Toughest Challenge Still Awaits Vols

Tennessee has reached the halfway point of its longest regular season with a welcomed open date and no one cheering for an encore.

A true blue Big Orange fan looks at the first half results and sees a team that has fought to overcome adversity and come short in a couple of key contests. A fair weather Tennessee fan sees a team that is a mere deflected field goal (Phillip Newman's kick that crawled over the crossbar in the third OT against Arkansas) away from being 3-3 and 0-3 in the conference.

The former finds solace in the Vols valiant fourth-quarter comeback at Athens just when the Bulldogs and their fans were licking their chops at the thought of blowing out UT. The later laments a top ten team that stayed stuck on zero for three quarters and was only saved from a shutout by Georgia's loss of interest in a game it had well in hand.

True blue cites a crippling array of injuries that has left the Vols devoid of 11 starters for various stretches of the first six games, and a series of bad calls as reasons for the disappointing first-half performance. Fair weather points to appalling inefficiency, a lack of chemistry, lapses of focus and a failure to play sound fundamental football as chief culprits in the Vols startling underachievement.

True blue is optimistic the Vols will get on one of their patented late season runs and finish 10-3 or maybe 11-2 with a BCS bowl bid and big pay day at the end of the line. Fair weather sees three SEC road games and home contests against defending national champion Miami, revenge-minded Alabama and resurgent rival Kentucky and wonders if a 7-5 record and a third trip to Nashville (to play in the Music City Bowl) might be wishful thinking.

Somewhere between these extremes of optimism and pessimism exists the truth about Tennessee's football season, which is firmly rooted in the realism of a new era of NCAA competition.

In reality, the days of domination by any college football program are rapidly disappearing. Scholarship limitations, the proliferation of TV broadcasts, advanced strength training and the distribution of skill players has leveled the college football landscape. The differences between the haves and the have nots is dissipating and the margin between winning and losing has reached a razor's edge.

In the past, superior personnel could carry the day, overcome mistakes, absorb injuries and take strategic snafus in stride. More often nowadays a significant discrepancy in any one of those categories can result in a stunning upset, or turn a contest between evenly matched squads into a mauling.

And this phenomenon isn't exclusive to Tennessee. Take a sampling of the USA Today/ESPN preseason top 25 poll coaches poll. Only two teams from the preseason top five remain there, while only four of the top 10 teams have maintained their status through half the season. No. 8 Nebraska has dropped out of the 25, while preseason No. 6 Colorado and No. 7 Florida have slipped to No. 24 and 25 respectively. Other preseason top 25 teams like South Carolina, Marshall, Louisville, Maryland and Wisconsin have fallen out of the poll, while Air Force, Iowa State, Mississippi, Kansas State, Bowling Green and Notre Dame have worked their way into the nation's top 25.

Notre Dame has made the biggest jump and Nebraska has taken the greatest tumble. Other than Miami and Oklahoma (and perhaps Texas) the final coaches poll will probably bear little resemblance to the preseason poll.

In this era of equity, Tennessee's slippage to this point is somewhat understandable given the injuries the team has suffered. Granted this is a part of football and depth is factored into a team's strength, but the Vols have been devastated by an inordinate number of serious injuries at key positions. Consider that on its two-deep chart, Tennessee has lost half of it numbers from the defensive front seven, including four for the entire season counting academic casualty Tony Campbell, who was one of Tennessee1s three speed linebackers along with Kevin Burnett and Kevin Simon. That loss of speed from the linebacker corps has made the Vols more predictable and less able to get pressure on the quarterback.

When coupled with the loss of starting defensive end Constantine Ritzmann, the Vols most experienced and talented down pass rusher, and injuries to speed rusher Karlton Neal and junior college transfer Mondre Dickerson, it's really remarkable the defense has played as well as it has this season. Also remember this is a defense that lost its entire front four from last season plus its starting middle linebacker. This explains Tennessee's biggest defensive shortcoming a lack of consistent pressure on the quarterback.

