The crushing disappointment felt by Vols fans in the wake of the 2002 season was the result of lofty expectations, expectations that were fueled by Phillip Fulmer and his coaching staff. In the preseason polls, Tennessee was ranked #4, and almost every observer had tabbed the Vols as a bonafide national championship contender. Junior QB Casey Clausen, and star pass-catchers Kelley Washington and Jason Witten, returned to lead the Vols. In 2001, UT had stormed into The Swamp and vanquished mighty Florida in Gainesville for the first time in 30 years. Only an inexplicable lack of focus in the second half of the SEC Championship Game had kept the Vols from playing Miami for the 2001 National Championship at the Rose Bowl; Tennessee had taken out its frustrations on overmatched Michigan at the Citrus Bowl, clobbering the Wolverines 45-17.
The stage was set for success in 2002. But things didn't work out that way. What went wrong?
One thing that DIDN'T go wrong in 2002 was the performance of John Chavis's defensive troops, particularly Larry Slade's secondary. Tennessee's defense was one of the nation's toughest, allowing only 285 yards per game, ranking 5th in the NCAA in Total Defense. The Vols were 13th in the nation in Total Defense in 2001, allowing 304 yards per game. The major improvement over 2001 was Pass Defense. In '01, UT's pass defense (ranked #58 in the NCAA) allowed 218 passing yards per game, with opponents tossing 17 TD passes. But Slade's charges, a veteran group in 2002 that had bought into zone coverage, held opponents to 156 passing yards per game, allowing only 9 TD passes, to rank 4th in the nation.
The defense was not a major contributor to any of the Vols' five losses; in fact, without UT's stout "D", the team probably wouldn't have finished with a winning record. The defense did allow a 92-yard TD pass against Arkansas that tied the game and sent it into OT, with the Vols eventually prevailing. But defense wasn't the problem in 2002.
No, the majority of the blame for the disappointing '02 season falls squarely on the shoulders of the offense, and the offensive coaching staff. After UT's offense looked unstoppable in the Citrus Bowl against Michigan, scoring 45 points and rolling up more than 500 yards, there was plenty of optimism for the '02 season.
But in reality, things began to fall apart immediately after the Citrus Bowl. Junior WR Donte Stallworth declared for the NFL; then, he "un-declared" for the NFL. Eventually the NCAA ruled that his eligibility had been forfeited, and he played for the New Orleans Saints in 2002, not the Tennessee Vols. In Stallworth, UT lost a weapon who scored 11 TDs in only 9 games in '01. But, no problem...UT still had WR Kelley Washington returning, named the #1 "best player in college football" by ESPN The Magazine. The Vols also had TE Jason Witten, who had caught 28 passes and scored 2 TDs in 2001. Travis Stephens, after setting the all-time single-season individual rushing record at UT with 1464 yards, had graduated. But optimism was high-after all, the Vols had three sophomore TBs who had been High School Parade All-Americans: Cedric Houston, Jabari Davis, and Derrick Tinsley. Surely one of them, or all of them by committee, would be as good or better than Stephens. Right? RIGHT?
Wrong. Washington didn't play in the first two games. Perhaps the Vol coaches should have been concerned when the offense could muster only 188 rushing yards against pathetic Wyoming in the season opener. In game #2, against MTSU, the offense scored only 17 points, missing one FG and having another one blocked. Still, the problems were glossed over, and the Vols were favored to beat Florida at Neyland. The Gators, with no Spurrier on the sideline and coming off a humiliating defeat at the hands of Miami, looked doomed, as ESPN GameDay's Corso donned a coonskin cap. A UT victory was all but assured.
Instead, Tennessee self-destructed during a torrential rainstorm in the final moments of the second quarter. At one point, the Vols fumbled on four consecutive plays. They had eight fumbles altogether. UT also hurt their cause with penalties, 11 of them in all. There were two penalties for having too many men on the field, one of which kept a UF scoring drive alive. At halftime it was Gators 24, Vols 0.
When Kelley Washington, finally playing, danced after making a catch for a first down in the third quarter, no one was amused...especially not his teammates. UT was beaten soundly, 30-13. That week, there was a team meeting to clear the air.
When Washington led the Vols to a come-from-behind victory over Rutgers the following week, there was little celebration. And no one could have predicted that Washington's 7-catch, 197-yard effort against the Scarlet Knights would be his last spectacular game as a Vol.
Facing a must-win home game against Arkansas on Oct 5, the 10th-ranked Vols built a 17-3 lead, but couldn't hold it. An ill-advised Clausen pass was intercepted at midfield, and the Razorbacks scored to cut the lead to 17-10. In the 4th quarter, the Razorbacks, who had managed little against the UT defense all night, found themselves backed up to their own 8-yard line. QB Matt Jones sidestepped a tackle, and found WR Richard Smith up the sideline for a 92-yard TD. CB Jabari Greer, who was beaten on the play, lost his starting job after the game, and didn't regain it until the Vandy game-five games later--when the secondary was shuffled to make up for the loss of FS Rashad Baker. In a marathon 6 OT game, Tennessee held on to win 41-38. UT climbed to 9th in the Coaches' Poll, and got set to clash with Georgia, undefeated and ranked #6.
