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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Tennessee

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A random, too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about Tennessee...
2006 Record
9-4 (5-3 SEC, Second/East)
Past Five Years
42-21 (26-15 SEC)
Returning Starters, Roughly
12 (6 Offense, 6 Defense)
Best Player
David Cutcliffe’s work with Erik Ainge was so dramatic, even Chris Rix noticed it. Coaxed from his LSU-induced sophomore strait jacket, Ainge leapt past the target ("normally functioning quarterback") to – judging from the offensive failures in losses to LSU and Tennessee without him – maybe the league’s most indispensible player.
Bizarre Tradition
The live hound Smokey is among the nation’s most regionally quirky and therefore undeniably cool mascots, a tangible hillbilly presence once nabbed by Kentucky students, listed among the team’s injuries after suffering heat stroke at UCLA and not afraid of scuffles with Baylor’s live bear or, more recently (and health-consciously), opposing players. Though it’s probably not quite up to this over-the-top paean to the Blue Tick coon hound, which posits
...their contentment with humble fare is a defense against the possibility that there may never be more offered.
Hey, now. That sounds more like Vanderbilt’s recruiting model. Zing!
Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
It’s semantic, really, since the Pride of the Southland has played it incessantly without taking a breath since it was written in 1967, but "Rocky Top" is not UT’s official fight song. That would be the much older, more traditionally fight song-y "Here’s To Old Tennessee (Down the Field)," the tune to which NCAA Football fans might recognize here but won’t hear much at an actual Tennessee game. Anyway, I always really loved "Rocky Top," until I saw this, which is undoubtedly the sort of thing one encounters over and over and over again wherever the Vols go. So maybe I really hate "Rocky Top." Undecided.

What's Changed: When did Tennessee get soft? Fulmer's offense have always followed a mammoth, mauling mantra with big backs hurtling ahead like unmanned jeeps and a play action-based passing game. But all that fell off the map with the temporary demise of the quarterback position in '05, and somehow continued its decline even with a viable arm in place last year, when UT barely averaged three yards per carry against SEC defenses and were specifically stonewalled by Air Force (2.5 per carry), South Carolina (3.1) and the SEC's worst, Kentucky (2.8), in addition to the usual suspects - there was the 216-yard effort in the opener against Cal, but otherwise the Vols managed a Vandy-like 2.7 a pop against top the 50 rushing defenses of Florida, LSU, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas and Penn State.

This was more clear on third-and-short , where UT had a miserable, SEC-worst 44 percent conversion rate on runs with 1-3 yards to go. Vanderbilt and Ole Miss were slightly better. All in all, it rivaled `05 as the worst rushing effort of Fulmer's tenure, and the first time one of his teams has been outrun on average. Significantly so, by almost 40 yards a game.

But the defense is as much to blame. The offense's ground struggles had a rival, at least, a precedent that revealed a wider trend. Not so for the defense, which in fact had been a significant source of doom for opposing backfields in 2005, second nationally against the run and second in the SEC in sacks. That bunch with Jesse Mahelona, Parys Haralson, Jason Hall, Kevin Simon, Omar Gaither et al was hellacious and, whatever attention it did get in a losing season, underrated. Again, last year's front seven must have been the worst of the Fulmer Era: it gave up four yards per carry (way, way up from 2.55, and easily the highest allowed this decade) and sacks plummeted, to fewer than half the tally of the most recent forebears.

Blame Justin Harrell and his lame bicep, it's your right, but Brian's third down magic says the blame is thick enough to go around:

Red, as always, is bad, signifying the difference between Tennessee's performance (the thin black line) and the national average (the thick black line in the middle). The 2005 version looks quite different - except at the far left. A healthy Harrell alongside Mahelona wasn't actually better in short yardage, rate-wise, but that defense was vastly superior in keeping offenses out of those situations and, with its pass rush, getting them off the field in every other scenario. The 2006 pass rush was nowhere near as effective - partly because it was faced with fewer situations it knew it could tee off and disregard the run, no doubt - but it does return intact. Xavier Mitchell had relatively big games against Florida, Alabama and LSU and could be pretty rough off the edge if Robert Ayers and/or Antonio Reynolds comes up with more pressure at the other end. But all of those guys are converted linebackers, not run stoppers on the front line, which puts a lot of that weight on Demonte Bolden and J.T. Mapu inside.

What's the Same: Anyway, the team didn't improve running the ball and was significantly worse at stopping other teams from moving by pretty much any means, so of course it almost doubles its wins. Only one way to figure that, and it starts (naturally) with another neato MGoGraph:

That is indeed better than ninety percent on all third-and-one attempts, a full 25 percent better than the nation at-large and ridiculous, as is this entire swatch of green. Earlier, I pointed out the awfulness of the running game on third-and-short, which is at complete odds with this overall picture. We must subsequently come to one conclusion: our rattled, desperate Erik Ainge was replaced in the offseason by David Cutcliffe's breakthrough Manning-o-Matic 2007 quarterback simulator, the only possible entity with the consistency to do what Tennessee did on third down passes last year when it didn't lose yardage on downs one and two:

Att. Comp. Comp. % Yds. INT TD Conv.
1-3 To Go 20 17 85.0 234 0 3 16
4-6 To Go 32 22 68.8 217 0 2 18
7-9 To Go 30 20 66.7 327 0 1 15

In short: 60 percent conversion rate on a half dozen critical plays per game, zero interceptions, a positively Leinart-esque effort without the same tools, and dwarfing performances in the same situations by the Heisman Trophy winner and the first overall draft pick even before Jonathan Crompton's problems in the LSU and Arkansas losses are filtered out. Combine that with the circumstances of the team's losses, two of them coming entirely or almost entirely without Ainge against then-top-ten teams peaking offensively, and another coming by one point against the eventual mythical champion, and there's a very good argument the quarterback carried this team on his formerly scrawny and schizophrenic shoulders.

