Based on what we've heard and seen to this point of 2006, UT quarterback Erik Ainge is the feel-good hit of the summer, after suffering through a miserable sophomore campaign in which the Vols and a Big Orange Nation suffered right along with him.
There's plenty of blame to go around for the disastrous 2005 season which featured such unforgettable low-lights as a home loss to Vanderbilt, a home loss to South Carolina, a home loss to Georgia — good for the SEC East Division (0-3) home sweep. Remember the good old days when the Vols only lost to Florida at home?
Ah... but it doesn't stop there. There was the first-quarter collapse at Baton Rouge, the fourth quarter flop at South Bend, the late-summer swoon at the Swamp, and the infamous Tuscaloosa fumble-fest.
In truth, Tennessee fans should have been suspect from the very beginning, as the Vols had to hang on to defeat the UAB Blazers 17-10 in the season opener, a game in which fifth-year senior Rick Clausen had to relieve struggling sophomore starter Eric Ainge. In game three against LSU, Clausen would again enter for Ainge, who had gone into full meltdown mode, climaxing in underhand pass from his own end zone that was picked off for a one-yard TD return that put UT in a 21-0 hole.
Clausen rallied the Vols to a 30-27 overtime victory that easily stands as the high-water mark of the 2005 season. It gave UT a 2-1 mark and was followed by a home win over Ole Miss that appeared to put the season back on a steady course. That's when Tennessee, which was picked as a top five team in preseason polls, went on a four-game losing streak and sealed its fate. Randy Sanders resigned as OC during the winless streak, UT endured its first losing season in 17 years and a major staff shakeup ensued.
Covering the painful past is a necessary process to gain perspective on where Tennessee and Ainge are headed today. It is also offered as a cautionary reminder — not from a cantankerous killjoy but from an ardent observer of history — that it's easy to get fooled.
Editor's Note: Part two in this series will be published Wednesday while parts three and four are slated for Thursday.