By: Randy Moore
You've heard it dozens of times. You've probably SAID it dozens of times: Tennessee's coaches don't adjust well on the run. They do a fine job of making alterations at halftime but they simply don't react quickly to in-game difficulties.
And make no mistake: The Vols will face some in-game difficulties this weekend at Memphis. Tiger head coach Tommy West recently fired defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dun and assumed those duties himself. With an open date last weekend, West is sure to throw a defense at UT this Saturday that will be unlike anything Memphis played under Dunn the past few seasons.
Can Tennessee adjust? Sure. At halftime. By then, however, the Tigers will have Liberty Bowl Stadium rocking and the Volunteers will have their hands full — much as they did in 1996, when Memphis shocked the Big Orange 21-17 at the same venue.
I covered that ‘96 debacle, and I remember UT head coach Phillip Fulmer noting afterward that the game meant a lot more to the Tigers than it did to the Vols. Well, duh. It always has. It always will. This is Memphis' chance to shed its "Tiger High" image by humbling the state's premier football program.
I've attended the last dozen UT-Memphis games, and they all pretty much followed the same script. Tennessee has more talent but Memphis has more incentive. The Tigers play as if their lives are at stake and the Vols play as if they'd rather be somewhere else.
That's why, with few exceptions, the scores are far closer than they should be. Consider:
A 1985 Tennessee team that won the SEC title, hammered Miami in the Sugar Bowl and finished No. 4 nationally edged Memphis 17-7.
A 1992 Tennessee team determined to send lame-duck coach Johnny Majors out on a winning note struggled mightily before subduing the Tigers 26-21.
A 1994 Tennessee team led by Peyton Manning prevailed just 24-13 in Knoxville.
A 1996 Tennessee team led by Manning and ranked No. 6 nationally suffered a 21-17 setback that ranks with the lowest points in Volunteer history.
A 1999 Tennessee team coming off a national title was lucky to nip Memphis 17-16 in Knoxville.
A 2000 Tennessee team in the middle of a six-game winning streak needed a last-second field goal to eke out a 19-17 victory at Memphis.
A 2005 Tennessee team that was desperate to snap a four-game losing streak beat Memphis by a mere 20-16 score in Knoxville, even though Tiger superstar DeAngelo Williams missed the game with an injury.
Given all of this, why would anyone expect the 2006 game to be any different?
Vols at Crossroads
By: Jeffery Stewart
It's not disclosing any state secrets to call this UT team a work in progress. Although it probably sounds like a unflattering thing to say about a team that is 3-1 and nationally ranked, it is actually a compliment.
Any team worth its salt is a work a progress because from game to game over the course of a successful season you must get better — or you will get worse. The concept of staying the same doesn't apply in a world where everything must change.
Sure you have to deal with injuries and less experienced players have to step in for proven veterans, but while the players replacing starters may not be as good, the team can, and must, get better.
Remember 1985 when the Vols' SI cover boy and starting quarterback Tony Robinson was lost for the year to a knee injury against Alabama. UT replaced him with a fifth year senior who had never started a game in his college career and still went 6-0-1 and won the Sugar Bowl.
In 1998, Tennessee lost Peyton Manning to graduation along with such notables as Leonard Little, Marcus Nash, Terry Fair, Jonathan Brown, Corey Gaines, Trey Teague, and Andy McCullough. The offensive load shifted to sophomore tailback Jamal Lewis who was coming off a big freshman campaign. The Atlanta native was up to the task and en route to a record smashing rushing total, but in the fourth game of the season, at Auburn, he suffered a torn knee ligament that cost him the rest of the year.
With their backs against the wall and their season on the line, the Vols leaned on their defense and beat Georgia the next week in Athens, 22-3. They beat Alabama the week after that and the rest is history, as Tennessee rolled to a 13-0 mark and its first national title in 47 years.
The point is that when the focus is on TEAM and getting better each week, there's simply no limit to what can be accomplished. The key is to give 100 percent on every play and have fun in the process.
While Memphis is a team easily overlooked, I don't see that happening because the Vols are standing on the crossroads this week. Like last year, they are 3-1 and ranked in the top 20 with a loss to Florida. This is the point UT's season spun out of control with four straight demoralizing defeats.
Last year's collapse began with Georgia and was followed with losses to Alabama, South Carolina and Notre Dame. Next week Tennessee plays at Georgia followed by games against Alabama, at South Carolina and vs. LSU. Another four-game losing streak is not a long shot, especially if the Vols fail to get better each week.
Conversely, if the Vols defeat Memphis in their first road appearance of 2006, they'll inch within one victory of last season's win total. Plus they will build momentum for the trials ahead. A loss to Memphis would undo all the work of the last nine months to get the program back on track and to win the hearts of their fans.
The simple truth: There are no small games. Every game is big. And the greater your aspirations the bigger the game. This is a springboard match for the Vols because it's a game they should win and its sets the stage for the toughest stretch of the 2006 campaign.
The significance of this contest is not lost on UT's coaching staff, and it's a good bet the coaches have conveyed this to the players. If the players perform as a team and focus on their goals they are capable of posting a solid victory over the Tigers.
That would be an achievement considering the trouble Memphis has caused Tennessee over the last 10 years. Yes, the Tigers only won the 1996 game and are 1-19 in the series, but the Vols have failed to cover the spread in the last six meetings. If you play to survive instead of strive to conquer you are always at risk and you'll never have fun.
Saturday's early start, Tennessee's lack of a consistent running attack, Memphis' off week and the upcoming contest at Georgia, could all conspire to continue the trend of close contests.
On the other hand, the Vols got their wake-up call last November and have something to prove. The Tigers are standing in their way. That will be enough to carry the day for Tennessee.