Hitting on All Cylinders

Tennessee went through the first seven games of the season without a single decision closer than 12 points, but over the final five contests they won a trio of thrillers by a combined six points and, in the process, established their identity as the Cardiac Vols.

That's a noteworthy achievement for a team that wasn't mentally or physically tough in one-sided defeats at Cal, Florida and Alabama. In those games the Vols lacked intensity, consistency and focus. The secondary was inexperienced and the D-line was unproven. The running game wasn't well established and big plays were hard to come by. And with loses by 14, 39 and 24 points there were even questions about the team's heart.

However you could also see Tennessee had talent, a couple of solid kickers, a lot of team speed, a veteran quarterback and good overall depth. In victories over South Carolina, Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Kentucky the Vols parlayed those positives into production and upgraded their play at several positions — most notably the defensive line, wide receiver and secondary.

Clearly, Tennessee is a more competitive and viable club now than it has been at any point this season. But the real test will come Saturday against LSU. After the Tigers' home loss to Arkansas knocked them out of the BCS driver's seat they'll have something to prove in Atlanta.

Tennessee, which has lost its last four games played in the Georgia Dome since winning its second consecutive SEC championship in 1998, wants to prove it belongs in Atlanta.

Eric Ainge will also be looking for redemption after his disastrous first quarter against the Tigers in Baton Rouge in 2005, and last year's early exit with an ankle injury that the Vols would go on to lose in final minute of play. Arian Foster also missed that game while serving a suspension.

As impressive as Tennessee's turnaround has been it will be essentially forgotten if the Vols go to Atlanta and get thumped as it has in its four previous trips there, which include: the 2001 loss to LSU, 31-20, the 2002 loss to Maryland in the Peach Bowl, 30-3, the 2003 loss to Clemson in the same bowl game, 27-14, and the 2004 defeat to Auburn in the SEC title game 38-28.

Here's the top to bottom offensive ratings for the Tennessee-Arkansas game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are winning marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but problematical and won't be good enough to defeat a quality opponent. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. Each score will be followed by a brief comment. Further analysis to follow.

OFFENSIVE LINE (95) Tennessee's offensive line gets the highest mark for its play in the red zone (5 for 5) which was the difference once the game went into overtime. The compression of the defense puts more defenders around the ball the closer a team gets to pay dirt, making it tough to run the ball effectively. UT's line gave the receivers time to get into their routes and, once again, provided Eric Ainge with excellent protection. By the end of the game the Vols front five had taken a high physical toll on the Wildcats, who appeared devoid of any energy or ability to turn back UT's attack which compiled 510 yards and 52 points in 82 plays for an average of 6.3 yards per snap. Tennessee scored three touchdowns in four overtimes covering 90s yards with only 10 plays. It was also 2 of 2 on two-point conversion attempts. The only time UT failed to score was when Ainge threw an interception on the second play of the second OT. This unit has generally exceeded expectations and has made possible some very solid numbers. It would be hard to argue this isn't the best protection O-line in the nation. A gig for Josh McNeil's personal foul with approval of his physical play and competitive temperament.

RECEIVERS (92) Overall this was the best the receivers have played all year. Some outstanding catches beginning with Gerald Jones' layout in the end zone. Chris Brown made a spectacular effort on a completion that was later reversed. Lucas Taylor (6 catches, 103 yards, an 18-yard TD) is the real deal — heady, athletic, elusive and poised. He's becoming a legit big-play artist and he's been the glue that has held this group together. The accelerated progress of Gerald Jones adds another playmaker — a real natural, who should only get better with reps. Sophomore Quintin Hancock is also coming on strong. He caught a pair of TDs with a diving scoop and the 40-yard seam route he bust open for UT's fourth OT TD. Brad Cottam proved he can do more than block. He presents a big target and showed a little speed on his 59-yard catch. Tight end brother Jeff Cottam scored the Vols only second half touchdown on a 2-yard throw. It wasn't a huge day for Austin Rogers but the did make two huge catches including a 13-yard TD in the third OT followed by the game winning two-point conversion. A total of nine players caught 28 passes for 397 yards and seven touchdowns.

QUARTERBACK (90) Erik Ainge was the guy distributing the ball and he did a good job of spreading it around. He sold the play fake on Tennessee's opening play and delivered the ball on the money to an open Arian Foster who did the rest. The bootleg action was a nice strategic touch that came directly from film study and Ainge executed it successfully. For the most part it was a very good day for Ainge and the way it ended was the best of all. Fate was kind because it could have ended on a chip shot Wildcat field goal after the INT he threw in the second overtime. He had a couple of other interceptions as well as a 20-yard loss on a sack. There were times when he didn't see open receivers and he drew an intentional grounding call that was debatable. When the Cats could get pressure he struggled a bit, but by overtime their shallow defense began to tire and Ainge carved it up like a Thanksgiving turkey. The most impressive part of his performance — besides the big numbers — was his ability to bounce back from mistakes. He hasn't always done that but on Saturday he displayed resiliency and maturity under adversity.

RUNNING BACKS (89) Arian Foster accounts for this high grade and he gives the Vols a genuine dual threat. His 65-yard catch and run for a score on the first play of the game was as exciting as any start to a UT game since Peyton Manning hit Joey Kent on a short slant for a touchdown against Alabama on the first play of the Vols 41-14 victory over the Tide in 1995. Foster ran the ball for 118 yards in 27 carries and caught a game-high 9 passes for 98 yards. That's equivalent to 36 carries, and it started to show in overtime as he naturally slowed a bit. Undoubtedly, Foster has become a force for UT's offense and is one of college football's most underrated players. He may have been fresher down the stretch if the Vols had gotten more from Montario Hardesty than 26 yards in eight carries. The Vols didn't score any rushing touchdowns and had a long run of 22 yards. Foster is doing his part but UT needs other tailbacks to start producing consistently. They need a back to provide a change of pace from Foster's power style. That's where the opportunities for big runs will be realized. It's a role LaMarcus Coker was expected to fill.

OVERALL (92) When you play as a team you have success and get high marks across the board. That's probably because it all has to work together. One player can let down and a unit malfunctions and the effects reverberate throughout the team. Tennessee's offense played like a team and posted solid marks in every category.

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