Behold! A competent Erik Ainge!
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Does it matter if his top three receivers are in the NFL? Maybe - was Robert Meachem's sudden, all-America level emergence more of a cause or an effect? -  though probably not as much as all-SEC left tackle Arron Sears being with them, or as Ainge coming off a Spring knee injury. But barring a meltdown/malfunction, which we have seen here before, I would think Ainge as a fourth-year starter leaves the offense one reliable running back (not a negotiable component) from championship caliber.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter: Before the quarterback's injury took him out of the mix, the story of Tennessee's Spring was its wholesale readiness to open up the offense: the fullback was shed, incorporation of a McFadden/Harvin-like single wing runner out of the shotgun was considered and considerable energy was given to dabbling in hurry-up, no-huddle sets, a la another former Cutcliffe protege with the Indianapolis Colts, a move as symbolically important for Ainge's progress as a decision-maker as for the pressure it figures to put on defenses. No word on the system's feasibility since Ainge's early exit from practice, but it was operating anyway without Ahmad Paige and an influx of instant impact receivers who won't be working with it until August, the prospect of which has new receivers coach Trooper Taylor, well, excited:

"You've got to remember," Taylor said. "I came from Tulane, and they didn't even know how to get into the huddle there. I'm like a pig in slop right now..."

Either he feels he's wretchedly, abominably disgusting, or his expectations coming from the bottom of Conference USA  to a thoroughly green corps of wideouts (leading returning receivers almost exclusively tight ends and running backs) need ratcheting up a little.

Tennessee on YouTube: A pair of "diehard" siblings thoroughly chronicle Knoxville's underground head-painting scene:

By the time Vol Junkie hears about anything, of course, you know it's already totally played.

See Also: Phil Fulmer reveals the anatomical secret to forcing special teams fumbles, and everything else, in the third of a four-part series chronicling the coach's locker room genius ... The Vols touch fans around the world ... And learn the finer points of analysis from a pair of UT couchcasters ("Get off the couch!"/"I like the couch.")

Best-Case: It's about Ainge (especially his health) and the running game, which aren't sure things in either case but which each have enough of a track record to deliver against anyone at any time. That sentiment goes double for the defense, which personnel-wise has every reason to expect to be its usual smothering self again. Not counting South Carolina, which is very close but still presumptively a solid rung below the Vols, there are five toss-ups: at Cal, at Florida, Georgia, at Alabama and Arkansas. Over the past six years - if you subsitute Auburn for Arkansas where necessary and Miami/Notre Dame for Cal - the Vols haven't yet lost fewer than two games from that stretch. There is Ainge, who brings more to the table at this point than Casey Clausen ever did, but how likely otherwise is this team to transcend its predecessors? Giving them the benefit of the doubt still requires assuming one loss among the serious, still plenty good enough, depending on which one, to play for the SEC Championship.

Worst-Case: That title is nine years in coming since Tee Martin snuck the first post-Manning team to its only modern crown of the mythical variety, the last time this program was any kind of champion. We have precedent for a hyperventilating, turnover-friendly Ainge as well as the quasi-Bondian figure of last fall, and a sudden track record of mediocrity on both lines of scrimmage. Ainge and the secondary, assets under ideal circumstances, both have sordid injury histories, critical issues with depth and spells of fumbling desperation at key moments. There is no tougher opening triumvirate than at Cal and at Florida in the first three weeks, and would-be sniper Southern Miss in between. If they don't establish a positive identity by the end of the trip to Gainesville, psychologically the tower could lean and collapse during the run against Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas. No matter what, the Vols ought to take care of a respectable but overmatched platter of mid-majors and their SEC surrogates (Miss. State and Vanderbilt), but even with a pair of more respectable wins that only gets them to 7-5, Music City Bowl-ish.

Non-Binding Forecast: My initial instinct was to anoint Tennessee the absurdly early SEC East favorite, but I have to pull back on that in light of its disappointing, very uncharacteristic lack of physicality across the board. The nature of the blue chip-boasting beast leads to the inclination that was a fluke, but Erik Ainge, elite quarterback, was every bit as surprising and as likely to fall back to the platonic mean. The running game has been without its typical thoroughbred or punch a couple years straight, and therefore has one more opportunity to save its reputation or wind up filed under `negative trend' until otherwise warranted.

That comes off a little harsh for a team I still think has a very good chance to be sitting back at ten wins, but expectations are relative: Florida, Georgia, LSU and Auburn have all had elite, top three finishes since the Vols' last BCS appearance in 1999, while Tennessee has steadily enjoyed appearances in the Peach, Cotton and Citrus Capital One bowls. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it must be 9-3 and another criminally early stadium trip on New Year's morning.

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If you go back, I didn’t hold myself to the exact same forecast for Florida, so either Georgia’s set to look really good or my notions of the SEC East are up for revision. Previous Absurdly Premature Assessments...

March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati April 9: UL-Monroe April 10: Army April 11: Syracuse
April 18: Florida April 20: Southern Miss April 25: Southern Cal May 1: North Texas
May 3: SMU May 8: Nevada May 14: Tennessee May 21: TCU
May 24: Notre Dame May 29: UAB May 30: Georgia