From the very beginning, the offensive line was considered the strength of a very strong Tennessee team that figured to challenge for the SEC and nation titles. If the Vols were to obtain such heights the front five would have to carry the load early, allowing a rebuilt defensive line time to find itself, a green group of running backs time to ripen and an unproven receiver corps the opportunity to prove itself.
It would also have to protect Tennessee's trigger man who had no established backup, and help reenergize a running game that ranked a uncharacteristic fifth in the SEC in 2001.
As the Vols rolled to a 3-0 start, it was easy to overlook problems that should have set off alarms from game one against Wyoming, when Casey Clausen was flushed from the pocket and forced to run seven times. As the competition increased so did the pressure, and the running game did nothing to make matters better.
Soon a potentially sizzling, sleek, low-slung offense was sputtering like a high-octane engine running on cheap gasoline. Toss in a couple of blown tires, a thrown rod, a leaky radiator, a cracked windshield, the loss of an experienced driver and UT's offense was just barely functional.
Tennessee's failure to score more than 18 points in regulation play of any of its five SEC games underscored the Vols offensive ineptitude, and set a new low-water mark for point production in the ten-year Phillip Fulmer era.
Fulmer vowed to become more involved in the offense after the 34-14 defeat to Alabama — in which the Vols committed six turnovers — and Tennessee responded with their best ground game of the season, 241 yards at South Carolina.
UT went from best to worst with 218 TOTAL yards last week against Miami, and the offensive line was reshuffled to the deck and came up with the same five who started the season — Scott Wells, Will Ofenheusle, Jason Respert, Anthony Herrera and Michael Munoz. No doubt injuries to Chavis Smith, Respert, Herrera and Munoz have stunted the O-line's development, but all hands should be available for Saturday. Offseason surgeries will be required by at least two starters from this group and, still, it represents Tennessee's best chance to get untracked and finish the season strong.
That's important not just for this season but also next when nine of Tennessee's top 10 offensive linemen return. The Vols need to find a combination that clicks and build some confidence and continuity. A good finish will mean a bowl game which equates to another three weeks of practice; an added opportunity to refine the line and build momentum toward next season.
It's also an opportunity for Tennessee's staff to evaluate the returning personnel and to consider what offense gives UT the best chance to win. When things go this bad with an offensive line that has talent this good, you have to consider how the system overall is working. Add the fact UT has three coaches — Fulmer, Mike Barry and Jimmy Ray Stephens — with outstanding reputations for developing linemen and suspicion grows.
Tennessee's rushing totals have been in steady decline since 1998 in terms of average yards per game, yards per attempt and touchdowns per season. When you look at the talent that has passed through UT's doors during that span, it's enough to make you wonder.
It's true that running in the SEC has become more difficult in general as more and more defenses have been customized to stop the run and force the pass. But it's nothing like the drop-off Tennessee has experienced going from 211.3 yards per game in 1998 to 191.3 in 1999, to 162.8 in 2000 to 154.1 in 2001 to 142.6 yards per game in 2002. That's nearly a 33 percent drop-off over five years.
Likewise rushing touchdowns have tumbled; after a rise from 27 TDs scored on the ground in 1998 to to 30 in 1999, they have dropped to 20 in 2000, 19 in 2001 and 11 this season. If the Vols were to average three rushing touchdowns per game for the remainder of the season, it would still be 10 fewer than the 1999 team scored in one less game. That would represent a 33 percent fall off. Since Tennessee hasn't scored three touchdowns of any kind in regulation play of any SEC game this season that's highly unlikely. UT is currently on paced to score four which would be 15 for a drastic drop of 50 percent.
Tennessee has essentially used the same offensive system for 15 years and now Ole Miss has run UT's system four seasons under David Cutcliffe. Since both offenses are struggling, despite having the top two QBs in the league, you have to wonder if defensive coordinators are getting too good a read through in-depth data on tendencies, sets and audibles.
The Vols under Fulmer are a team that is designed and built to be successful running the football. The formula for success has been to pound the rock, wear down the defense, rest your stop troops, gain field position and control the football, especially in the fourth quarter.
The Vols performance in the fourth quarter of a long season should shed a lot of light on the situation and give Tennessee's staff a good gauge on what adjustments need to be made for the future.
That drama, and a chance to post a 9-4 season, are reason enough to stay tuned to Jefferson Pilot.