I recently was contacted by Joel, the fellow S.E.C. East weblogger from Rocky Top Talk, and we agreed to interview one another regarding tomorrow night's big game in Athens.
My interview responses appear at his site and Joel's answers to my questions appear below:
Rocky Top Talk: Well, let's take a look at what's happened since 1999.
- 2000: Year Two of the post-David Cutcliffe era. I believe we were still searching for a QB, and Casey Clausen and A.J. Suggs split time. My memory of this game is a bit foggy, but two new quarterbacks in Athens is bad news.
- 2001: First year head coach Mark Richt brings a hob-nailed boot to Neyland Stadium, ruining what would have otherwise been a fantastic come-from-behind finish for the Vols.
- 2002: The I-Could-Have-Beaten-Them-with-One-Arm Game. In place of an injured Casey Clausen, Fulmer first tried upper classman C.J. Leak, who faltered, and then played athletic James Banks the rest of the way, thus ending the courtship with C.J.'s little brother Chris. This game scrambled the QB eggs, all of which were in Chris' basket, and when he fled the alter, we were in dire need of future QBs.
- 2003: Oh, yes. A Lesson in Momentum. Sean Jones' fumble return for a touchdown just before the end of the half put the 'Dawgs up 20-7 instead of down 14-13. Orange tinted shock and stupor ensued.
- 2004: Georgia's turn to try to figure out a new young QB. Y'all almost won this one anyway.
- 2005: The penalty-plagued, field position nightmare during The Season of Which We Do Not Speak.
That string of games may involve several fortuitous bounces, but I think that on balance it's more indicative of a power shift in the SEC East. If you have the time, follow the Season of Which We Do Not Speak link above. The gist of the post is that after the 1998 National Championship, a lot of little things started going wrong, and they went uncorrected for too many years, eventually leading to the 2005 catastrophe. This slow demise of the Volunteers could not have come at a worse time, as it meant that they failed to capitalize on the departure of Steve Spurrier and ceded the opportunity to Mark Richt and the Bulldogs.
2. The Florida-Tennessee game is touted annually as a clash of titans, despite the fact that the winner of that September showdown has represented the East in the S.E.C. championship game just once in the last four years. Has the rivalry with Georgia replaced the rivalry with Florida as Tennessee's biggest division game? Why or why not?
Rocky Top Talk: The Tennessee-Georgia rivalry didn't supplant the Tennessee-Florida rivalry as the biggest division game for the Volunteers so much as it just added another high hurdle to the path to the SEC East title. The UT-Florida game is generally the first SEC game for the Vols (2001 being a notable exception), and it is true that it generally sets the tone for the remainder of the season. Still, with Georgia's resurgence, a win now merely means that the Vols are still in the running for the East (and still must contend with Georgia), and a loss just means you have to both beat Georgia and hold your nose and root for Georgia and some other SEC team to give the Gators two Ls. An early loss to Florida does make the Georgia game extremely important to the Vols. This is especially true in a season like this, where it is more than merely conceivable that Florida could finish with two SEC losses, three if Georgia can beat them in Jacksonville. Win against the 'Dawgs, and the Vols are right back in the hunt. Lose, and we're left with concocting outrageous scenarios and rooting for multiple upsets in October and November.
As you have alluded to before, one of the primary factors in defining a rivalry is at what point one came of age as a Volunteer fan. If the Georgia game has usurped the Florida game as UT's biggest in-division game in the mind of some younger UT fans, it is primarily because you've caused us so much trouble over the past six seasons. In spite of your recent dominance of us, though, I think that most fans still consider Florida or Alabama the biggest rivalry simply because Mark Richt is just harder to hate than is Steve Spurrier, Urban Meyer, or the State of Alabama.
3. Right now, Georgia appears to be sputtering while Tennessee seems to be hitting on all cylinders. All signs seem to point to an easy U.T. win in Athens on Saturday night. How confident are you of victory and what nagging concerns stand between you and certainty regarding the outcome?
Rocky Top Talk: I'm not very confident at all, and the Tennessee blogosphere has done its best to put the brakes on the swell of irrational exuberance this week. You simply cannot ignore the fact that since Cutcliffe departed and Richt arrived, the 'Dawgs have pretty much owned the Vols. We also know enough to fear the emotional return of a senior QB leading his team even if he is a pedestrian passer. Let's just say we've seen that one before. You also can't ignore Richt's history of developing excellent quarterbacks, or Georgia's edge in punt and kick returns, or the fact that the Vols have not handled the role of the favorite very well of late. Still, Cutcliffe has returned, the Vols do seem to have rediscovered their offense, and Georgia does seem to be struggling at the QB position. I'm going with the Vols by three or less -- say something like 20-13 -- primarily on the notion that the team with the most experienced quarterback generally wins. I'm thinking a Vol interception late in the game seals the win.
4. I often tell people, "When I look at Georgia's quarterbacks these last five years, I think Mark Richt is a good Q.B. coach . . . but when I look at Florida State's quarterbacks these last five years, I know Mark Richt is a good Q.B. coach." Which piece of evidence provides greater proof of David Cutcliffe's coaching acumen, Erik Ainge's renaissance or Mississippi's collapse?
Rocky Top Talk: You have to look at both, of course, but if forced to choose between the two, I'd say it's the reanimation of Erik Ainge. Ainge was beyond terrible last year, and I and everyone else on the planet called attention to every one of his mistakes. It looked like he was unsalvageable because he did not appear to learn from his mistakes. But, to quote Miracle Max in the Princess Bride, Ainge was only mostly dead, which meant that he was still partly alive, and Cutcliffe not only brought him back but made him better than ever. Ainge has shown this year that he can indeed make good decisions under duress, and with a few more games, he'll have the opportunity to prove that he can do it consistently. Ainge himself deserves much of the credit, of course, and we should not underestimate the power of a losing season, which has a way of making players coachable, but this is, so far, the finest of Cutcliffe's many fine hours.
