Why the finishing fade?
"A lot of it was probably injuries," quarterback Erik Ainge said recently. "And a lot of it also was probably the teams we were playing. The teams we played in the first six games weren't as good, as a whole, as the teams we played in the last six games."
Speaking strictly in terms of defense, he is correct. Game 3 foe Florida was outstanding defensively and limited UT to 20 points. But Game 1 foe California and Game 6 foe Georgia were overrated defensively, and the other three first-half foes – Air Force in Game 2, Memphis in Game 4 and Marshall in Game 5 – were downright porous.
Conversely, four of the six defenses Tennessee faced in the second half of 2006 were reasonably stout – Alabama, South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas. The two exceptions were Vanderbilt and Kentucky in Games 11 and 12, respectively.
Ainge thinks the talent level of the opposing defenses made lighting up the scoreboard considerably easier in Games 1 through 6.
"We didn't play Arkansas and LSU; we played Air Force and Memphis," he noted. "The difference in those teams has a lot to do with it."
Tennessee's offense wasn't all that faded in the season's second half, however. The defense slipped noticeably, as well. After allowing just 83 points (16.7 per game) in the season's first five contests, the Vols allowed 151 points (21.6 per game) over the final seven outings.
Finally, after going 5-1 in the first six games and outscoring its foes by an average of 35-19, the Big Orange went 4-2 in its last six games and outscored the opposition by a mere 24-21 margin.
Ainge blames those numbers on the tougher second-half schedule, coupled with some injuries to key personnel.
"Obviously, losing myself for two games, Inky Johnson and Justin Harrell (for the season) – plus having Jerod Mayo and others all banged up – hurt us toward the middle and end of the season," he said. "But that's football, and that's where we are right now."
The obvious question: Can the Vols get back to the level of productivity they showed in Games 1 through 6 in time for the Outback Bowl vs. Penn State?
"Absolutely," Ainge said. "Coach Cut said (Monday) to play every play like it's fourth-and-eight, like it's your last play out there…. Having that attitude – with him demanding that much of us – I don't see how we could NOT get better."