SCOTT: Things much different for Vols in 2006

At this time last year, Tennessee was 3-2 after losses to Florida and Georgia and preparing to play Alabama after an open date.

One year later, Tennessee is 5-1 with a loss to Florida and preparing to play Alabama after an open date.

 

The difference might not seem like much on paper, but the gap between the 2005 Vols and the 2006 version is wider and deeper than the Tennessee River.

 

Nowhere is that more evident than on offense, where the Vols entered the week leading the SEC with 35.2 points, 421.5 total yards and 291.5 passing yards per game.

 

That's a stark contrast to an offense that spent all of 2005 struggling to find a quarterback and a sense of direction, averaging 18.6 points, 326 total yards and 198 passing yards on its way to a 5-6 finish. When the Vols' first losing season since 1988 finally came to an end, Fulmer had sent three offensive assistants packing.

 

With the welcome return of offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, the resurgence of junior quarterback Erik Ainge, the long-awaited production of receivers Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith and a much-improved offensive line anchored by tackle Arron Smith, the Vols are moving the ball and scoring points at a rate they haven't come close to matching since Tennessee won the national championship in 1998.

 

"I think we're jelling as an offensive team. I think we've been doing that for several weeks," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said.

 

Cutcliffe won't accept it but of the praise has to be cast his way. It's one thing to create the game plan and call the plays during the game, but Cutcliffe's impact on the offense goes back to the spring when he and the offensive coaches worked to rebuild the toughness and confidence of a group that lacked any real positive identity.

 

The Vols finally have a sense of direction, a good idea of who they are and what they can do and the discipline to execute the plan. That was particularly evident two weeks ago when the offense rang up 44 points in a 51-33 win over a Georgia team that entered the game allowing only 6.8 points per game.

 

"We not only have learned that practice makes perfect, but we learned to practice perfectly," Swain said. "Coach Cutcliffe talked to us about being disciplined on and off the field. He showed us that all the little things need to be taken care of."

Cutcliffe has done his best work with Ainge, who earned the starting job as a true freshman in 2004 and then lost his confidence and rhythm last year as Fulmer switched quarterbacks Ainge and Rick Clausen throughout the season.

 

When Cutcliffe came back to Tennessee after six seasons as the head coach at Ole Miss and a year out of football, there was no doubt Ainge had to be Tennessee's quarterback.

 

The Vols really don't have another realistic option right now. Ainge had to get back on track, the sooner the better.

 

He may be getting plenty of help from his playmakers, but Ainge is doing his part as well and ranks No. 1 in the SEC in total offense (269 yards a game), passing yards (276.2) and efficiency rating (171.6), with 1,657 passing yards and 14 touchdown passes.

 

"David has done a fantastic job," Fulmer said. "As I've said a number of times, we all saw the potential Erik had as a freshman."

 

After a strong start to the season in a 35-18 win over Cal, Ainge's potential has taken another jump in the past two weeks since Cutcliffe has started using more shotgun and spread formations. Ainge likes what he sees out of the spread and the style of offense seems to be a good fit for Tennessee's combination of skill players.

 

"We felt like last year – the 5-6 season – was kind of our fault," Meachem said. "We took it personal, and everybody tried to step up their game. The O-line is blocking well, the running backs are running good, Erik is doing his thing. We've got a lot of weapons, and now we're starting to use ‘em."

 

Ainge, for his part, seems a lot more fixated on the team than his own personal struggles this season.

 

"Coach Cut always talks about (how) we have that fire in our belly, just wanting to go out there and show the world that Tennessee is back," Ainge said.

 

Tennessee is definitely back from last year's abyss but it remains to be seen just how far the Vols can go. Even with Auburn's victory over Florida on Saturday, Tennessee's loss to Florida means they will need some help to get back in the SEC East race, but at least the Vols know they're giving themselves a chance this season.

 

"Our mentality is nobody can stop us except ourselves," Swain said. "Not to be arrogant or cocky or anything like that but just confident that if we go out and work every day and work smart that nobody can stop us except ourselves."

 

***

 

South Carolina took a 44-16 victory over Kentucky and a 3-3 record into an open date before the Vanderbilt game this season. The Gamecocks went on to finish 7-5 with victories over Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida in the second half of the season.

