No big surprise at QB

Now that the Great Quarterback Debate has been resolved, Tennessee's football team can move forward in its preparations for Saturday's opener against Alabama-Birmingham.

After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, head coach Phillip Fulmer decided over the weekend to go with sophomore Erik Ainge over senior Rick Clausen. It was a difficult decision but, ultimately, not a surprising one.

Here's why:

1. Ainge was only a freshman when he beat out Clausen in August of 2004. Erik won that battle because UT coaches felt his superior physical skills trumped Rick's superior mental abilities. Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders says Ainge has "really closed the gap" on Clausen in the mental aspect of the game over the past 12 months. If Ainge was the better option when he barely knew half the playbook, shouldn't he STILL be the better option now that he actually knows what he's doing?

2. With UT boasting its most talented receiving corps in 15 years, a quarterback who can make all of the throws is essential. Ainge has this ability. Clausen, for all of his savvy and poise, does not.

3. Whereas Clausen basically has maxed out in terms of potential, Ainge has just begun tapping into his. If he and Clausen are roughly even in August, the ever-improving Ainge should be clearly better by November.

4. Clausen accepted the disappointment of NOT being the starter in 2004, swallowed his pride and did whatever he could to help the team. Odds are, he'll manage this setback with similar maturity. Could the youthful Ainge handle the disappointment as well as Clausen? Probably not.

Even with all of these factors favoring Ainge, I thought Clausen might start Game 1 until I spoke with Sanders following Tuesday night's scrimmage. Clausen had completed 14 of 16 passes, yet Sanders seemed really impressed with Ainge.

"I don't know if it was his best scrimmage but he did pretty well," Sanders said. "He made a couple of big-time throws and made a couple of real good decisions. I was pleased with what he did but I haven't been displeased with any of his scrimmages yet."

I walked away with the distinct impression Tennessee's coaches feel Ainge offers the best chance to compete for SEC and national titles. Saturday's announcement merely confirmed it.

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