SCOTT: Vols still stinging from Fla. loss

Georgia announcer Larry Munson isn't calling road games anymore so he won't be in Knoxville next Saturday.

That means Tennessee won't have to worry about Munson bringing his hob-nail boots to the game.

 

The Vols have bigger problems than Munson this week as the Bulldogs come to town. This isn't the best Georgia team Tennessee has faced in this decade but then again this isn't exactly the best Tennessee has had to offer, either.

 

A 48-27 home victory over Arkansas State on Saturday is encouraging but it doesn't do much to ease the pain or solve the problems associated with Tennessee's 59-20 loss to Florida two weeks ago – a loss that went from bad to worse when Florida reserve tight end Derek Baldry accused one of the Vols of giving up and not rushing on a late-game extra point.

 

Baldry told Florida Today that the Vol defender told Baldry to not worry about blocking him on the PAT.

 

"He said he was tired," Baldry said. "It's unbelievable to have a rivalry like that come into your stadium and after the first quarter basically dominate them. In the locker room, that's all everybody was talking about. It just seemed like we were going at a different speed than they were, especially at the end."

 

The accusation did not sit well with the Vols.

 

"I couldn't imagine that happening," senior quarterback Erik Ainge said. "If it did, whoever said that needs to take a hard look in the mirror. There are a lot of guys who would do anything to go out there and play on the special teams at the University of Tennessee.

 

"If that's the case, I wouldn't want him playing for me, on my team, period. Obviously no one will ever find out, because no one will admit to saying that."

 

The one thing the Vols will admit to is that they are struggling to be the kind of team they used to be.

 

"I don't like being a part of a team that's losing like this, especially being a big Tennessee fan," senior linebacker Ryan Karl said. "It's hard for me personally. I'm also a fan - I'm not just a player."

 

The fans can see the Vols aren't running the ball every effectively when they need to, they aren't playing the kind of defense they're known for, the punting is unusually poor and some fans are even wondering if the Vols are headed for another 2005 season, when Tennessee finished 5-6.

 

"Sometimes you do the whipping, and sometimes you get whipped," Ainge said last week, "and there's a lot of reasons for it."

 

It starts with a defense that got ripped and shredded time and time against by Cal and Florida. It's easy in times of duress to start assuming defensive coordinator John Chavis has lost his mind or his touch but this is still the same coach who's done such a good job for so long.

 

Multiple losses to injuries, academics and discipline have hurt the secondary, playing a big part in the Vols entering this past weekend ranked 110th in the nation in scoring defense, 108th in pass efficiency defense and 102nd in total defense.

 

"I never walked out on anything," Chavis said. "I have a lot of confidence in myself, my staff and my players."

 

On the other side of the ball the Vols entered the Arkansas State game ranked 90th in the nation in rushing. What in the name of Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry and James Stewart is going on here?

 

The Vols haven't been that good in the running game in recent years but it's worse this season. The line doesn't measure up to past Tennessee lines while the lack of playmakers in the passing game and Ainge's broken pinkie finger on his throwing hand is allowing opponents to put more emphasis on stopping the run. The struggles in the running game are even more apparent in short-yardage situations.

 

"We've had a big emphasis on running the ball and now here we are talking about short yardage and not being able to convert," offensive guard Anthony Parker said. "It's surprising, it's disappointing."

 

As with Chavis, many fans are quickly turning on offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, who was thought to be the answer to all of Tennessee's problems when he returned to the program before the 2006 season.

 

"There's no common denominator there other than just not executing well enough and getting it done," Cutcliffe said. "We've got to block better, we've got to run better, we've got to coach better."

 

If there's one thing the Vols could count on in the recent past it's the punting game but even that is suspect as long as junior Britton Colquitt continues to be hampered by a quadriceps injury. The Vols entered this past weekend ranked 108th out of 119 major Division I teams with a 29.29-yard net punting average.

 

"Obviously, we need some improvement there," coach Phillip Fulmer said.

 

The Vols insist things could be a whole lot worse. They could be pulling apart at the seams, something that sent the 2005 team into a tailspin.

 

"In '05, a lot of the best players were worried about the NFL," Ainge told The Tennessean. "(They said): 'Well even if we lose, I still need to keep playing good so I can get drafted high.' That attitude killed us."

 

Fulmer insists that won't happen this year. He is convinced this team and staff are all on the same page working toward the same goals.

 

"I really like this football team," Fulmer said. "I don't like the fact that we've started 1-2. I don't like the fact that we've given up plays on offense and defense and the kicking game that gets you beat. I do know and understand that this is a youthful football team. I know there's a lot of football yet to be played and this team has a good spirit about it and a good work ethic about it. They're likeable people.

 

"We're disappointed, but certainly not dead."

 

Dead or not, many fans are losing their patience and wondering if the program needs major changes – starting at the top. It's hard to imagine a coach any program firing a coach who has won a national championship and ranks among the nation's most successful head coaches.

 

Then again, as Fulmer's critics point out, that national championship came in 1998. It's been nine years since the Vols have reached the pinnacle of college football. Since then they won the SEC East twice and have not won a conference championship. Since that national title the Vols are 17-23 against ranked teams and 2-8 in their past 10 games against ranked teams.

 

The memories of 1998 remain sweet but they aren't as fresh as 2005, or last year's losses to Florida, LSU, Arkansas and Penn State, or this year's losses to Cal and Florida.

 

It's to the point where The Commercial Appeal's Ron Higgins, one of the most respected and measured writers in the SEC, is suggesting it might be time for Fulmer to move on if he can't do a better job adapting and adjusting to change. He makes some good points, especially when it comes to comparing Fulmer to other SEC coaches: Fulmer is 4-8 against Steve Spurrier, 0-3 vs. Urban Meyer, 1-3 vs. Tommy Tuberville, 2-4 against Mark Richt and 1-2 against Nick Saban.

 

While many of those coaches, especially Meyer, have been willing to be innovative and make fundamental changes on and off the field, Fulmer has been less willing to adjust and adapt. While other coaches are finding a way to make better use of their most talented playmakers, the Vols seem to be following an old, familiar script.

 

As Higgins wrote, "There's no doubt Fulmer loves his school and has worked tirelessly to return the program to the level of the mid-to-late-'90s. But the game has changed, and he won't change his philosophies. So the only resolution is to change the coach."

 

Tough words, but these are tough times for Tennessee fans. They could get better if the Vols make good use of this week's open date win at Georgia on Saturday, but if the Vols lose, what then?

 

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


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