The problems on offense are more difficult to pass off to injuries alone, although any team that has to play games without its starting quarterback, tailback and best wide receiver becomes vulnerable.

The injuries haven't been limited to the offense and defense. The Vols have also lost starting place kicker Alex Walls who entered the season as one of the most consistent kickers in Tennessee football history. Given his track record, it's fair to assume a healthy Walls could have made the difference against Georgia and could have won the Arkansas game in regulation play.

While reasons abound for Tennessee's fall from the top ten this season, even the most generous fan would have a hard time finding a plausible explanation for the Vols flop against Florida. This was a total meltdown in a pouring rain in front of packed house and national TV audience. Tennessee came down with a severe case of fumblitis and the defense made Florida QB Rex Grossman look like Larry Csonka in his prime. Since that defeat Grossman has looked more like Larry Fine of the Three Stooges and the Gators have gagged on teams they usually gulp down like raw oysters.

If the Florida setback is a more accurate augury of Tennessee's immediate future than the Vols comeback against No. 5 Georgia in Athens, this season has the potential to become the biggest disaster since 1988 when UT started 0-6 and finished 5-6.

Ironically, the Vols actually turned things around that season against Alabama. Although they lost that game 28-20, they discovered a defense behind newly appointed coordinator Doug Matthews who switched Tennessee1s alignment from the 5-2 to a 4-3 which energized the defense.

After the defeat to the Crimson Tide, the Vols would go on to win 12 straight games. It1s next loss was in game six of the 1989 campaign to Alabama. After that defeat, Tennessee would again put together another 12-game unbeaten streak which ended in game seven of the 1990 season against, guess who, Alabama in a 9-6 setback. The Crimson Tide would extend their mastery over Tennessee to seven in a row before the Vols managed a tie in 1993. That loss was later changed to a win after Alabama was forced to forfeit it's victories for NCAA violations (sound familiar).

In 1995, Tennessee earned its first victory over the Tide since 1986 and began its own seven game winning streak in a series that has been saturated by streaks. The Vols current run is the longest by any opponent in Alabama's highly successful football history.

This year's contest against the Crimson Tide is also shaping up as as make-or-break game. Not only is it the first of Tennessee1s second half of the season, it is also a great barometer for the remainder of the season.

How's that you say?

Well Alabama is the first of six straight games Tennessee plays verses teams it owns a current winning streak against. The Vols have won seven straight against Alabama, nine straight against South Carolina, one against Miami in their only meeting, and it cost the Hurricanes a national title in 1985. Tennessee has also taken two in a row over Mississippi State, 19 straight against Vanderbilt and 17 in a row against Kentucky. None of these six teams have beaten Tennessee since the 1994 when both Alabama and Mississippi state enjoyed victories over the Vols.

Add it up and it totals a mind-boggling 55 straight wins against the remaining opponents on Tennessee's schedule. That compares to a four-game winning streak Tennessee had over its first six opponents, after you subtract the two straight losses to Georgia going into Saturday's contest. The question becomes: if Tennessee struggled so mightily against teams it had greater incentive to beat and five of the contests were home games (if you count Wyoming in Nashville and why wouldn't you?), then how will UT play against teams thoroughly motivated to end the Vols domination? Plus half of those contests are on the road against SEC teams. It will require some serious soul searching over the next 11 days for the Volunteers to find the will needed to extricate themselves from their current dilemma. The talent is there to put together a good season, but the Vols will have to correct the mistakes that have plagued them all season and reach a level of consistency not yet shown.

In recent interviews, Tennessee players have talked about how their goals of winning an SEC and national championship have evaporated and how they are now playing for pride. In truth, that should be the first thing any team plays for because it is a goal that does not change and is not diminished by record or opponent.

As has often been the case through history, it all begins with Alabama in a game the Vols can1t afford to lose.

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