Answers Await Vols In Athens

Since it's inception as an annual series in 1992, the Tennessee-Georgia showdown has provided a pivotal point and positive impetus for the Volunteers' campaign.

And surprisingly, the most profound impact has been realized from games played in Athens.

That all began in 1992 when acting head coach Phillip Fulmer made his SEC debut along with quarterback Heath Shuler against Georgia. The Vols were in a rebuilding mode and solid underdogs on that day (Sept. 12), but came away with a dramatic 34-31 victory.

The next week Tennessee would topple Florida at Neyland Stadium in a torrential downpour and the Vols rise into the top 10 began. It continued through back-to-back shutouts of Cincinnati, 40-0, and LSU, 20-0, in Baton Rogue which pushed UT to No. 4 nationally.

The LSU victory marked Johnny Majors return to his head coaching duties and his last high water mark at his alma mater. Tennessee was upset by Arkansas the next week in Knoxville and followed with loses to Alabama and South Carolina.

By the time Tennessee ended the streak with a narrow victory at Memphis State, Majors was on his way out and Fulmer would be named his replacement. No doubt, Majors' complaints to the media about his UT contract contributed to his downfall, but having Fulmer on campus with head coaching offers from Arkansas and South Carolina in his pocket made the switch a pragmatic one.

Fulmer's successful audition in Majors' absence began with the upset of Georgia. And, for whatever reason, the team played much more loose and confident under Fulmer than under Majors. The side-by-side comparison was convincing enough for Tennessee to make the change.

Fulmer's 1993 team posted a 10-2 record with a high-powered offense that was as entertaining to watch as it was difficult to stop. Tennessee scored 484 points that season and averaged 42.9 points per game through 11 regular season contests.

In 1994, Tennessee's trigger man and Heisman runner up Heath Shuler opted out a year early for the NFL and fifth-year senior quarterback Jerry Colquitt's career came to an anti-climatic conclusion on Tennessee's first series of the season at UCLA. That left true freshmen Peyton Manning and Brandon Stewart along with sophomore Todd Helton to run the offense.

Helton drew his first starting assignment against Georgia the next week and Tennessee came away with a 41-23 victory behind a powerful ground attack.

This win became crucial because Tennessee followed with loses to Florida and Mississippi State. Otherwise, the Vols would have been off to an 0-4 start. Instead, the Vols turned the QB job over to Peyton Manning and won seven of it's last eight games including 45-23 victory over Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl.

In 1996, Manning was Tennessee's starter as the Vols took a 29-17 victory in Athens. In 1998 Tee Martin led Tennessee to a 22-3 victory in Athens with strong support from a hard-nosed defense. That game was critical to the national title because it was the Vols first without tailback Jamal Lewis who was lost for the season with a knee injury against Auburn. It's also the game when Martin proved he could handle the offense. In 2000, Tennessee saw it's nine-game winning streak over Georgia came to an end in Athens. The Vols starting quarterback was A.J. Suggs with Casey Clausen getting a few reps in a limited role. It was after the Georgia game that the QB job was turned over to Clausen who led UT to a victory over Alabama in his first start and helped turn a 2-3 start into an 8-4 season.

This background shows that the Georgia game in Athens has been a proving ground for Tennessee quarterbacks, coaches and seasons over the last decade. It's shaping up that way again this year given Clausen's physical state, an inconsistent offensive line that has provided dubious protection and a coaching staff that is being questioned about everything from play calling to personnel decisions.

It's true, at times, Tennessee's offense in operation looks like a conductor directing an orchestra that's reading different sheet music. It's often out of sync, chaotic and filled with enough sour notes that it's painful to witness.

Overall the offense lacks personality, proficiency or purpose. The line seems in a perpetual state of confusion, the receivers often appear to run routes at random and Clausen has precious little time to read coverage much less pick out an open target - assuming there are any.

That's not to say there weren't a fair number of good calls and execution. And the TD passes in OT were very well concieved and carried out. However most of the night, the Razorbacks defense dictated rules of engagement, pressing everything up along the line of scrimmage and continuously putting Tennessee's offensive line on the defensive with a series of stunts and blitzes.

Tennessee had some success with play-action passes and misdirection, but didn't make frequent use of either. The Vols did try some ill-advised draw plays including a couple QB draws that placed Clausen in harm's way with very limited chance for success. Then there was the draw that resulted in Derrick Tinsley's fumble in OT 3. On each of these plays, Tennessee failed to turn rushers and blitzers from the point of attack. And there was simply too much seepage up front for the drop back draw to be properly timed. A sprint draw might have worked better, but Tennessee uses too little sprint-out action for it to be consistently successful.

It also appeared Arkansas reads on Tennessee's tendencies were almost too good. Whether they were playing the odds based on formations and what plays the Vols normally run from them, or if the plays were being tipped is unclear, but it was certainly something more than good guesses and good luck.

Regardless, future opponents have a blueprint on how to beat Tennessee and until the Vols O-line proves it can handle pressure tactics, it will see nothing else and UT's quarterback will continue to be under the gun.

That's why the Georgia game is critical in determining the direction UT's program is headed this season. Will the Vols be able to open holes and provide adequate protection? Will Clausen be healthy enough to start and be effective? Can Clausen stay healthy enough and have time enough to be successful? If not, is there anyone prepared to take his place? Can UT's coaches come up with an imaginative game plan that gives the Vols a chance to succeed? Can the players bounce back from a draining six-overtime experience? Do they have the confidence it takes to beat No. 6 Georgia in its own backyard in their first road test of the season?

History shows the Bulldogs are a reliable barometer to gauge just how good Tennessee is or isn't.


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