2006 Season Preview (Game Six): Tennessee

Considering the way I seem to have set off opposing fans with my previews of South Carolina and Colorado, I am hesitant to tackle Tennessee, but, at this point, I suppose I am obliged to continue, so here we go.

Artist's rendering of my approximate level of enthusiasm for this preview.

By the way, for what it's worth, I have also posted previews of Western Kentucky, U.A.B., and Ole Miss.

The Game

Georgia v. Tennessee
Sanford Stadium
Saturday, October 7

The Opponent

The Volunteers need no introduction. Although the gridiron series dates back to 1899, Georgia and Tennessee played only intermittently throughout most of their history; between 1911 and 1987, the 'Dawgs and the Vols squared off just a dozen times.

Knoxville, 1980: Herschel Walker makes his collegiate debut and Bill Bates does a convincing impersonation of a speed bump. All right, that was unfair . . . when you run over a speed bump, you have to slow down.

The advent of divisional play in the Southeastern Conference changed all that at a most inopportune moment in Bulldog football history. From 1992 to 1999, the Red and Black took on the Big Orange every single season . . . and lost every single game. (Tennessee was 9-1 against Georgia during the Ray Goff and Jim Donnan eras; all other Bulldog coaches, both before and since, have combined to post a 14-9-2 record against the Big Orange.)

While the Classic City Canines slumped into mediocrity, posting six seasons of six wins or fewer in an eight-year span from 1989 to 1996, the Volunteers were renascent, posting 10 seasons of nine or more victories in 11 years between 1989 and 1999.

Fortunately, the tables began to turn as the old century closed and the new millennium dawned. Tennessee slipped ever so slightly, losing at least three games in six of the seven seasons since the Vols' 1998 national championship and capturing no conference crowns during that span, while Georgia began its climb back to national prominence with the hiring of Mark Richt in 2001.

The Bulldogs have won five of the last six series meetings with the squad from Knoxville and Georgia's dramatic victory in Neyland Stadium in Coach Richt's first season at the helm was the signature moment that marked the changing of the guard in the Eastern Division.

There's a new sheriff in town.

A Brief History of the University of Tennessee

What is today the University of Tennessee at Knoxville was established in what was then the Southwest Territory in 1794. Over the years, the institution went by a variety of names, changing from Blount College to East Tennessee College to East Tennessee University before formally becoming the state's flagship institution in 1879.

The 550-acre Knoxville campus has an enrollment of over 26,000 situated around "The Hill," the bank rising above Neyland Stadium and the Tennessee River around which the university has been centered since 1828. U.T. also is home to the Space Institute, a graduate study and research institution located adjacent to the U.S. Air Force's Arnold Engineering Development Center.

The University of Tennessee is rich in campus traditions, almost in spite of itself. Students there adopted orange and white as the school colors in 1889 . . . but voted to drop them in 1894. The college crowned its first homecoming queen in 1950 . . . then ended the tradition in 1970, revived it in 1982, and ended it again in 1985. The Nahheeyayli Club was founded to host formal events in 1924 . . . but the dances were canceled after 1969 and, after being revived in 1992, they went under a different name beginning in 1993.

Aloha Oe began in 1926, was discontinued in 1967, and was revived in 1994 under the name "Torch Night," which originally belonged to a different tradition. Barnwarmin' started in 1921 and ceased in 1962. It appears that the only thing these folks can settle on and stick with is playing that dadgum song after every completion.

 

By way of comparison, the Athenian on the left pioneered an instructional method used to hone the mind, whereas the Knoxville native on the right starred in a T.V. show called "Jackass."

A Brief History of Volunteer Football

Tennessee's football program dates back to 1891, but, in keeping with the university's long tradition of indecision, the school's devotion to the sport was somewhat sporadic in the early going. The Big Orange did not field teams in 1894, 1895, or 1898 and it was not until 1899 that the team's first head coach was named.

Although the Volunteers often fielded winning teams in the early 20th century, the glory years of Tennessee football arrived when Robert Neyland began coaching in Knoxville in 1926. General Neyland's consistency was remarkable; in the first seven years of his tenure on the U.T. sideline, the Vols went 8-1, 8-0-1, 9-0-1, 9-0-1, 9-1, 9-0-1, and 9-0-1, respectively. (It is interesting to note, by the way, that, of the two losses and five ties, six came against either Kentucky or Vanderbilt.)

