Quarterback play IS that important. Heck, look at Tennessee's Erik Ainge. He played like a champ in 2004, and the Vols went 10-2. He played like a chump in 2005, and the Vols went 5-6. He bounced back in 2006, and so did the Vols, going 9-3.
Ainge's best games of '06 came against California (291 passing yards, 4 touchdowns, 1 interception), Air Force (333 yards, 3 TDs, 1 interception), Memphis (324 yards, 4 TDs, 0 interceptions), Georgia (268 yards, 2 TDs, 0 interceptions) and Vanderbilt (266 yards, 2 TDs, 0 interceptions). Tennessee's point production in those games was 35, 31, 41, 51 and 39.
Ainge missed the Arkansas game, and Tennessee lost 31-14. He played just one quarter against LSU, and Tennessee lost. He played so-so against Florida (17 of 32, 0 TDs, 2 interceptions), and Tennessee lost 21-20. He played erratically against Alabama (3 interceptions), and the Vols managed just one touchdown in a 16-13 win. He also struggled against Kentucky (missing a bunch of open receivers) as the Vols squeaked by 17-12.
Based on all of the above, "As Erik Ainge goes, Tennessee goes" is only a slight exaggeration. That's why he looms as a key figure in the Vols' upcoming Outback Bowl game against Penn State.
"We must play well in all areas of our football team," head coach Phillip Fulmer recently noted. "Erik, in particular, has to play well for us to be the kind of offensive team that we need to be.
"He's had a good year overall, but he didn't play very well in the last ball game (Kentucky). That's a challenge – for him to bounce back against a good Penn State defensive team."
Ainge is one of several keys in Tennessee's bid to cap a 10-win season with an Outback Bowl triumph. The Vols led the SEC in red-zone efficiency (90.7 percent) by scoring on 39 of 43 forays inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Thirteen times UT ran for a touchdown. Fourteen times it passed for the score. Twelve times it kicked a field goal. Clearly, continued success in the red zone – or orange area, as Fulmer calls it – is crucial against a Nittany Lion defense that allows just 14.8 points per game.
"Offensively, we have to continue to be a really good orange-area football team," Fulmer said. "We've done a good job of that."
Another Vol strength is discipline. Tennessee was penalized an average of just 36.2 yards per game. Only one SEC team – Vanderbilt at 33.2 – was more penalty-free during the regular season.
"We have to continue to do a good job of limiting our penalties, staying disciplined," Fulmer noted. "As much as you're off during bowl practice (because of finals and Christmas break), sometimes that slides. We're not going to let that slide as we go through our preparation."
Tennessee also ranked second among SEC teams in third-down efficiency, converting on 48.3 percent of its opportunities. Only LSU (49.6) was more efficient on the so-called "money" down.
"We need to continue to be a good third-down team, which we've done for the most part," Fulmer said.
Finally, the Vols ranked third among SEC teams in sacks allowed, surrendering just 17 in 12 games. Given how good Penn State's front four is, pass protection could be vital in the Outback Bowl.
Or, as Fulmer put it: "Being able to handle the pressure is very, very important to us."