the most brilliant and immoral marketing strategies in history?
HONESTLY, WITHOUT LOOKING AT THE SCHEDULE, SMQ'S THINKING... Eight wins, back in the hunt for the division championship, one of the Florida bowls on Jan. 1. The talent is not in question, the awful injury luck can't repeat. And the last time Tennessee had back-to-back losing seasons? 1910-11, under coaches Andrew A. Stone and Z.V. Clevenger, when annual rivals included Maryvil le, Southwestern and Kentucky State. This group hasn't regressed nearly that far.
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Previous absurdly premature assessments:
April 3: Central Michigan...April 4: Brigham Young...April 6: Kentucky...April 7: Bowling Green...April 8: Southern Cal...April 11: Rutgers...April 12: Marshall...April 13: Florida State...April 15: San Diego State...April 17: Alabama...April 19: Oregon State...April 20: Buffalo...April 22: NC State...April 23: Arizona ...April 24: Memphis...April 26: Louisiana Tech...Apr il 28: Iowa...April 30: Toledo...May 2: Ohio State...May 3: Mississippi State...May 5: Southern Miss...UL-Lafayette...May 11: Akron...May 13: Michigan State...May 15: Air Force...May 17:Stanford...May 18: Georgia Tech...May 21: Connecticut...May 23: Purdue...May 25: Navy...May 27: UCLA...May 28: New Mexico State
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i hope you have somebody sponging your forehead and giving you hand massages. carpal tunnel is the enemy.
p.s.- the LA Tech permalink has a space in the "20 06". maybe others too.