UT on right track but ...

Tennessee's football record improved from 5-6 to 9-4 between 2005 and 2006. The burning question is: Did Tennessee's football program improve significantly from '05 to '06 or was the upgrade mostly superficial?

That's an issue a lot of disappointed Vol fans are wrestling with in the wake of Monday's 20-10 Outback Bowl loss to Penn State. Based on that lackluster showing, the Vols still have a long way to go before they're ready to seriously contend for an SEC title (which they haven't achieved in eight years) or a BCS bowl bid (which they haven't achieved in seven years).

In terms of talent, Tennessee was no better in 2006 than it was in 2005. In fact, head coach Phillip Fulmer recently noted that the '06 team had LESS talent than the '05 squad. In terms of execution, the 2006 Vols were better offensively than in 2005 but they were worse defensively, so those two factors offset one another.

Basically, the major difference between the 2005 and 2006 seasons – other than the win totals – was that the 2006 team made a few clutch plays, whereas the 2005 team did not.

The ‘05 Vols were one play away from claiming three more victories. They lost winnable games against Alabama (6-3), South Carolina (16-15) and Vanderbilt (28-24) or they would've finished 8-3.

Conversely, the ‘06 Vols were one play away from suffering three more setbacks. They won losable games against Air Force (31-30), Alabama (16-13) and Kentucky (17-12) or they would've finished 6-6.

Bottom line: The 2006 Vols weren't THAT much better than the 2005 Vols. The '06 team simply made a few more plays in the clutch.

Fulmer basically conceded as much, noting that the '05 Vols routinely failed to come up with the big play on offense or the big stop on defense in key situations.

"We really weren't out of any games except maybe the Notre Dame game – and we were tied in the third quarter of that one," he said. "But we couldn't make the plays to win games and we made a few plays to lose games in the fourth quarter.

"It wasn't just the offense. It wasn't just the defense. It was the whole thing."

As discouraging as the 2005 season was, Fulmer called it "a growing experience and a life lesson," adding: "I don't believe it'll happen to me again … not that way."

There is no disputing that a lot of things went wrong in '05, and the Vols weren't able to overcome them. But a lot of things went wrong in '06, and the Vols WERE able to overcome them. These included season-ending injuries to Roshaun Fellows, Justin Harrell and Inquoris Johnson, an ankle sprain that sidelined quarterback Erik Ainge for two games and assorted health problems that hampered Arian Foster, LaMarcus Coker and Jerod Mayo.

Ultimately, there were just as many obstacles in 2006 as there were in 2005. The difference was that the '05 team couldn't overcome its obstacles.

"There were a lot of injuries and a schedule that was tough but we just didn't make it happen," Fulmer said of the 2005 season. "This year we had injuries and a tough schedule but we made it happen."

It may be accurate to say the Vols "made it happen" in terms of raising their record from 5-6 to 9-4. Based on their late-season struggles against Kentucky and Penn State, though, I'm not sure the team was a whole lot better in 2006 than it was in 2005.

Tennessee football may be back on the right track, but it's still a long way to the station.

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