General Neyland, a World War I veteran, took time out from his coaching chores to do his duty for God and country, serving in Panama before spending time overseas during World War II. His third and final coaching stint, from 1946 to 1952, produced a 54-17-4 record, two national titles, and trips to the Cotton, Orange, and Sugar Bowls.

Tennessee hardly wandered in the wilderness in the ensuing years, as the Big Orange posted double-digit win totals in 1956, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1987, and 1989 before the present regime came to power in Knoxville in 1992.

How far did former U.T. head coach Johnny Majors fall following his unceremonious ouster in Knoxville? So far that he wound up giving helpful hints to Todd Murgatroyd, the head coach of the Urbana Blue Knights and the man best known for inspiring Snagglepuss.

Returning Starters

Five starters are back on defense, mostly in the secondary, and the principal players on special teams, placekicker James Wilhoit and punter Britton Colquitt, will be wearing orange in Neyland Stadium this fall, as well.

The number of returning offensive starters is open to debate, but it is reasonable to claim that four of the players who regularly were on the field for the first snap of the game in 2005 remain on the Volunteers' roster in 2006. That number improves to five if you count quarterback Erik Ainge.

"It depends on what your definition of 'starter' is."

Coaching

Well, that's the big question, now, isn't it? Phillip Fulmer is a former Volunteer football player who is entering his 29th season on his alma mater's coaching staff. In 14 seasons as the head coach on Rocky Top, he has compiled a 128-37 record for a .776 winning percentage and won a national championship. Can a coach with the Great Pumpkin's credentials really be on the hot seat?

Signs indicate that he could be. In the last seven years---the second half of his tenure as the top man on the Tennessee sideline---Coach Fulmer has not led the Vols to an S.E.C. title. The rash of embarrassing incidents off the field has continued unabated, but the victories have been fewer and farther between, and, despite winning a lot of games, Coach Fulmer has never been dominant even in his own division, as telegenic ex-quarterbacks like Steve Spurrier and Mark Richt always seem to have had the uncharismatic former offensive lineman's number.

Coach Fulmer evidently took the grumbling seriously enough to reshuffle his coaching staff. While the defensive coordinator and his top assistants on that side of the ball remain stable, the offensive staff has undergone numerous changes.

Greg Adkins now finds himself coaching the offensive line, while the wide receivers have been placed in the charge of Trooper Taylor, the former running backs coach whose name initially led me to believe that he was one of the state patrolmen who followed Coach Fulmer off the field.

That's Sheriff Taylor, not Trooper Taylor.

Most important, of course, is the return of David Cutcliffe as Tennessee's offensive coordinator. Coach Cutcliffe manages to bring both familiarity and freshness to the Volunteer attack as he endeavors to put the "O" back in the Big Orange.

Speaking of which . . .

Offense

Brent Schaeffer is in Oxford, Randy Sanders is in Lexington, and Rick Clausen is a graduate assistant, so Ainge has to improve at quarterback . . . doesn't he?

Ainge will be aided by a revived running game. The Vols' 128.3 rushing yards per game ranked ninth in the S.E.C. and 80th in the N.C.A.A. last season, which remains a sore spot in Big Orange country. Although Tennessee's top three running backs all missed spring practice due to injury, the usual accumulation of talent at tailback will be on hand in Knoxville once again this autumn.

When Gerald Riggs, Jr., was injured last season, Arian Foster got his opportunity and he made the most of it, going over the century mark in rushing yardage in each of his five starts to end the 2005 campaign. Foster is not expected to be hampered by offseason surgeries on his shoulder and knee, and underclassmen Montario Hardesty and LaMarcus Coker are expected to overcome their ailments, as well.

Rob Smith's decision to enter the N.F.L. draft left senior Arron Sears as the Volunteers' only returning starter on the offensive line. While the dearth of experience up front has caused some lettermen to be shuffled around, Coach Adkins is forcing his linemen to shed unneeded pounds in order to increase their mobility.

"I'm a lean, mean fighting machine!" (My thanks go out to Nico for reviving the cultural relevance of the Dewey Oxberger reference.)

