UT's O: An Unsolved Mystery

Rumors that the FBI has taken a missing person's report on Tennessee's offense are blatantly false, but the picture of sophomore QB Eric Ainge has been seen on a carton of milk.

Again just a jest.

Actually Ainge, who, before Saturday, was last seen in full panic mode against LSU in UT's third game of the year, did make a couple of cameo appearances in Tuscaloosa. However, it was hardly the second coming of Peyton Manning. Heck, it wasn't even the second coming of Steve Alatorre although the fling-and-a-prayer pass on the game's final play did bring to mind the former, and uncelebrated, Vol starter.

Not that it would have mattered if Ainge had been Peyton-like, as had been hinted at prior to the season. Neither would it have mattered if Rick Clausen had been Casey Clausen or Jimmy Clausen because the Vols have a knack for collectively wiping out an individual achievement, just as individual players on the offense have a way of canceling the accomplishments of the rest of the team.

Take the clutch carry by Gerald Riggs of 24 yards to put the Vols in business at Bama's 3 with the score tied 3-3 and six minutes remaining. It may have been Riggs' best run of the season, and it may have been the last run of his Tennessee career, depending on how badly his outstanding effort and sacrifice? Answer: by committing penalties on consecutive plays, following by a backbreaking turnover.

No one can say for sure why Tennessee's offense is so spectacularly inept. But everyone agrees it's not a lack of talent which is what makes the end results all the more mysterious.

Defending Tennessee's offense is like encountering a drunk on a shooting spree with a high-powered rifle: you know he will do more damage accidentally than he will intentionally, and if you patiently keep your distance he will eventually shoot himself.

As unflattering a picture as that analogy may paint, it's still fairly, and sadly, accurate. It evokes the forlorn one experiences watching a great hitter no longer able to get around on the fastball, or witnessing a former champion boxer lose his reflexes in the wink of an eye.

At various times over the last three decades UT has been known as Wide Receiver U, O-Line U, Tailback U and Quarterback U. The list of offensive stars that have worn the Orange during that span are as many as they are mighty — a veritable Who's Who of gridiron talent that has left its mark in the NFL.

Now the only O in Big Orange football is Oh no! — as in Oh no! another turnover, Oh no! another penalty, Oh no! another pass dropped, another block missed, another penalty called, another scoring opportunity lost.

To appreciate just how dysfunctional Tennessee's 2005 offense is compare it to the one Coach Phillip Fulmer put on the field in 1993, his first full season at the helm of UT's gridiron program.

Through six games this season UT has scored 98 points, an average of 16.3 points per contest. UT's 1993 scored 254 points in its first six games (an average of 42.3 points per game) en route to a school record 471 points over 11 games for an average of 42.9 points per outing. In 2005, the Vols are averaging 323 yards per game, In 1993, they averaged 485 yards a game.

The 1993 team was almost perfectly balanced with 2,621 total yards rushing and 2,665 yards passing. This year UT has compiled twice as much yardage through the air (1,331 total yards) as it has on the ground (603 total yards). In Fulmer's first full season as head coach UT scored 58 touchdowns, 31 rushing, 27 passing. His latest Tennessee offense has scored six TDs rushing and 5 passing through the first six games.

Even a dramatic turnaround in 2005 wouldn't raise UT to the levels of the very worst offense even assembled under Fulmer. That would be the 2000 offense which used three starting signal callers including two freshmen QBs in A.J. Suggs and Casey Clausen. That team averaged 163 yards rushing and 210 yards passing while scored 32.6 points per contest.

To appreciate just how bad it is consider that in order for Tennessee to score as many points as the worst offense in Fulmer's 12-plus year tenure entering the 2005 campaign, the Vols would have to average over 50 points per contest the rest of the year.

None of those comparisons even begin to address issues of penalties and turnovers. You are left to draw your own conclusions.

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