Strange Case of Erik Ainge

Popular opinion from the psych-pop crowd, that populates the talk shows, chat rooms and message boards of Big Orange Country, holds that Erik Ainge's forgettable foray as field general this fall was due to a crisis of confidence, caused by the specters of Rick Clausen stalking the sidelines and Coach Phillip Fulmer wildly wielding a quick hook.

They assert Ainge didn't get a chance to settle into the job while the game of musical QBs disrupted his timing and eroded his self-esteem. In their minds, it was the ham-fisted handling by Fulmer of a delicate situation requiring a deft touch, that brought down Ainge and the offense.

It's a reasonable theory and Fulmer is an easy target, but does it hold water?

Clearly, Fulmer felt Ainge gave Tennessee it's best chance to win and he wanted the sophomore to seize the job from the outset. The fact Ainge was finally handed the job before the season started was based more on his potential than beating Clausen in competition. The point is that Fulmer had a lot of his credibility tied up in Ainge's development. He was the last person that would run the risk of ruining his confidence.

Ainge's coronation didn't come as a surprise. He had excited UT fans with his play as a freshman and was pictured on the front of publications throughout the spring and summer. His talent was highly touted by the UT coaching staff and comparisons to Peyton Manning were casually tossed about.

The stage was set for Ainge to step into the spotlight and lead No. 3 ranked Tennessee to the Promised Land of Sugar and Roses.

"Got your reservations for the SEC Championship game in Atlanta?" one Vol fan was overheard asking another in August.

"Nah, I'm saving my money for Pasadena," his companion responds. "I don't think they'll get much of a game in Atlanta. USC is the only team that worries me, especially with the time change."

Sorry guys, but you know it's true.

The team Tennessee fans should have been worried about was Tennessee because the clock in Big Orange Country was about to be turned back to 1988, when the Vols suffered their last losing season.

Expectations were off the board which was much different than the 2004 when Ainge and Brent Schaeffer were true freshmen vying for the Vols most vital job, and everyone figured disaster could be just around the corner. That meant Ainge was dealing with a different set of pressures, which were further compounded by the season-ending shoulder injury he suffered against Notre Dame his rookie year. When he didn't outperform Clausen through spring and fall practice, the pressures increased. Having the job given to him might have been a relief, but it didn't erase the self-doubts and it never translated to the field of competition.

The handling of the quarterback situation by Fulmer and Randy Sanders didn't create Ainge's problems, and there's ample evidence to support that view. In 2004, the Vols shuffled signal callers 18 times in the first four games alone, or more than twice the changes they made the entire 2005 season.

Here's another point about Ainge's play that's almost completely overlooked. His lack of confidence and erratic play didn't normally manifest itself until he had been in the game for more than two series. In his first two series of virtually every appearance this season, he WAS the Ainge of 2004.

Check this out: There were six games in which Ainge played two consecutive series either starting a game or entering in relief. In those 12 series, he completed 23-of-32 passes for 266 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. In all other series he was a combined 43 of 113 for 471 yards, one TD and six INTs.

Even in the disastrous start against LSU, he didn't really fall apart until after the first two series of downs. In UT's first two possessions of that game he went 0-for-3 with two of his passes dropped — one by Chris Hannon and the other by Bret Smith. He did fumble once on a blind side sack, but that can happen to any battle-tested QB.

Ainge started the UAB game and went 4 of 6 for 45 yards, with a touchdown pass and a field goal in the first two possessions. The next game, against Florida, he entered in relief of Clausen and, during his first two series, went 7 of 9 for 71 yards and a touchdown. He relieved against South Carolina and went 4 of 5 for 41 yards and a touchdown in his first two possessions. He started again against Kentucky in the season finale, completing 6 of 6 for 82 yards and a touchdown in UT's first two offensive series.

Such statistics are counter intuitive since you'd expect a confidence issue to surface after a slow start instead of a fast one. Why would Ainge lose confidence after getting off to successful starts or sometimes just after enjoying success in general. Remember his meltdown in South Bend came after he had led the Vols back from a 21-3 deficit.

Despite the aid of hindsight, Tennessee's 2005 season gets curiouser and curiouser.

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