The receiving corps, while undeniably talented, has left some questions unanswered. Is Robert Meachem ready to have a breakout season as the Vols' playmaker? Can Bret Smith be a more consistent receiver? Can Jayson Swain overcome two arthroscopic surgeries in less than a year? One thing is for sure . . . tight end Chris Brown will get his opportunity to become more involved in the passing game.

Defense

Three of four 2005 starters are gone from the defensive line and all three starters are gone from last year's linebacking corps, but the situation is far from desperate. For all their woes last season, the Vols were effective against the run, ranking second in the country in rushing defense, and there is talent returning among the front seven.

Redshirt freshman Rico McCoy looks like a rising star at weak-side linebacker and, on the defensive line, Xavier Mitchell had his share of playing time and J.T. Mapu is back from his Mormon mission. Upperclassmen Justin Harrell and Turk McBride remain on campus, as well, so John Chavis's D should continue to impress.

The secondary is deep and experienced. The unit that started the last six games of last season is back intact, including Jonathan Hefney, who picked off three passes in 2005. Tennessee is on solid ground where the Volunteers' defensive backs are concerned.

Davy Crockett sees a lot to like in the 2006 Volunteer defense. (Photograph from Amazon.com.)

Special Teams

One of the few bright spots for the Volunteer faithful during last season's brutal stretch run was Wilhoit's field goal kicking, as the Tennessee placekicker connected on 11 of his last 12 three-point tries.

Colquitt, the latest in a long line of Fabulous Punting Volunteer Colquitts, continues to boom punts, while Lucas Taylor and his teammates offer the U.T. coaches viable options for returning kicks and punts.

Dawg Food

There's an old joke that we in Bulldog Nation like to tell on such orange-clad rivals as Auburn, Clemson, and, in this case, Tennessee:

"Why do the Tennessee Volunteers wear orange?"

"So their fans can go from the county jail to the deer stand to the stadium without having to change clothes."

In that spirit, then, your tailgating menu should include venison.

"Strap that bad boy across the hood of the truck and step on it, Delroy! We got a noon kickoff in Knoxville to make!" (Photograph from The Oxbow Lodge.)

What Worries Me Most

In 2005, Rocky Top hit rock bottom, posting a losing record in a season in which many expected the Vols to contend for a Rose Bowl berth. The Big Orange's 5-6 ledger last season could have been even worse, as three of Tennessee's five wins were by a touchdown or less . . . yet it is also the case that four of U.T.'s six losses were by a single-digit margin.

The Volunteers are highly motivated and the schedule is not unkind, as Coach Fulmer's squad opens with four straight games in Knoxville and U.T.'s slate includes nine games within the borders of Tennessee, giving the team ample opportunity to get back to its winning ways.

My biggest fear is that we have seen this movie before. Tennessee followed up a 10-2-1 campaign in 1987 with a 5-6 collapse in 1988 before rebounding in 1989, when the Volunteers posted an 11-1 ledger, captured a share of the S.E.C. championship, and edged Georgia by a 17-14 margin. In the wake of Tennessee's 10-3 season in 2004 and 5-6 season in 2005, could history be ready to repeat itself?

Please, no . . . not 1989 all over again!

What Will Happen on Saturday

It all depends on which Volunteer team shows up between the hedges. Will we see the Erik Ainge who led Tennessee to an improbable upset of the 'Dawgs in 2004 or the surviving half of a 2005 U.T. Q.B. tandem so dysfunctional that a Clausen provided greater stability and competence?

The Vols will be better in 2006; that much is clear. They come into the season with a dangerous combination of talent and hunger, which virtually ensures a tough contest. After Tennessee's losses on the football field last season and Georgia's losses of personnel during the offseason, each Eastern Division rival will have something to prove.

This game will be an old school S.E.C. football game out of the familiar mold; the team that controls the line of scrimmage---the team that runs the ball and stops the run---will win. Beyond that, the key would seem to be each team's confidence level heading into the game.

Two of the Bulldogs' first four games are against South Carolina and Colorado, whereas two of the Big Orange's first three outings are against Cal and Florida. If the two teams come into Sanford Stadium sporting identical records, a battle royal could be brewing . . . but, if one team is undefeated and the other already has two setbacks in its ledger, the mental edge of the unbeaten squad should make the difference.

Coming soon: Vanderbilt.

Go 'Dawgs!

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