5. What is the primary difference Coach Cutcliffe's return has made for the Tennessee offense? How concerned are you that, after this season, another head coaching job will come his way?
Rocky Top Talk: I think most of the clear-thinking folks on Rocky Top are hoping that other schools and/or the NFL will come calling for David Cutcliffe because that will mean that we had a successful season. I'm not convinced, though, that coach Cut is going to jump at the first sight of a moneybag. Firing David Cutcliffe had to be the single most idiotic decision in the history of Ole Miss football. We don't really know the whole story, of course, but the whispers are that the administration had pressured Cutcliffe to turn over some of his staff, and he bristled at the idea. I think it may have given Cutcliffe an appreciation for chemistry among co-workers and superiors, and I think that such chemistry is one of the primary reasons that there is very little turnover at Tennessee. Defensive coordinator John Chavis is one of, if not the, best defensive coaches in the NCAA. Opportunity has knocked on Chief's door several times, and each time he has politely declined. Credit coach Fulmer for developing this environment, and Cutcliffe may choose to stay.
6. Compare and contrast Athens and Knoxville.
Rocky Top Talk: Uh . . . never been to Athens, sorry. But I'm sure that there is absolutely no way that it can compare to Knoxville.
7. Suppose, hypothetically, that Phillip Fulmer announces on Thanksgiving Day that the Volunteers' bowl game will be his swansong, after which he will go into retirement. Every football coach currently living on the planet expresses interest in replacing him. You are appointed as the sole member of the search committee. Whom do you choose and why?
Rocky Top Talk: Back in May, I answered a similar question by saying that if coach Fulmer came down with a case of Cotard's (and starts believing that he has lost his internal organs or that he's dead), a case of Alice-in-Wonderland Syndrome (and starts believing . . . uh . . . certain parts of his body have been reshaped or rescaled), or a case of the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine (the sudden flailing of the arms followed by the repeated crying out of words when startled by an unexpected noise or sight) , I'd have to go with Charlie Weis. Well, scratch that.
Not to kiss up or anything, but I'd have to give Richt a good hard look. Your point about how you know he's a good QB coach is a good one, and his record speaks for itself. On top of all of that, he seems like a genuinely good guy, and I'd like our team to both live and play with principle.
8. Which would be worse: Erik Ainge separating his shoulder on the first play from scrimmage, simultaneous pulled hamstrings throughout the Colquitt family, or Lee Corso picking Tennessee to win?
Rocky Top Talk: Ouch, ouch, and ouch. All bad. Even though an injury to Ainge wouldn't spawn the same team meltdown we witnessed last year, you can't lose the 5th-rated passer in the country and not have it hurt. Still, redshirt freshman Jonathan Crompton is looking good, and he may be up to the task. Second, I'm not overly superstitious -- I don't feast on the flesh of the enemy or anything like that -- so although Corso picking UT to win would indicate that the opposite was more likely to occur, I'm not too afraid of that one, either. The worst scenario therefore would be the Colquitt family hamstring deal. As I've said before, if the Colquitts were horses, they'd be owned by some Saudi Arabian prince. If Tennessee's offense wasn't so prolific this year, yearling Britton might actually have gotten enough punts to qualify for statistics, and he would be having a fantastic year. For instance, against Marshall, his first punt was for a solid 46 yards, and it was downed at the Marshall eight yard line. His second punt was 63 yards, and it, too, was downed at the Marshall eight. His third effort was the best of the night: a 59 yard punt that was downed at the Marshall two yard line. Three punts for an average of 56 yards per. Britton may turn out to be the best of the Colquitts, and I think he's going to play a key role in Saturday's game.
9. John Chavis calls you while he is formulating his game plan and says, "What is the single most important thing I must make certain our defense does this weekend?" What do you tell him? (I'm looking for strategic insight here. Don't say, "Prevent Georgia from scoring any points." You're better than that.)
Rocky Top Talk: This happens to me all the time. The Prowler defense unveiled against Florida in 2001? That was mine. Al Wilson's heroics against the Gators in 1998? My game plan. Chief's got Rocky Top Talk No. 1 on his speed dial. So here's what I told him Monday when he called:
"Come on, Chief. Look at your notes. If I told you once, I told you a thousand times: Stop the run. It's especially true against Georgia this year, where its passing game may in fact stop itself. Park most of the defensive personnel in the box and disguise the coverage and blitzes if the young pups get into the game at QB. Turn Jerod Mayo loose. Oh, and beware of hob-nailed boots."
10. Erin Andrews or Bonnie Bernstein?
Rocky Top Talk: You know, I really don't care for sideline reporters at all. Filler, filler, filler. Injury report, filler. Pre-halftime interview-speak, eliciting coach-speak. Back to you, Verne. I especially hate it when they conduct an interview while the game is going on.
That said, of the two, I'll go with Bonnie Bernstein because Erin Andrews is, gasp, a Gator. Bernstein's got to be ticked off at her cameraman, though, for her interview with President Bush just after 9-11, during which one is utterly distracted by sight of her disembodied nose floating off to the edge of the screen. (video link).
Thanks for having me over, Kyle. By the way, a Georgia fan is the leading contender for this week's Hail Mary Haiku. If you're interested, come on over to the site and have a stab at it. Good luck this weekend, and enjoy the game.
My thanks go out to Joel for suggesting this exchange. Of all of Georgia's major rivals, Tennessee is the one whose fans consistently have been the classiest, so I hope we show the Volunteer faithful some good Southern hospitality in the Classic City . . . everywhere but on the field.