Once Cutcliffe left UT at the end of the 1998 national championship season to become head man at Ole Miss, the Vols' discipline clearly slipped during his absence (1999-2005). Just as clearly, it returned when he did. Now that he's gone again – this time to be head man at Duke – Tennessee's discipline appears to have slipped again.
Here are a few statistics to ponder:
- Vol quarterback Tee Martin completed 57.3 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns and only six interceptions under Cutcliffe in 1998. Martin completed just 54.1 percent with 12 TDs and 9 interceptions with Randy Sanders coordinating the offense in '99.
- Tennessee lost 10 fumbles under Cutcliffe in '98, 14 under Sanders in '99. Tennessee averaged 45.9 penalty yards per game under Cutcliffe in '98, 64.0 under Sanders in '99. (Obviously, this stat may be somewhat deceiving since many of those penalty yards were incurred by the UT defense.)
Statistically, the transition from Sanders back to Cutcliffe seven years later was just as noteworthy.
- Vol quarterbacks completed but 52.2 percent of their passes with 11 TDs and 13 interceptions under Sanders in '05. They completed 63.9 percent with 24 TDs and 11 interceptions under Cutcliffe in '06.
- Tennessee lost 14 fumbles and averaged 60.9 penalty yards per game under Sanders in '05. The Vols lost just nine fumbles and averaged 37.7 penalty yards per game under Cutcliffe in '06.
To date, Cutcliffe is proving a tough act to follow for first-year Vol offensive coordinator Dave Clawson, as well. In all fairness, Coach Cut had the overwhelming advantage of an experienced quarterback in '07, whereas Clawson has an inexperienced QB in '08.
Still, a comparison of 2007 and '08 offensive stats is a real eye-opener:
- Four-year starter Erik Ainge completed 62.6 percent of his passes with 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions under Cutcliffe in 2007. Four-game starter Jonathan Crompton has completed 56.0 of his passes with 2 touchdowns and 4 interceptions under Clawson thus far in '08.
- Tennessee lost a mere six fumbles in 14 games under Cutcliffe in '07 but already has lost three in three games under Clawson in '08. The Vols averaged 45.8 penalty yards per game under Cutcliffe in '07 but are averaging 71.7 penalty yards per game under Clawson in '08.
"We've been called for too many penalties," UT head coach Phillip Fulmer said this week, "especially in crucial situations."
As a former offensive lineman and offensive line coach, he is understandably concerned about the number of procedure penalties the Vols have incurred to date. Still, Fulmer said most of those occurred in Game 1 at UCLA because the Vols were adjusting to a new quarterback and a new cadence.
"Now we've got it down," the head man said. "We paid our dues ... and we've done very well with it since."
Fulmer also shrugs off the fact that a pair of crucial holding penalties nullified two of Tennessee biggest gains in last Saturday's loss to Florida.
"You could absolutely call holding on every down if you wanted to," he said. "Could we have done a couple of things a little bit better? Yes. Were they flagrant holding fouls? No. But they could've been called."
Ultimately, Cutcliffe's greatest strength is this: His offenses rarely stop themselves with undisciplined mistakes. That has not been the case to date with Clawson's 2008 offense.
Sophomore receiver Gerald Jones says the key to sustaining and finishing drives is simple.
"Just executing, everybody doing what they're supposed to do," he said. "If you have one person make a mistake, it can go back on the whole offense.
"If we stop shooting ourselves in the foot – stopping jumping offsides and holding – we won't have third-and-seventeens....
"It's ridiculous. We're grown men and we've got to stay a lot more disciplined."