Ainge, Fulmer top mid-season honors

We're half way through the SEC season and that means it's time for mid-term awards and a report card. We'll analyze the SEC, then Tennessee's performance in a variety of areas. As you might expect, the Vols fare well as they enjoy their only open date of the season.

SEC COACH OF THE YEAR: Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee. Fulmer has defeated two top-10 teams by 18 points and lost to undefeated and second-ranked Florida by one. You might argue the Vols should have run LaMarcus Coker against the Gators and thrown more in the second half, but that night, Florida was the better team.

A close second is Arkansas coach Houston Nutt. With a true freshman at quarterback, the Hogs won at No. 2 Auburn 27-10, the most impressive SEC win thus far. Arkansas is 5-1 after going 4-7 and the Hogs lead the West Division.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Erik Ainge, Tennessee. Ainge ranks No. 1 in the SEC in pass efficiency, total offense and passing yards. Ainge is 118 of 171 (69 percent) for 1,657 yards and 14 touchdowns.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Defensive tackle Marcus Thomas, Florida. I hate the idea of giving it to a drug user, but Thomas made a huge difference in the UT game and in the LSU game. The guy can't be blocked by one man. He is the most dominant defensive player in the SEC. He's the main reason Florida has the best run defense in the nation.

Second is Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Willis, who leads the SEC in tackles per game. He's had double figures in tackles in 10 of his last 12 games.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Quarterback Tim Tebow, Florida. Without Tebow, the Gators might not have beaten Tennessee or LSU. He converted several key first downs against the Vols and accounted for all three Florida touchdowns against LSU.

MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER: Running back Kenneth Darby of Alabama and Ole Miss quarterback Brent Schaeffer. Darby's goal was to eclipse Shaun Alexander's school career rushing record. Instead, he's not among the SEC's top five rushers and his per carry average is less than 4.0.

Schaeffer has been ineffective as a passer and runner. He doesn't even rank among the SEC's top 10 in pass efficiency and Ole Miss even threatened to bench him. He is completing about 45 percent of his passes for less than 115 yards per game and he has thrown more interceptions than touchdown passes.

Here is my report card for Tennessee.

QUARTERBACK: A. Can't do much better than Ainge. If he'd pulled out the Florida game, he'd get an A+. He's playing with poise and confidence, one reason UT is averaging 35.2 points and converting 59 percent on third downs.

RECEIVERS: A. Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain continue to lead the nation in combined receiving yards (1,053). They also have 11 combined touchdowns. Meachem is the leader with 34 catches for 675 yards. Bret Smith gives UT a third receiver with at least 20 catches. Tight end Chris Brown has 16.

RUNNING BACKS: B-. LaMarcus Coker has given the Vols a spark, averaging 6.7 yards per carry and 63.5 yards per game. He's averaged over 100 yards in his three starts. But Arian Foster (3.8) and Montario Hardesty (3.3) are under 4.0 per carry. Backs have missed some holes and not run real well in short yardage situations.

OFFENSIVE LINE: B-. Vols have been excellent in pass protection but not so good in run blocking. I'd go A for pass protection and C- for run blocking. Run game is ninth in the SEC (133.0). Left side of the line is clearly better than the right side.

DEFENSIVE LINE: C+. This unit sorely misses injured tackle Justin Harrell. The tackle spot is average by SEC standards. The ends are OK. After ranking No. 2 in run defense last year, Vols are giving up 129.8 per game, 47.3 more than last year.

LINEBACKERS: B: Marvin Mitchell ranks among the SEC tackle leaders with 56. Jerod Mayo has four sacks to rank high in the SEC. Ryan Karl is fourth on the team with 37 tackles.

SECONDARY: B+. Vols have more interceptions (8) than touchdowns allowed (6). Opponents' completion percentage of 56.8 is too high, and defensive backs have allowed too many third-and-long conversions, but they are giving up just 160.3 yards per game. All eight team interceptions are by defensive backs.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C. Why so high, you ask? Because UT has the best combination of kicker-punter in SEC in James Wilhoit and Britton Colquitt. UT is improving on kick returns as Coker is averaging 23.2 yards. Punt return average is 7.0 compared to 17.4 for opponents.

OVERALL A-. While UT has room to improve -- special teams, run defense, third-and-long defense and short yardage running plays -- it's hard to complain about being 5-1 and ranked No. 8 with two big wins over top 10 teams. As you can tell by my grades, UT has been better than the sum of its parts.


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