He regained the starting spot for Games 8 and 9, then lost it again for Game 10. With Clausen injured, Ainge started the season finale against Kentucky and gave by far his best performance of the year, completing 17 of 25 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns with zero interceptions.
Despite the strong finish and the arrival of heralded offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, the expectation level for Ainge entering the 2006 season is nowhere near what it was entering the '05 season. The pressure level is nowhere near what it was a year ago, either. Fans expected Ainge to be the second coming of Peyton Manning last season and lead Tennessee to the national title. This year they're just expecting him to be adequate and lead Tennessee to a winning season.
That's all the national media seems to be expecting of Ainge, as well. In a recent "Ask CFN" column for collegefootballnews.com, staff writer Pete Fiutak was asked to pinpoint the top 15 college quarterbacks for 2006. He listed two SEC quarterbacks but neither was named Erik Ainge.
Here's how Fiutak ranked the top 15:
1. Brady Quinn, Notre Dame, 2. Drew Stanton, Michigan State, 3. Troy Smith, Ohio State, 4. Sam Keller, Arizona State, 5. Brian Brohm, Louisville, 6. John David Booty, USC, 7. Chris Leak, Florida, 8. Drew Tate, Iowa, 9. Drew Weatherford, Florida State, 10. JaMarcus Russell, LSU, 11. John Beck, BYU, 12. Kevin Kolb, Houston, 13. Chad Henne, Michigan, 14. Pat White, West Virginia, 15. Colt Brennan, Hawaii
Will lower expectations produce a higher level of performance by Ainge? Perhaps. This much is certain: That's one of the key questions as the Vols approach the 2006 season.