Cutcliffe v. Randy Sanders

Sanders, it seems, has been a lightning rod for criticism since shortly after the national championship Fiesta Bowl win over Florida State.

The consensus among Tennessee fans is that David Cutcliffe was a far superior offensive coordinator for the Vols that Randy Sanders. He's too conservative. He doesn't throw over the middle. He doesn't throw on first down. He doesn't throw to the tight end. He doesn't throw enough. He doesn't run enough. He doesn't run enough to the left side.

I remember a fan once saying the Vols never threw on first down in a particular game. In fact, the Vols threw on 14 of 28 first downs.

You might have wondered why Tennessee didn't throw to the tight end against Georgia. The Vols actually called six to eight plays with the tight end as the primary target, but the tight end wasn't opened, so the quarterback threw elsewhere.

Things are not always what they seem – especially when it comes to play calling. It's a lot easier from the stands or the couch – when you are pressured by a play clock to make an immediate call.

In comparing Cutcliffe and Sanders, things aren't always as easy as the numbers. But here are some numbers to chew on.

In Cutcliffe's seven years as UT's offensive coordinator (1993-98), the Vols averaged 34.9 points per game. Under Sanders, UT is averaging 27 points.

Under Cutcliffe, the Vols averaged 33 points against BCS conference teams and Notre Dame. Sanders has averaged 25 points.

UT's victory margin under Cutcliffe was 17.7. It's 9 under Sanders.

UT's win percentage under Cutcliffe: 83.6 percent. Under Sanders: 73.4 percent.

Those numbers don't always tell the story. But they do raise a red flag. In a defensive league where a field goal is often the difference in the outcome, seven points a game is significant.

But it's also significant that Cutcliffe worked with two of UT's all-time great quarterbacks – Heisman Trophy runner-ups Peyton Manning and Heath Shuler – while Sanders has had undrafted Casey Clausen and A.J. Suggs and Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen, an LSU castoff who helped the Vols beat the Tigers in Baton Rouge.

Each coached Tee Martin for one season.

Clearly, Cutcliffe had a huge advantage based on his quarterbacks. But how much credit to you give Cutcliffe for maximizing the talents of Manning and Shuler? Would they have been as good under Sanders as they were under Cutcliffe?

We'll never know.

Martin's production wasn't much different. He passed for 2,164 yards and hit 57.3 percent in 13 games under Cutcliffe. He passed for 2,317 yards and hit 54.1 percent in 12 games under Sanders.

The 1998 team averaged 33.2 points to 30.8 for the 1999 team. But the '99 team scored more points against Florida, Georgia and Auburn than the '98 team. The '99 team also scored 38 against Notre Dame.

You could also argue that Cutcliffe had other advantages. UT's running backs – Jamal Lewis, James Stewart, Charlie Garner, Jay Graham compared to Travis Henry, Travis Stephens, Cedric Houston, Gerald Riggs – and offensive lines were better under Cutcliffe. And Cutcliffe's receivers – Joey Kent, Marcus Nash, Peerless Price, Jeremaine Copeland – were more productive although the 2001 trio of Donte Stallworth, Kelley Washington and Jason Witten was terrific.

Sanders' best offense was in 2001. It scored 400 points. It had 34 against Florida, 45 against Michigan, 35 against Alabama. The second-best offense, in terms of points, was 2000, when the 8-4 Vols padded their stats with 70 points against Louisiana Monroe, 63 against Arkansas and 59 against Kentucky.

To me, Sanders' second-best job was in 2004, when he took two true freshman and an LSU transfer and scored 378 points – more than the talented 1999 team.

His worst job: This year.

In comparing UT's last two offensive coordinators, Cutcliffe was more demanding and his offenses were more disciplined. He paid great attention to detail. He would practice a play until it was run right. He didn't accept mediocrity.

Sanders appears to be more laid back.

Who was the better play caller? Who knows?

I do know this: Cutcliffe had more help at times with Kippy Brown coaching receivers and Sanders the running backs. Nobody on UT's staff helps Sanders the way Sanders helped Cutcliffe.

Cutcliffe did a nice job developing quarterbacks. Sanders did a nice job getting 34 wins out of Casey Clausen and getting mileage out of Rick Clausen. But you do wonder why Erik Ainge has regressed.

While I believe it is unfair to lay all the blame for the offense at Sanders' feet, Sanders ultimately bears responsibility for the offense's performance.

And if UT's offense doesn't start producing, Sanders feet will get hotter.

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