Do you think Auburn could've gone 12-0 if only one of its offensive linemen was healthy enough to start every game?
Of course not. Given all of the attrition listed above, the Tigers probably would've lost three games. I mention this for one reason: Tennessee incurred all of the injuries listed above and the Vols DID lose three games.
Here's a recap: • First-team quarterback Erik Ainge missed the final 3 1/2 games with a separated shoulder. Worse, second-team QB Brent Schaeffer missed the final four games due to a fractured collarbone, leaving the Vols with third-teamer Rick Clausen. Can you name Auburn's third-team quarterback?
• First-team defensive tackle J.T. Mapu missed the 2004 season to begin a Mormon Mission. Second-team tackle Greg Jones bypassed the season to focus on academics. Academic issues also sidelined freshman tackle Demonte Bolden, a former high school All-American who spent 2004 at prep school. First-team cornerback Antwan Stewart tore an ACL in a spring scrimmage and missed all of 2004, as well. Second-team linebacker Marvin Mitchell, versatile enough to play inside or outside, suffered a preseason knee injury that caused him to miss the season. First-team middle linebacker Kevin Simon missed the final 10 games after suffering a torn ACL in Game 2 and first-team strong safety Brandon Johnson missed the final six games after being dismissed from the team following Game 6.
• Left guard Rob Smith was the only offensive lineman to start all 12 games. Cody Douglas missed five starts, Michael Munoz three and Jason Respert two. Arron Sears missed just one start but had to play three positions (right tackle, left tackle, right guard) as the Vols patched together their top five healthy blockers each week.
Throw in the fact the Vols lost receiver/punt returner Derrick Tinsley at midseason, and it is apparent that Tennessee suffered a higher level of attrition than usual in 2004.
The question arises: Without the unusual level of attrition, how good might Tennessee have been? We can only guess, of course. Here's my guess:
Although Rick Clausen performed admirably after Ainge and Schaeffer went down, the offense lost some of its big-play capabilities once the frosh QBs were sidelined. And the cohesiveness of the O-line had to be affected by all of the shuffling of personnel due to injuries.
Given Tennessee's woeful lack of depth in the secondary, the losses of Antwan Stewart for the entire season and Brandon Johnson for half the season were downright devastating. Losing Kevin Simon and Marvin Mitchell obviously cost the linebacking corps a ton of experience, depth and talent. And there is little doubt that J.T. Mapu and Greg Jones could've upgraded the play at tackle tremendously.
Bottom line: With the players above available for all 12 games, Tennessee would've been good enough to avert its Game 9 loss to Notre Dame. That could've improved the Vols' record to 10-2, instead of 9-3, probably getting them a bid to the Capitol One Bowl, instead of the Cotton Bowl.
Could the Big Orange have beaten Auburn in the SEC Championship Game with Erik Ainge at quarterback, Michael Munoz at left tackle, Kevin Simon at middle linebacker, Antwan Stewart at cornerback and Brandon Johnson at strong safety? I honestly don't know.
But I know this: If Auburn had played the SEC Championship Game minus its top two quarterbacks, its first-team left tackle, two of its best defensive tackles, its No. 1 middle linebacker and two of its top four defensive backs -- as Tennessee did -- I think the outcome probably would've been reversed.