 

One year later the Gamecocks are 4-2 following a 24-17 victory over Kentucky and yet another open date before playing resurgent Vanderbilt on Saturday.

 

Repeating last year's success, however, will be even more difficult than it was last year. Tennessee was reeling on the way to a 5-6 finish. Arkansas was still struggling with youth and a one-dimensional offense. Florida lost road games to both Alabama and LSU before losing at South Carolina. Vanderbilt came to South Carolina with a three-game losing streak and took a beating in consecutive games against LSU and Georgia.

 

This year the Gamecocks face an entirely different lineup, with Tennessee and Arkansas rolling, Florida still playing for an SEC East Division title and Vanderbilt coming off a dramatic last-second 24-22 victory at Georgia last Saturday.

 

"I don't know if we can do what we did last year," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said, "but nobody gave us a chance to win 'em all last year, did they? Somehow it worked out. So in life you've got to have hope something good may happen."

 

***

 

Before everyone starts passing out the well-earned congratulations to Vanderbilt for winning at Georgia, it's still important to remember that without a few turnovers, missed field goals, blown opportunities and other mistakes the Commodores could be 6-1 with wins over Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss instead of 3-4.

 

If Vanderbilt deserves any real praise for its win over Georgia, it should be the way the Commodores never gave up on themselves despite so many failed possibilities this season.     

 

"We feel like we are better," Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said. "But when you don't get it done, you begin to question yourself. That is human nature."

 

***

 

The lack of quarterback continuity continues to be a problem for Georgia, but the Bulldogs are finding out over the past two weeks that their problems are bigger than any one position.

 

Senior Joe Tereshinski started for the second consecutive game before eventually giving way to true freshman Matthew Stafford, but neither quarterback got much done.

 

"If we could have put some touchdowns on the board instead of trying for field goals, I'm confident we would have won," running back Danny Ware said. "I don't blame anybody. We lost this one as a team."

 

Ware's assessment is on target. Offensively, Georgia also failed on a 2-point attempt, kicker Andy Bailey missed a 37-yard field goal and the Bulldogs had to settle for three other field goals.

 

The defense did produce a touchdown when linebacker Tony Taylor returned an interception 24 yards for a fourth-quarter score but the Bulldogs then turned right around and allowed Vanderbilt to march down the field on a 15-play, 65-yard drive for the 33-yard game-winning field goal by Bryant Hahnfeldt with 2 seconds left. The Commodores even earned first downs on third-and-five and fourth-and-five along the way.

 

Instead of thinking about the SEC East race, the Bulldogs (5-2, 2-2 SEC) better start working on ways to get their problems fixed this week against Mississippi State.

 

"We're not mathematically out of it because there's so many games remaining," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "But I'm not going to make it my main point to get back to the SEC championship game. I'm going to talk about to be getting back to playing winning football. That's what I'm going to stress the most."

 

***

 

Alabama tailback Ken Darby's timing couldn't be much better. After struggling through most of the first half of the season Darby rushed for a season-high 162 yards against Ole Miss.

 

"Y'all (the media) were really hounding K.D. the first few games of the season," fullback Tim Castille said. "I was just telling y'all 'Wait, he's going to be fine.' I think he almost played with a mad attitude today. There were a couple of times on the sideline, he was not happy. To get him established is really going to help us."

 

Alabama's going to need more of the same from Darby because both of its top receivers will likely be limited throughout the week as the Crimson Tide prepares for Tennessee.

 

Keith Brown, who came into the Ole Miss game as the SEC's leading receiver, suffered a knee injury early in the fourth quarter and missed the rest of the game. DJ Hall produced more than 100 receiving yards for the fourth consecutive game bit missed most of the second quarter with a shoulder injury. He returned to play a key role in the second half, but both Brown and Hall, as well as backup tailback Jimmy Johns (ankle) might not be at their best on Saturday.

 

Despite those injuries and two consecutive scary wins following two consecutive losses, the Tide is convinced things are better than they look.

 

"I truly have a feeling that there are some things that the guys had happen to them today that their confidence level is going to rise," offensive coordinator Dave Rader said, "and they are going to play with a whole lot more of it in Knoxville and build a little bit of momentum."

 

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Richard Scott is a Birmingham, Ala. based sports writer, author and freelance columnist in Tiger Rag. Reach him at rscottsec@yahoo.com.


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