The week leading up to the Georgia game, Tennessee got more bad news: Casey Clausen had suffered a cracked clavicle against Arkansas and was doubtful for Georgia. Backup QB C.J. Leak, whose knee had been destroyed in 2000 when he played for Wake Forest, would get the start. The coaches didn't ask Leak to do much. On Tennessee's first two possessions, he handed off on 1st and 2nd down, then failed to throw the ball on called pass plays on 3rd down. Leak was pulled after only two series and true freshman James Banks was inserted at QB. With the Vols posing no threat whatsoever offensively, Georgia built an 18-0 lead. Banks did show some flashes in the second half, completing 10 of 15 passes on the day, including a TD toss to Derrick Tinsley. Tinsley also threw for a TD on a halfback pass to Jason Witten. But the Vols lost again, 18-13. Their AP ranking plummeted to #16. It would soon go lower.
And that week, the Vols received the worst news of all...Kelley Washington had suffered an injury to his head and neck, when he fell awkwardly at the end of a 45-yard catch-and-run against Georgia. No one knew it then, but KW had played his last game in orange.
UT now had two weeks to lick the wounds and prepare for the annual showdown with Alabama. Casey Clausen, while hobbled, would play in the game. Tennessee had not lost to Alabama since 1994, and "the streak", coupled with Tennessee's perceived role in the Tide's NCAA troubles, had Bama fans chomping at the bit for a victory. They weren't disappointed. Early in the game, Clausen's pass to Derrick Tinsley, coming out of the backfield, was dropped; though replays seemed to indicate otherwise, the officials ruled it a backwards pass, and thus a fumble. Bama DB Tony Dixon scooped up the loose ball and returned it for a 66-yard TD. It was all downhill from that point. Bama capitalized on three Clausen interceptions--one in the endzone that snuffed a UT scoring threat, and two that set Bama up for easy scores--to rout Tennessee 34-14. Amazingly, UT was still ranked (#25) by the AP, heading into the South Carolina game at Columbia.
Cedric Houston, who had not started at TB since the Florida game after suffering a thigh bruise, then a dislocated thumb, came off the bench at USC to have a big day toting the football. He tallied 108 yards on 30 carries, including 64 yards on a game-defining 4th quarter drive, to lead Tennessee to an 18-10 win. Jabari Davis pitched in with 86 yards on only 10 carries against the Gamecocks. Was the ship righted, just in time for the Vols to come up with a big victory, at home, the next week against defending national champ Miami?
Hardly. The Vols started off with a bang when Houston broke free for a 74-yard gain on UT's second offensive play. But Miami's defense stiffened, forcing the Vols to kick a short FG. It was UT's only 3 points in a humiliating, methodical beating, as Miami won 26-3. Miami RB Willis McGahee had the best day of any opposing RB in 2002, gashing the Vol defense for 154 yards rushing. UT was now 5-4 after 9 games, and fell out of all the rankings, for good.
UT's season was now a full-blown disaster. The players had two choices: practice and play hard, and continue to improve; or throw in the towel. To their credit, it seems they chose the latter. It helped, though, that the three teams remaining on Tennessee's regular-season schedule weren't very good teams. James Banks started at QB against Mississippi State at Starkville. UT managed to win, 35-17, while running a scaled-back offense. Banks threw only 8 passes on the day, completing 3 of them, with one TD.
Although UT was clearly not a good team, having fallen far short of expectations, the Vols did wallop Vandy and Kentucky on successive Saturdays, by the identical score of 24-0 in each game. Houston had 140 yards rushing against Vandy, while Derrick Tinsley snagged two TD passes against Kentucky. The defense was stellar, pitching 8 quarters of shutout football.
When the Vols beat Miss St, Vandy and Kentucky to improve to 8-4, there was talk of a New Years Day bowl game. But Florida's loss to FSU dropped the Gators to the Outback Bowl, and Tennessee had to settle for a Peach Bowl date against ACC representative Maryland.
The Vols advertised themselves as rested, healed up, and healthy, ready for the chance to beat Maryland and end the season on a high note. Once again, the fans' expectations were built up, only to come crashing down. The Vols were humiliated by the Terps. Down to third-stringers at DT, one of which wasn't on scholarship, Maryland's defense held the Vols to 55 yards rushing. Casey Clausen threw for 242 yards, but had a major miscue, throwing an INT that Maryland's Curome Cox returned for a TD. Tennessee didn't score a TD in the 30-3 blowout loss. With just minutes left in the 4th quarter, UT faced 4th down at midfield, trailing 27-3. The Vols punted. Maryland returned the punt 70 yards, allowing them to tack on a final "salt-in-the-wound" field goal.
The fans' lone apparent consolation, in the wake of the 2002 season, was that the poor performance by the offense would almost certainly lead to a shakeup of the offensive coaching staff. Right?
Once again, wrong. Line coach Mike Barry did resign. Just as he had a year earlier (he stayed when Dennis O'Leary, who wanted him at Notre Dame, was disgraced in the "doctored resume" scandal). Coach Fulmer hired Greg Adkins from Troy State, a former Jim Donnan assistant at Georgia. And that was the big shakeup. Apparently, the Vol headman doesn't believe that significant staff changes are required...his offensive guys just had an "off year." In about six months, we'll find out if Coach Fulmer was right.