Can UT keep Cutcliffe?

A caller to a post-game show on a Knoxville radio station had a proposal. Tennessee had just routed Memphis 41-7 Saturday afternoon at Liberty Bowl Stadium, but the caller was worried. He was concerned the Vols might lose offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe after this season.

Get the Brink's truck. Call the money boosters. Don't let Cutcliffe get away. Pay the man $1 million – whatever it takes, the caller said.

Cutcliffe has been – perhaps – that valuable to UT's cause this season.

Given Tennessee's offensive success and Cutcliffe's reputation for developing quarterbacks, you know he'll have suitors when this season expires. It might be from North Carolina or North Carolina State or Kentucky or somewhere else. But, no doubt, Cutcliffe will have an opportunity to become a head coach again.

In one season, Cutcliffe has transformed Tennessee's offense. The Vols are scoring with machine-like precision.

Tennessee scored 19 offensive touchdowns all of last season. In five September games, the Vols have scored 20 touchdowns.

Against Memphis, Tennessee's first-team offense scored on six of eight possessions – four touchdowns and two field goals. This season, the first team has scored a touchdown on 18 of 42 drives and scored on 24 of 42 drives.

Scoring on 50 percent of your drives is remarkable. Scoring a touchdown on 40 percent of your possessions is outstanding.

Increasing your scoring average from 18.6 points to 32 points – with basically the same cast of characters but a less talented offensive line – tells you all you need to know about David Cutcliffe.

Tennessee gouged Memphis for 566 total yards, 361 passing. The Vols converted 11 of 16 third downs, but made good on 80 percent before the final quarter. UT had the ball for 81 plays compared to Memphis' 37. UT dominated time of possession, maintaining the ball for 37 minutes, 22 seconds.

And, once again, junior quarterback Erik Ainge was terrific. He hit 23 of 27 passes – two were dropped – for 324 yards and four touchdowns. This season, he has completed 93 of 133 passes (70 percent) for 1,389 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Last season, Ainge completed 45.5 percent of his 145 passes for 737 yards and seven touchdowns.

Is there a more improved quarterback in the nation? Is there a more improved player in the nation?

``Erik is on fire,'' Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. ``He's playing as well as we could expect him to play, and the good thing about it is, he's got room for improvement.''

Yes, he does. He threw an ill-advised interception that Memphis returned for a touchdown, only to have it nullified when defense end Corey Mills lined up off side.

``Even though he (Ainge) did well, we can turn the screws a little bit and keep him humble,'' Fulmer said.

That one mistake was about all Ainge made. He was near perfect. He had a stretch in which he completed 15 of 16 passes, with the incompletion being a drop. He engineered two 97-yard drives, one of which took 17 plays. Of his four incompletions, two were drops and one he threw away. On the fourth incompletion, the receiver fell.

Ainge isn't getting much attention as a Heisman Trophy candidate, but if he continues to thread the needle and Tennessee continues to win, he belongs in the conversation.

Who would have thought a year ago?

But Ainge isn't the only improved Vol on offense. Last season, receivers Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain combined for 763 receiving yards and two touchdowns. In five games this season, they've combined for a nation's best 965 yards and 10 scores.

``Our receivers and Erik Ainge continue to light it up,'' Fulmer said.

Swain didn't have a touchdown catch last season. Thus far, he's got five.

``You gotta say that (no scores last year) rubbing it in,'' Swain said. ``I've got five touchdowns but those guys around me are helping out.''

Swain had three catches for 74 yards against Memphis. Meachem had four for 157 yards, including an 84-yard score.

``We're having fun,'' Swain said of the wideouts, a much criticized group a year ago. ``It goes back to our work ethic in the offseason.''

Nobody's offseason work ethic was more important than Cutcliffe's. He was charged with rejuvenating an offense that went dormant a year ago. He has done that – and more.

This might be his most remarkable contribution: In five games, the offense has nine penalties.

``Phenomenal,'' said former UT quarterback Pat Ryan. ``That is phenomenal.''

Phenomenal is also the word you would use to describe the impact Cutcliffe has had thus far this season.

Tennessee can only hope Cutcliffe will be around for another season.

THE NEGATIVES

Tennessee's 34-point win over Memphis was the second-largest margin of victory in the 21-game series. But it wasn't a perfect effort.

UT had two lost fumbles and two drops. The Vols also failed to score on three runs from the 1-yard line. And the Vols failed to field several punts, three of which rolled back inside the UT 5-yard line.

Any of those miscues might be costly against Georgia on Saturday.


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