UT's poise will be tested

Some funny things happen at The Swamp in Gainesville. Some very unfunny things happen there, as well.

Take 1995, for instance. Looking like potential national champions, the Tennessee Vols rolled to a 30-14 first-half lead against fourth-ranked Florida. Ben Hill Griffin Stadium was eerily silent.

The Gators scored a touchdown just before halftime, however, that ignited the crowd and seemed to rob the Vols of their poise. Clearly rattled, Tennessee fumbled twice in the third quarter and suffered a defensive meltdown. Taking full advantage, Florida scored touchdowns on its first six possessions of the second half and romped 62-37.

When the noise is deafening and the crowd is doing the "Gator chomp," it's almost impossible for a visiting team to keep its composure at The Swamp. If Tennessee is to win Saturday's game, however, keeping its composure is a must. And that's where senior quarterback Erik Ainge could be the winning edge.

Ainge's maturity and poise should help keep Tennessee's young players focused on the game, not the crowd noise. That could make a big difference Saturday afternoon.

"It makes all the difference in the world," offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said. "Their eyes are on him. Their ears are open. His focus is outstanding. They know that and they trust him. That's what you strive for offensively. If you've got a guy at quarterback who can pull the trigger, the rest of 'em react to it."

Ainge earned a lot of respect by completing a school-record 67 percent of his passes in 2006. If he still had doubters among his teammates, he surely won them over by completing 55 of 83 passes in the first two games of '07, despite a broken finger on his throwing hand.

Ainge knows his strengths and weaknesses. He knows the pressure that comes with being Tennessee's quarterback. He knows how to handle the chaos he'll encounter Saturday at The Swamp. Most of all, he knows Tennessee's offense and how to manage it.

Cutcliffe recalls telling his quarterbacks: "You can't pretend to know it and you can't pretend to be good. You've got to know it and you've got to be good. Then they'll listen to you."

Ainge, the coordinator adds, "has taken that to another level."

Despite the broken finger, the Vols' senior quarterback is off to a great start this season.

"He's playing really, really well," Cutcliffe notes. "He's playing like a big-time player. From managing the protections to throwing the ball to making decisions to timing to knowing where and when (to throw the ball), he's playing – in my opinion – as good as anybody out there ... period."


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