Bray was off to a great starting this fall, completing 65.9 percent of his passes (116 of 176) for 1,579 yards and 14 TDs with only 2 interceptions. He is averaging 315.8 passing yards per game and boasts a passer-efficiency rating of 165.25.
Losing a starting quarterback to injury is not a rarity on The Hill, and it is not necessarily a harbinger of doom. Tennessee has seen its first-team quarterback sidelined five times in the two-platoon era, and the team generally played well for the replacement.
Take 1967, for instance. First-teamer Dewey Warren injured a knee in Game 2 and second-teamer Charlie Fulton broke a rib in Game 3, giving the reins to third-teamer Bubba Wyche, a junior with virtually no experience. Wyche completed just 8 of 14 passes for 81 yards in his first career start but still led Tennessee to a 24-13 upset of a Bear Bryant-coached Alabama team that hadn't lost in three years. Wyche returned to Earth a week later, however. With the attack sputtering midway through Game 5 vs. LSU, he gave way to a fully healed Warren and never started again that season.
Now flash forward to 1981. Freshman Alan Cockrell suffered a torn ACL in Game 4 versus Auburn, leaving the quarterbacking duties in the hands of senior backup Steve Alatorre. He completed just 52 percent of his passes with more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (8) but managed to guide Tennessee to six wins in its final eight games and an 8-4 finish.
The 1985 season saw rifle-armed Tony Robinson suffer an ACL tear in Game 5 vs. Alabama. After settling for a 6-6 tie with Georgia Tech in his starting debut, fifth-year senior Daryl Dickey guided the Vols to six consecutive wins that included an SEC championship, a 35-7 upset of heavily favored Miami in the Sugar Bowl and a No. 4 national ranking.
The 1994 season saw senior Jerry Colquitt rip an ACL on the seventh play of a season-opening loss at UCLA. Junior backup Todd Helton (better known for his baseball prowess) stepped in and went 1-2 as the starter before getting injured in a Game 4 loss at Mississippi State. That put the offense in the hands of a freshman named Peyton Manning. He went 7-1 the rest of the season, closing with a 52-0 blowout of Kentucky, a 65-0 beat-down of Vanderbilt and a 45-23 trouncing of Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl.
Tennessee most recently lost its No. 1 QB to injury during the 2004 season. Freshman Erik Ainge helped guide the Vols to a 7-1 start before suffering a separated shoulder in a Game 9 loss to Notre Dame. Junior backup Rick Clausen promptly led the Vols in defeats of Vanderbilt (38-33) and Kentucky (37-31), a competitive loss to unbeaten Auburn (28-38) in the SEC Championship Game and a 38-7 drubbing of Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
|Matt Simms (12) took over for the final few snaps against Georgia.|
Whether Simms can be as successful as Tennessee's previous replacement quarterbacks remains to be seen, of course. He has a couple of advantages that most of his predecessors lacked but he also has some significant disadvantages.
Here are the pluses:
— Simms started eight games as a junior last fall. Conversely, Wyche, Dickey, Helton, Manning and Clausen were thrust into the first-team job with virtually no experience. The only other fill-in QB who enjoyed the benefit of starting experience was Alatorre, who had opened roughly half of the Vols' games as a junior in 1980.
— Simms has two quality pass catchers at his disposal in sophomore wideout Da' Rick Rogers and junior tight end Mychal Rivera. Rogers is averaging 16 yards per catch and 6.4 receptions per game. Rivera is coming off a five-catch, 85-yard outing vs. Georgia and has 19 receptions over the past four games.
Now for the minuses:
— Simms has no running game to share the offensive burden. This is in stark contrast to previous replacement quarterbacks. The '67 team that Wyche took over averaged 193.0 rushing yards per game. The '81 offense that Alatorre assumed averaged 161.7. The '85 attack that Dickey directed averaged 150.4. The '94 team Manning inherited averaged a whopping 231.2 and the '04 offense Clausen guided averaged 186.0. The 2011 Vols, by comparison, are averaging a paltry 84.8 rushing yards per game and a woeful 2.5 yards per carry.
— Simms faces a much more challenging schedule than any of his predecessors. Murderer's Row opens with a visit from top-ranked LSU (6-0) this weekend, followed by a trip to second-ranked Alabama (6-0) the following weekend. No. 15 South Carolina (5-1) comes calling to conclude October and Tennessee still must travel to No. 10 Arkansas (5-1) on Nov. 12. Just three unranked teams are left on the schedule - Middle Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Wyche faced only one ranked team (No. 6 Alabama) in '67. Alatorre faced only one ranked team (No. 15 Alabama) in '81 and Dickey faced only one ranked team (No. 2 Miami) in '85. Manning faced three ranked teams (No. 17 Washington State, No. 10 Alabama, No. 17 Virginia Tech) in '94 and Clausen faced two ranked teams (No. 3 Auburn, No. 22 Texas A&M) in '04.
Bottom line: Given the weakness of Tennessee's ground game and the strength of Tennessee's schedule, Matt Simms clearly faces a much more daunting challenge than the fill-in quarterbacks who preceded him on The Hill.