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Vols Suffer Through Depressing Three Week Stretch
By Brian Estes
There’s no disputing the past three weeks have been depressing for any University of Tennessee football fan. The matchups against Alabama and LSU have been near mirror images of each other: the Vols have been blown away nearly immediately after halftime following a well fought and close first half. At this point I can no longer buy the excuse that it’s because of lack of depth and getting worn down. The team should not be tired coming straight out of the locker room at halftime. I think the Vols are getting outcoached in second halves. After all, they’ve been able to hang with Bama in the first half the past two years, and have also had good first halves against power teams like Oregon and LSU. If they couldn’t match up with these teams at all, why wouldn’t the slaughter start with the opening kickoff?
The real story of this season is that very little progress will be seen from in Dooley’s second year. Tennessee’s two best players, Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter, both went down with injuries. Georgia was the easiest potential quality win on the schedule, but that game ended with a second half thud and a broken thumb for Bray. LSU and Bama proved to be two automatic losses that everyone expected they were. The rushing game has improved over the past two games, with the Vols putting up run totals that no one expected against two of the best defenses in the country. What has been less fortunate is quarterback play for the Vols. Throughout his tenure with the Vols, Matt Sims has consistently been inaccurate, often throwing balls high and away from his receivers or just plain out of their radius. He doesn’t inspire any confidence on the offense, as was demonstrated when the Vols recorded zero first downs against the Tide in the second half. And in worst case scenario, he throws it directly to the other team. That the Vols had to burn Justin Worley’s redshirt. But in a season like this, it’s just one more straw upon the camel’s already broken back.
Looking ahead, the Vols face the potential of a winless October for the second straight year. The South Carolina Gamecocks are something of an enigma, however. Their hopes of reaching the SEC Title Game for the second consecutive year are still alive and well; Georgia still has to navigate past Auburn and Florida. But they aren’t quite the same team without Marcus Lattimore, and figure to have at least another loss or two in them. Last year Tennessee went on the road against one of the best Gamecock teams in recent memory and played a competitive game, mounting a second half comeback to tie the game at 24-24 before fading late in the fourth. Can you remember the last time the Gamecocks won at Tennessee? Me neither. And the team Carolina brings to Neyland is somewhat lesser quality team to last year’s squad, but the big question is - has Tennessee also regressed?
The big news from earlier in the week was that Dooley’s staff had finally decided to stick the fork in Matt Simms and place their freshman QB Worley behind center for his first college start ever vs. South Carolina. Tennessee is no stranger to frosh QBs – recall Erik Ainge and Brent Schaffer in 2004, and Bray last year. However only two of those three were successful, and both Ainge and Bray were eased into action. Oddly enough, it will be the battle of the freshman quarterbacks Saturday, as Connor Shaw takes the reins for South Carolina.
How ironic would it be if the first major win for Derek Dooley was delivered not by golden boy Tyler Bray but by an unknown true freshman who started the season as a redshirt? Tennessee’s defense has looked okay for most of the season, so if they can continue to work the running game and get a productive day from Worley Tennessee has a great shot. But the defense for South Carolina is no laughing matter. They lead the SEC with 24 forced turnovers, and are also notorious for pressuring the QB with 15 sacks this season. On offense, Shaw has more experience, has shown great poise, and also has Alshon Jeffery to throw to. The Vols keep it close, but the Gamecocks will be squawking in the end.
No Music City Miracle Needed As UT Downs Buffalo
By Brian Estes
Not much to report on here. As expected, the Volunteers rolled to their third win by overwhelming Buffalo. Tennessee was absolutely dominant offensively, scoring on each of their first three possessions and rolling to 31-7 lead at the half. And it’s not just that they scored, it’s the way they scored that stood out; ripping off long chunks of yardage like the defense wasn’t even there. It led to 531 yards all told for the Volunteer offense, and for once the run game was somewhat formidable. Tauren Poole ran for 101 yards on 17 carries, but most impressively he averaged 5.9 yards per carry.
After losing star receiver Justin Hunter against Florida two weeks ago, the Vols had been waiting to see who would step up to replace him. And without surprise, it was Hunter’s partner in crime, Da’Rick Rogers, who did most of the damage against Buffalo. Rogers finished with 180 yards and two scores, averaging 25.7 yards per catch.
