Vols Fail Final Test With Flagging Colors

Any big loss can make Orange Blooded fans wonder if the sun will rise the next day. Well it did, but it's not reflected in Tennessee's grades for the Peach Bowl which ranked right behind the Georgia contest as the worst of the 2003 season.

Here's the top to bottom ratings for Friday's Tennessee vs. Clemson game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are winning marks. Grades of 60-69 are minimum to a winning effort against unranked teams. Any grade below 60 is considered failing.

QUARTERBACK: (90) Overall it was a typical topflight performance for Tennessee's senior signal caller, who still doesn't receive the credit he deserves from many UT fans. Clausen connected on 31-of-55 pass attempts for 384 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He also scrambled for several key first downs and showed more mobility against a strong pass rush than at any other time in his college career. Clausen was sacked six times and bears at least some responsibility for not recognizing the blitz before the play, in which case he could have checked off, or not recognizing the blitz after the snap, in which case he could have dumped off to the hot receiver. However there were also occasions that the Vols had enough blockers but simply failed to arrest the blitzer. Clausen was also victimized by dropped passes and no UT receiver really stepped up to become the go-to guy this year. Likewise the lack of a pass catching threat at tight end limited Clausen's options on key third down passes and near the goal line where a space eater who can shield the ball and withstand contact would have been viable target.

WIDE RECEIVERS: (77) Ten different Vols caught passes including nine for double-figure yardage. Mark Jones hauled in a 30-yard score and may have had another score in the third quarter that was ruled incomplete. Chris Hannon exhibited the speed and skills it takes to become an eventual big-play receiver and scored on a slip screen. Veteran Tony Brown is steady if not spectacular. James Banks, who was suspended in the first half, played in the second and caught three passes for 37 yards. However his play declined sharply after the Alabama game which raises questions as to whether he was already transitioning to quarterback. True freshmen Jayson Swain and Bret Smith are rising stars who should come into their own next season along with redshirt Robert Meachem. Overall, the Vols got good production from a group that had virtually no experience, but the failure to develop a receiving threat that demanded double-team attention hurt Tennessee's running game against Clemson as it did through the season. It was reflected in Tennessee's 4-of-12 third down conversion rate.

LINEBACKERS: (68) Another good game from Kevin Simon whose success this season was an inspiration after he missed all but three games his first two years on campus due to injuries. Simon tied for the team lead with six solo tackles vs. the Tigers and was around the ball all night. Robert Peace had four stops (two solo) at middle linebacker and Jon Poe had his best effort of the season in the relief of Peace with three solo stops, including two for minus yardage. Kevin Burnett wasn't up to par with only two stops and a pair of 15-yard penalties that hurt the Vols on Clemson's final scoring drive. Clemson gained too many yards on draws and delays which the linebackers should have recognized sooner than they did.

RUNNING BACKS: (INCOMPLETE) It's difficult to grade this group since they had just 13 total carries in the game. Cedric Houston led with 24 yards on six carries, but also lost a fumble in the first half. Fullback Troy Fleming caught six passes for 54 yards, but didn't excel as a lead blocker and had lapses in pass protection. Anyone curious about what Gerald Riggs can do will have to wait until next year, as the highly touted sophomore had just two carries for 10 yards against Clemson. He finished the season with 46 carries for 207 yards. Tennessee's lack of a feature back and a consistent running game was perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the 2003 campaign, and there aren't any positive indications it will improve significantly next season. Houston has durability concerns. Jabari Davis lacks the vision and balance needed at tailback and Riggs remains an unknown quantity.

SECONDARY: (55) Along with the kicking game this unit had been Tennessee's most consistent this season. However, they didn't perform up to those standards against Clemson which drove 80 yards in six plays the first time it had the ball and didn't slow down throughout the first half. Obviously, the lack of a pass rush put greater pressure on UT's secondary and Clemson's receivers were among the best the Vols had faced this season. Still Tennessee was flagged for three pass interference penalties including one which cost the Vols an interception. Gibril Wilson had five tackles and an interception to cap off an outstanding individual season. Rashad Baker contributed six stops and Jason Allen had four, but both got lost in coverage at times. Jabari Greer recorded Tennessee's only sack on a blitz but inexplicably pulled up on another blitz with when Clemson QB Charlie Whitehurst could have been blind sided.

OFFENSIVE LINE: (51) There are contrasting opinions on whether the offensive line has been victimized by poor running, failed formations and superior numbers, but the fact remains that it essentially failed to provide adequate protection for the passer and little running room for the backs. That trend continued at the Peach Bowl in which Clausen was sacked six times and the running game produced 38 yards in 26 carries. Regardless of how you look at it, a line with this much experience (four seniors and two redshirt juniors in the first seven) failed to live up to expectations for the second year in a row. That's highly unusual at Tennessee which has produced its share of NFL O-linemen. Phillip Fulmer was regarded as one of college football's best offensive line coaches when he was an assistant and must get more involved in putting a cohesive unit on the field in 2004.

SPECIAL TEAMS: (50) James Wilhoit did an excellent job on kickoffs, putting all three into the end zone for touchbacks. However, he badly hooked a 35-yard field goal which took a lot of life out of a Tennessee team that had driven 62 yards, in 17 plays consuming 8:00 minutes off the clock in the third quarter. Dustin Colquitt probably had his worst performance of the year considering he was kicking in a controlled environment. At least half of his punts failed to turn over and the punt that was returned for 58 yards was practically a line drive. Moreover, he had several opportunities to reverse field position and wasn't able to do it. It's not the type of effort Tennessee faithful have come to expect from the All-American who was responsible for a lot of the Vols' success this season. Tennessee didn't get much out of its return game and coverage was spotty.

OVERALL: (59) This score indicates that Tennessee didn't play well enough to beat an unranked team, but Clemson was clearly better than advertised. If the Vols ever had a game plan that ever emphasized a balanced attack, it was quickly abandoned. Sure the Tigers jumped on top quickly, but was a 10-0 first-quarter deficit sufficient to forsake the ground game altogether? Likewise, the decision to throw from the shotgun when faced with a third-and-two on Clemson's 3 seemed odd. Even the threat of a run could have set up play action which should be a staple of Tennessee's offensive attack. The message seemed to be that UT's coaches had absolutely no faith in their running game which is unfathomable at a school noted for power football. Some will argue that Jones came up with the catch which should have been ruled a touchdown and there is some validity to that assertion. However, it was a low-percentage pass and took a great catch to succeed, if indeed it did. Essentially, it was like making a two-point conversion which happens less than 25 percent of the time. The odds would have been better to try and picked up two yards in two carries and then have four more downs to score. The Vols appeared emotionally ready to compete but were out schemed and out executed. They lost a chance to finish among the nation's top five programs which would have capped a remarkable turnaround from 2002. It was a costly defeat that could well reverberate through the ongoing recruiting campaign.


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