Can Vols Again Do The Unexpected?

Expectations are a hell of a thing: they can turn a date with a super model into a disappointing experience or make meeting prospective in-laws a delightful event.

It all depends on what you expect beforehand.

That at least partially explains the forlorn many Tennessee fans feel after watching their beloved Vols come undone against Florida and come back with a weak effort against an unranked, unsung, unappreciated Rutgers team.

How bad did UT expect Rutgers to be? Before the game Coach Phillip Fulmer referred to the Scarlet Knights as "not great by any stretch of the imagination." And he's probably right, but for 30 minutes Rutgers did the unimaginable by holding Tennessee to 63 total yards, 12 in the second quarter, and posting a 14-7 half-time lead before more than 103,000 Big Orange faithful at Neyland Stadium.

Of course Tennessee players and fans probably shared Fulmer's sentiments and expectations regarding Rutgers. After all, this is the school that could be derisively referred to as New Jersey State, Toxic Tech or the Hoffa Institute of Racketeering and Applied Sciences. This is a team that lost a home game this season to Division II Villanova and was badly beaten by the Buffalo Bulls, not the Bills mind you, but the Bulls which have only populated the Division I plains since 1999.

Coincidentally, the Bulls defeated Rutgers by the same margin on the road that Tennessee did at home. However apparently no one asked the Knights or their head coach whether the Vols were better than the Bulls. Perhaps they were afraid of the answer.

This was a game that nearly everyone (this writer included) expected to be a rout. The Vols were installed as 41-point favorites and many experts opined the final margin would be greater than the seven touchdowns predicted.

That was based on the embarrassing fashion that the Vols fell to Florida and the accompanying need to gain a measure of redemption in front of a home throng they had so severely disappointed seven days earlier. That was an understandable assumption since the Vols were taking on the Rodney Dangerfield of college football.

However in a scene right out of Rocky, Rutgers came out at the opening bell and landed a 100-yard haymaker then proceeded to push Tennessee around the ring for the first six rounds.

To their credit, the Vols responded with a solid second half, but it's still unclear if it was a motivated team response or the individual exploits of Kelley Washington along with some good alignment adjustments.

The debate about Kelley Washington's occasional over-the-top demeanor will continue but there should be no doubts about his strength, as he carried an offense weighing some 3000 pounds up and down the field like it was a Radio Flyer wagon with greased wheels.

Washington also made a point of sharing his Kodak moments with teammates and spoke of his achievements during post game interviews in soft tones. A subdued Kelley Washington was no less sublime, which brings up another question about expectations.

Don't we expect a team to improve over the course of a season? Then why does Tennessee appear to be regressing despite Washington's considerable presence in the lineup the last two games. On the surface it seems the Vols were at their best in game one vs. Wyoming in which they scored a season-high 47 points and won by a season-high 40-point margin.

In game two against still winless MTSU, the Vols managed to score but 19 points on offense. Against Florida that total fell to 13 while UT lost by 17. Then Rutgers comes to town and holds the Vols to under 100 yards on the ground while the Knights have a running back pick up over 100 yards by himself. (Rutgers came into the game averaging a paltry 76 rushing yards per outing.)

When Tennessee didn't have Washington against Wyoming and MTSU, we were told that teams were committing more defenders to the run. But with Washington in the lineup the Vols have failed to rush for 100 yards in either game.

Another theory suggests: if Tennessee had a second wide receiver step up, the running game would gear up. However last season when Donte' Stallworth broke his wrist and missed three games vs. Arkansas, LSU and Georgia, the Vols averaged 173 net yards per game rushing. And against Alabama, when Eric Parker and Bobby Graham started in place of the injured Washington and Stallworth, Tennessee gained 187 yards on the ground.

Does that mean that Graham and Parker were bigger threats as the No. 2 wide receiver than Tony Brown, Montrell Jones and Leonard Scott. If they were you couldn't prove it by their statistics. Together the senior duo combined for 38 catches, 400 yards and ZERO touchdowns. In fact in four years at the position, Graham never scored a touchdown. Admittedly he was a good possession receiver, but it's doubtful any defensive coordinator told his troops that if you shut down Graham you shut down Tennessee.

Even if Rutgers had packed 11 players in the box, Tennessee should have had enough size and strength up front to consistently carve out tough yards straight ahead with zone blocking.

Add to this problem Tennessee's deplorable play on special teams which has raised its ugly head once again. That was a bugaboo that haunted UT the entire 2001 season. In the last two games alone, the Vols have missed four straight field goal attempts, one extra point, gave up the 100-yard kickoff return, lost an onside kick and gave up a first down on a fake punt.

Kudos to Dustin Colquitt for his consistently fine punting after struggling last season, and to Mark Jones for a couple of nifty punt returns vs. Rutgers. Otherwise, Tennessee still has a lot of work to do to improve in special teams play.

That will be increasingly critical as the quality of opponents takes a decided rise and when close contests are often decided by a field goal or a big play in the kicking game.

At least the Vols won't have the added burden of huge expectations to haul around for the remainder of the year. Only the most optimistic Big Orange enthusiast would even think national championship much less talk about it.

Based on what Tennessee fans have seen the last two weeks, many may not expect another win this season.

However Coach Fulmer and his staff have managed to get things turned around in the darkest of hours past and the talent is there to rebound this year.

Unfortunately, there aren't any Rutgers left on the schedule and there just might be a slew of Gators.


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