A Big Orange Omen?

If you're looking for parallels to the upcoming football season at Tennessee, you don't have to go far back in the archives and you might want to tread with a degree of trepidation.

The 2002 campaign was the most disappointing in Phillip Fulmer's highly successful era at UT — an injury-plagued, miscue-ridden, buzz-killing experience. The Vols managed to rally in the lighter second half of a top-heavy schedule to salvage a winning record for the 13th consecutive season, but ended with the worst post season defeat in school history.

It began with a 47-7 victory in Nashville over Wyoming on Aug. 31 and ended with a 30-3 loss to Maryland in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 31. In between were home losses to Florida, 30-13, Alabama 34-14 and Miami 26-3 for an accumulative total of 90-30.

Tennessee lost 19 starters for at least one game during the season, including a season-ending injury to pass rusher Constantine Ritzmann the week of the season opener and outside linebacker Kevin Burnett in the season's first defensive series. Starting quarterback Casey Clausen missed two games completely and parts of others while nursing a fractured collarbone. Starting linebacker Kevin Simon broke his leg in the first half of the fourth game and missed the remainder of the season. Star sophomore receiver Kelley Washington suffered a career-altering neck fracture vs. Georgia and never played another collegiate game. Starting tailback Cedric Houston was injured in the Florida game and didn't fully recover until the home stretch. The casualty list was so long it even included starting place kicker Alex Wall.

In short: the 2002 Tennessee gridiron campaign was everything Y2K was supposed to be, but wasn't. In football terms it was the apoplectic end times, real gnashing-of-teeth and pillar-of-salt stuff.

There may never be another team that will suffer the number and type of setbacks UT did in 2002, and surely such misfortune wouldn't befall one football program twice in a span of three seasons. After all, even locust and famine are on 15-year schedules, while pestilence and presidential elections on are four-year intervals.

Yes, the odds are certainly on UT's side in that regard, but it's still difficult to ignore the similarities between the 2001 and 2004 Tennessee seasons.

In 2001, Tennessee went 11-2, with a two-point win over Florida, an 11-point loss in the SEC championship game, followed by a 28-point victory in the Citrus Bowl that was led by a quarterback named Clausen, who was voted game MVP.

In 2004, Tennessee went 10-3, with a 2-point win over Florida, a 10-point loss in the SEC Championship game, followed by a 31-point victory in the Cotton Bowl that was led by a quarterback named Clausen, who was voted game MVP.

Even some of the differences had an all too eerie ring of sameness to them. In 2001, the Vols lost at home to Georgia and beat Notre Dame on the road. In 2004, the Vols beat Georgia on the road and lost at home to Notre Dame.

The parallel between then and now that matters most to Tennessee lies in the expectations preceding each season. UT's strong finish in 2001, large number of returning starters and a recruiting class, regarded by many as the best in the nation, propelled the Vols to the top five in most 2002 preseason polls. The identical situation exists now and the Vols are sure to be picked among the best in the nation in 2005.

It's easy to say that fan expectations mean little since it's the players and coaches who decide the outcome of games. Normally, that's true, but there's nothing normal about the relationship between Tennessee football and its fans. The relationship is almost symbiotic. That is to say: when Big Orange fans are happy, the Volunteers aren't hungry. Conversely, history has shown the Vols often rally when their fans are unhappy and chances of success seem slim.

Most of the talk entering the 2002 campaign was about how UT would win the national title after coming up one win short of playing for the championship in 2001. That led to the 2002 season's slogan of "Unfinished Business" — a phrase that was readily adopted by the players and soon committed to T-shirts.

If the Vols and their fans have a slogan going into the 2005 season, it should be "Remember 2002" or "Expect the Unexpected."

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