Past Provides View of UT's Gridiron Future

During a time of year when fans can only speculate about the upcoming football campaign, Tennessee supporters may have a clear window on the future by referencing the past.

Allow an explanation: There are three seasons in UT's history when the quarterback situation was so unsettled that a true freshman figured prominently into its plans. The most recent occasion was in 2000 when redshirt sophomore Joey Mathews started one game before giving way to redshirt freshman A.J. Suggs, who started four games before giving way to true freshman Casey Clausen, who brought stability to the signal caller's role as a four-year starter.

That situation was brought about by the defection of Chris Simms, the nation's No. 1 rated quarterback prospect, who committed to Tennessee in January of 1999 before switching to Texas less than a month later. Simms 11th hour change of heart left UT without a prominent prospect although Suggs did sign that year. Under ideal circumstances Simms would have backed up Tee Martin in 1999 and taken over the starters job in 2000 with a year invested in learning UT's system. Instead Suggs assumed that role but lacked the arm strength to stretch SEC defenses.

Similarly, Tennessee's problems in 2004 go back to 2003 when Chris Leak appeared to be the heir apparent before he openly criticized UT's Phillip Fulmer in a diary he wrote for, creating a rift that couldn't be mended. Leak, who committed privately to Tennessee coaches prior to his senior season at Independence High School in Charlotte, N.C., enjoyed the recruiting limelight too much to commit publicly and opted for the optimum exposure by announcing his decision to sign with Florida at half time of the nationally televised U.S. Army All-Star game. The discord created by Leak again put Tennessee in unenviable position when it came to attracting another top QB prospect. The Vols settled for signing in-state prospect Bo Hardegree who is currently buried on the Vols depth chart.

This year the Vols added a pair of prospects with great potential in Eric Ainge and Brent Schaeffer who will compete against a pair of transfers in C.J. Leak, a sixth-year senior, and Rick Clausen, a fourth-year junior. Neither veteran has significant starting experience in college. Nor did either distinguish themselves this spring which leaves the position wide open this fall.

Interestingly enough it was a defection of sorts that in 1994 that spawned the problems at signal caller that fall. Heath Shuler's decision to enter the NFL Draft instead of playing his senior season at UT put fifth-year senior and career backup Jerry Colquitt in the starting job before a torn knee ligament in the first series of the season against UCLA put him on the shelf. That left true freshmen Peyton Manning and Brandon Stewart to battle for the starting job after Todd Helton gave up football to concentrate on baseball. No one has to be told how all that worked out.

However not nearly as many UT fans recall that true freshman Allan Cockrell started for the Vols in 1981 before a knee injury elevated Steve Alatorre into job. Cockrell recovered and reclaimed the job the next season while Alatorre faded into history. Another note of interest: Cockrell a first baseman, like Helton, left Tennessee after his junior season to pursue a career in baseball although he didn't experience the same degree of success.

If the past is any gauge of the future, Vol fans can expect Tennessee to struggle early in the 2004 campaign before righting itself and finishing with a bowl game and an 8-4 record. In 1981, Tennessee opened the season with a pair of devastating road defeats at Georgia 44-0, and Southern Cal, 43-7. However the Vols won six of their next seven games concluded with an 8-4 mark.

In 1994, Tennessee lost three of its first four games before closing the season with six wins in seven contests to finish 8-4, while in 2000 the Vols started the season 2-3 before winning six of their last seven regular season games to finish 8-4.

Each of these seasons featured turnarounds that were led by the defense. For instance: In 1981 Tennessee rebounded from the two opening losses with a pair of 10-7 victories over Auburn and Georgia Tech. In 1994, the Vols beat Washington State 10-9 in Manning's first start and later lost to Alabama 17-13 and stopped Memphis State 24-13. In 2000, Tennessee won Clausen's first three starts by scores of 20-10 over Alabama, 17-14 over South Carolina and 19-17 over Memphis.

So, what can we extract from this historical evidence?

No. 1: C.J. Leak and Rick Clausen will share QB duties early and both will struggle.

No. 2: One of the freshmen is likely to take over by the fourth game of the season.

No. 3: Tennessee's solid defense and outstanding kicking game will keep the Vols competitive until the rookies get on their feet.

No. 4: The Vols will go on a midseason winning streak that will take them to another minor bowl game and an 8-4 record.

No. 5: Tennessee will rebound with a big season and play a Big Ten team in a bowl game. In 2001, UT went 11-2 and beat Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. In 1995 Tennessee went 11-1 and beat Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl. In 1982 the Vols went 6-5-1 and lost ot Iowa in the Peach Bowl, but in 1983 they won nine games (9-3) for the first time in a decade and beat Maryland in the Citrus Bowl.

Obviously, the power to change any of these potential scenarios rest with Tennessee's coaching staff and players, but to do so they will have to rewrite history.

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