Start Clausen?

Tennessee quarterback Rick Clausen outplayed Erik Ainge in scrimmages. Clausen outplayed Ainge in the season opener against Alabama-Birmingham.

And Clausen should start against Florida on Sept. 17.

It's an easy decision.

It doesn't matter that Ainge has a stronger arm and is more mobile.

The Tennessee offense functions better with Clausen at quarterback.

At this point, Clausen is more polished and more confident. He has a better command of the system. He is better in the two-minute offense. And he is well liked by his teammates, one reason he was voted a team captain.

Based on Clausen's performance in a lackluster 17-10 victory Saturday over Alabama-Birmingham, coach Phillip Fulmer has little choice but to reward Clausen in the Vols SEC opener on the road Sept. 17.

Fulmer has taken a wait-and-see approach.

So has Randy Sanders, UT's offense coordinator. Asked if Clausen has earned the start in Game Two, Sanders said: ``I'm not ready to say that.''

Maybe he's not, but I am.

Tennessee entrusted Clausen to run the two-minute offense at the end of the first half and the Vols scored for a 17-3 lead. UT started Clausen in the second half. The Vols have more confidence in Clausen now than Ainge. And for good reason.

Clausen played on five of UT's 10 series. He engineered an 11-play drive that ended with a missed field goal but might have resulted in a touchdown if not for a dropped pass - one of five with Clausen at the helm. He led a two-minute drive at the end of the half for a 17-3 lead at the break.

He started the second half and marched UT 57 yards before a drop led to a punt. He took the Vols 50 yards on 13 plays before Cory Anderson bobbled a dump pass into an interception. He also helped the Vols run out the clock in the final 3:31 with a 53-yard pass to C.J. Fayton on third-and-6.

Meanwhile, Ainge, who started hot, regressed. The Vols scored 10 points on Ainge's first two drives, then inserted Clausen. Ainge was never the same. He threw an interception on his third possession and fired high on third-down to stop another series.

Ainge went back in midway in the fourth quarter and looked horrible, throwing on interception with 7:29 left.

``I am worried a little bit about Erik's confidence,'' Sanders admitted.

But Ainge's psyche is second fiddle to UT's success. You might be concerned about Ainge long-term, but there are more immediate fish to fry - like at Florida.

Tennessee certainly didn't play like the nation's No. 3 team. It didn't play well enough to beat Florida or LSU or about four other teams in the schedule. That's not unusual for the Vols in a season opener. In four of the last six openers, UT didn't shine.

And in 1989, UT barely beat Colorado State, then went 11-1 and finished No. 4.

Tennessee could have scored a comfortable win over UAB but self-destructed. Five dropped passes, a failed fourth down attempt, a missed field goal and three interceptions were costly.

When you gain over 400 yards, convert 9 of 14 third downs and punt just one, you figure to score 30 points, not 17.

Offensive execution wasn't the only concern. The Vols were deficient in four other areas.

1. The run game. The Vols managed just 138 yards on 35 carries. Gerald Riggs ran well, getting 110 on 23 tries. But UT should have had more success on the ground.

David Cutcliffe, former UT offensive coordinator, said UAB played mostly a zone in pass coverage, thus, the Vols should have rushed for 250 yards.

Perhaps having to move guard Rob Smith to center and starting redshirt freshman Ramon Foster at left guard had an impact on the blocking.

2. Pass defense. UAB quarterback Darrell Hackney completed 27 of 38 passes for 282 yards as UT was vulnerable mostly to slants. The Vols went with true freshman safety Demetrius Morely in the second half, benching Antwan Stewart.

Cornerback Jason Allen was UT's best player against UAB but the secondary remains a huge concern entering the Florida game.

3. Lack of a pass rush. UT didn't get enough heat on the 240-pound Hackney, sacking him just once. A few times, the Vols had him in their grasp but couldn't wrestle him down. But too often, Hackney had time to survey the field, even though he didn't have a running game to keep UT's defense honest.

UAB had 53 yards on 23 attempts, including a 16-yard option run by Hackney.

4. Third-and-long defense. UAB converted four of eight third-and-5 or longer plays. The Blazers moved the chains on third-and-11, third-and-14 and third-and-16.

``It's hard to feel great about (the win),'' UT coach Phillip Fulmer said. ``I thought we'd play better on both sides.''

The Vols will have to to maintain a No. 3 ranking and compete for the SEC title.


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