Vols Will Be Haunted By One Critical Question?

Because the bottom line in football is spelled WINS, there's little room for discrimination, and so, the play of offenses, defenses, special teams and strategy are often lumped into a single homogenized entity called a season.

Eventually you even begin to refer to individual seasons as great, good, fair, bad, ugly, brutal etc., etc. Normally your description of a season will depend entirely upon your frame of reference. Viewed against the checkered early Johnny Majors era, an eight-win season would be described as good, if not great. However when viewed against Phillip Fulmer's best years (1995-98) when the Vols went 45-5, an 8-4 season seems forgettable, if not outright deplorable.

That grade is also diminished due to the high degree of expectation that accompanied the 2002 campaign. Those expectations were probably unjustifiably inflated because the Vols went 11-2 and came within a win of playing for the national championship in 2001, after falling off to 17-7 combined for 1999 and 2000. Once you add this season's 8-4 pre-bowl record into a four-year framework, Tennessee's 36-12 mark reflects what has been a definite decline from a 9-1 win-loss ratio for 1995-98 period to a 3-1 ratio for the 1999-2002 four-year span.

In all fairness, Tennessee had plenty of question marks coming into this season that fans and prognosticators alike were probably too willing to overlook in light of a pair of superb performances verses Florida and Michigan late last season. When you strip a team of such impact performers as "Big" John Henderson, "Sir" Albert Haynesworth, Will "Overdrive" Overstreet and Donte "Big Play" Stallworth, you can't expect to be the same team. Add the glut of injuries that gutted the team of experience and depth and you suddenly have big problems.

However, before the first injury ever occurred, it was clear Tennessee was missing something. The first hint came in the Orange and White Game when the defense dominated that spring day, even scoring the only touchdown of the contest.

The offensive problems continued into the fall as it took the Vols half of the season to get the running game untracked. There were problems at guard, problems at wide receiver, the lack of a second tight end, problems with the kicking game, penalty problems and turnover troubles. The loss of Kelley Washington was a major blow, but it did force the staff to concentrate on fixing the running game and it really didn't alter the record. The Vols were 2-2 with Washington in the lineup and 6-2 without him. He wouldn't have made the difference in either the Alabama or Miami defeats, just as he couldn't in the Florida and Georgia setbacks.

That brings us to the most disturbing trend in the disappointing 2002 season. In its four loses, the Vols simply weren't competitive — losing by an average of 16.25 points per contest. They hung in against Georgia in Athens and rallied with a couple of fourth-quarter touchdowns, but the fact remains that they never had the ball in the second half with a chance to take the lead.

All the thrills of the season were limited to Tennessee's six-overtime win against Arkansas. That equates to 12 exciting do-or-die possessions, but there wasn't another game that came down to a final dramatic drive or stop.

The lack of close finishes was one of the most distinguishing factors of 2002. The lack of competitiveness in four defeats was the most disappointing. Tennessee lost three regular games in 2000, but one was by four points to Florida on a controversial ending and another was by seven points in overtime at LSU. The Vols lost to Georgia 21-10 in a game which was closer than the score. When Tennessee dropped four games in 1994, three of the defeats were by four points or less. UT lost three games in 1993 by a total of nine points, while its three defeats in 1999 were by a total of 16 points.

To take it a step further: for a 10-year period between 1992 and 2001, the Vols only lost two regular season games by as much as 16 points (31-0 to Florida in 1994 and 62-37 to Florida in 1995). If you throw out those two anomalies, Tennessee's average margin of defeat for 16 regular season games during that 10-year period was 3 points. In fact, the total combined points for those 16 defeats is 60 points compared to 65 points for this season alone.

To make matters worse, three of Tennessee's losses were at home by a total of 60 points, or an average of 20 points per defeat. A successful program has to be competitive week in and week out, and it has to be able to defend its home turf. When the turf is Shield-Watkins Field that imperative becomes even more essential because of the strong impression it leaves with the most loyal members of your fan base.

Tennessee's late season rally was encouraging and the play of the defense in the face of so many injuries was, no doubt, inspiring, but the most haunting question that will follow the Vols into the 2003 campaign is: why did they fail to compete against three ranked opponents at home?

The road to recovery is incumbent upon each individual coach and player undergoing an inquest, and the team discovering answers.


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