With defenses becoming much faster and using more complex schemes featuring specialized personnel, it's harder for even the best offenses to develop consistency. That's especially true in the red zone where coverage areas shrink and quick defenses can better seize the initiative and swarm the ball.
Look at Saturday's four games played between ranked opponents and the numbers bare out the prevailing trend. No. 11 LSU beats No. 7 Georgia 17-10, No. 18 Iowa beats No. 16 Arizona 21-2, No. 12 Tennessee beats No. 14 Florida 24-10. There was more scoring in No. 22 Oregon's 31-27 upset over No. 3 Michigan, but three of those touchdowns were scored by special teams. Oregon scored on a 61-yard punt return and a one-yard blocked punt return. Michigan scored on a 78-yard missed field goal return. Oregon also blocked a pair of Michigan extra point attempts which prevented the Wolverines from being able to tie or win the game at the end with a field goal.
The combination of tough defense and sparkling special teams play is a proven winning formula. That was the case in Tennessee's victory over Florida where hard-nosed defense, the punting of Dustin Colquitt and the kicking of James Wilhoit kept the Vols in the game until the offense could get the running game in gear. That took place in the fourth quarter as Tennessee's insistence on pounding the interior, despite limited early success, finally paid dividends, much as a boxer's attack to the body wears his opponent down in the later rounds.
There were times during Tennessee's fourth-quarter scoring drive in which it seemed Florida didn't want to tackle Jabari Davis. When you can impose your will in that manner against a powerful opponent in one of the most imposing venues in college football you've accomplished something special. It's also the reason Tennessee has a chance to reach great heights this season.
With Colquitt punting, the Vols have a chance to flip unfavorable field position from virtually any point on the gridiron.
"Dustin is a real weapon right now," Coach Phillip Fulmer said during his Sunday teleconference. "He's an incredible weapon and it's been wonderful to see his development over a period of time. We have a very mutual respect. I was real hard on Dustin and still will be occasionally, but when he's focused, and I see him maturing all the time, he is really good and he'll have a chance to be special."
While Colquitt has come into his own in his third season, Wilhoit appears to have achieved the same status in his third game. He struggled in game one against Fresno State and missed his first attempt against Marshall before coming back to nail a pair of pressure kicks in the fourth quarter. On Saturday, he put the Vols up 10-3 with a 51-yard field that was simply perfect.
"I think he's got four or five more yards in him if we have to have something," Fulmer said when asked about the former Parade All-American's range. "You don't want him to start over kicking it and kick it flat, get it blocked or something like that. But I have a lot of confidence in that youngster. Even last year, I told you guys that I almost played him when Alex got hurt. It was good we redshirted him. He's matured, he knows what his capabilities are. He's not going to try to do something he's not capable of doing."
Wilhoit has also restored respectability to the kickoff, an area that has plagued Tennessee since Jeff Hall graduated in 1998.
"He kicked deep in the spring game if you remember," Fulmer said when asked about Wilhoit's ability to consistently boot the ball into the end zone. "He went in there and hit them real well and did it all last spring. He had that pulled groin early, we were afraid we might lose him if we tried to do too much, but he's really solidified that whole thing right there and I'm proud of him."
Tennessee is also getting solid contributions from deep snapper Adam Miles and holder John Henderson. Total up the efforts of these young men with some fast cover men and good blockers and you have special teams that are true to their name.
"That whole group of guys have become good friends and they work together well," Fulmer said. "That takes a lot of time and effort and work, and a lot of it just by themselves or with coach (Shane) Beamer out there."
As Tennessee's offense cuts down on mistakes and becomes more proficient in the passing the game, the Vols will only get better. Tennessee's balanced offense, featuring a power running game, presents lots of problems for defenses especially in the red zone where Jabari Davis is a force to be reckoned with. It's the ability to test teams between the tackles that opens big-play opportunities and as Tennessee's inexperienced receiving corps gets up to speed, the Vols will be hard to stop.
Obviously, Tennessee has too much at stake and too far to go to look too far ahead, but with Saturday's win over Florida a realistic chance exists for the Vols to avenge every loss during the last regular season and perhaps even face LSU in the SEC Championship game, as they did in 2001 when they were denied a chance to go to the Rose Bowl and play for the national title one week after beating the Gators in Florida.
And because it's next, South Carolina is the biggest game on the schedule.