But Tennessee had some mistakes they need to tighten up on. Early in the game they gave Buffalo a chance to make it a game when Bulls QB Chazz Anderson ran right up the middle and went untouched for a 68 yard touchdown that made it 14-7. The Vols fumbled the ensuing kickoff and gave Buffalo a short field. This gave the Bulls an excellent chance to swing the momentum their way and possibly plunge Tennessee into a dogfight, but the Vols remained in command after Peter Fardon’s 44 yard field goal try harmlessly fluttered to the ground.
Those mistakes won’t cost them against Buffalo, but now the Vols hit the main slate of SEC competition. It’s time to fix those early season mistakes. The course of the entire season hangs in the balance.
Vols Go From Being “Hunter” To Hunted
By Brian Estes
Dear Tennessee Volunteers:
Sorry, but it’s just not working out.
In the beginning I felt we had a great connection. We were newcomers to the SEC, and were both looking to establish a traditional rivalry. We both needed someone to measure ourselves against. Sure, we’ve had our fights and scuffles, but we shared some exhilarating experiences together.
Sparks flew in 2006 when we came from behind to beat you on a last second touchdown. And I’ll never forget what you taught me when you dealt me back to back losses in the swamp.
But lately you just haven’t been there for me. Our last few dates I’ve been running all up and down the field, and you’re not keeping up. You’re no longer meeting my needs.
So I’m writing to tell you I’ve met someone new. Alabama, is coming over in a couple of weeks to spank me good, and I’ve also been giving the eye to LSU, Auburn, and even South Carolina.
I hope you understand, and I wish you the best. But baby, it’s over.
The Florida-Tennessee Rivalry
P.S. Oh, and that DVD player I borrowed? You’re not getting it back. Sorry.
From the perspective of a Gator fan, it’s hard to be surprised if the current state of the UT-UF rivalry reads like a Dear John letter. From UT’s side, it probably plays out more like a suicide note.
The latest chapter in this series did little to change that.
The loss of Justin Hunter to a knee sprain early in the 1st quarter cannot be overstated. He is irreplaceable to the Tennessee offense. But the story of this game is going to be Chris Rainey. Tennessee had no answer for this dude whatsoever.
Rainey dominated the Vols on the ground (108 rushing yards), through the air (104 receiving yards), and even by sea. Okay maybe not by sea, but he did sink Tennessee’s battleship by scoring on an 83 yard reception that made the score 30-7 and effectively ended any chance the Vols had at making a game of it.
He also had a punt block, which further demoralized the Vols in the first half.
It’s hard to not feel like Tennessee was exposed here. I feel like we’ve seen everything we’re going to see from the run game this year. I honestly can’t pinpoint who deserves more blame --Tauren Poole or the front line. There haven’t been many holes for Poole, but he can’t seem to hit them when they’re there.
All things considered, Tyler Bray was okay, but far from great. He made several errant throws straight to Florida defenders, and likely would have ended up with 5+ interceptions had Florida’s secondary not been laughably bad. The Gators racked up six pass interference penalties and one count of defensive holding in an effort to keep Vol receivers from running right past them.
Defensively Tennessee played better than I expected. They did well to hold Florida to field goals in the first half, but didn’t really play well enough in the early going to give the team a serious shot.
The loss of Hunter no doubt changed the game plan for both teams, and changed the complexion of the entire game. Will it alter the course of Tennessee’s season? It’s tough to say, but it’s hard not to feel down after getting blown out by your rivals when it looked like Tennessee had a great chance to win.
Offense Leaves Its Mark In Win Over Cincinnati
By Brian Estes
The Vols are now just a week away from a monumental showdown with Flordia.
In the past several matchups, the daunting Gators defense has been more than enough to doom Tennessee. They’d be wise to keep bringing that tenacity on defense. This year it looks like they’re really going to need it.
Tyler Bray’s masterful performance in Tennessee’s 45-23 win over Cincinnati is just more evidence that the sophomore QB is well on his way to elite status in the SEC. The Bearcats never brought much pressure against Bray as he threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns on 34 of 41 passing.
Recievers Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter have continued to impress, as the duo each hauled in 10 passes for over 100 yards.
The running game continued to be a bit shaky. Tauren Poole 101 yards on 21 carries and helped to open things up offensively later in the game, but had a hard time finding open lanes early on.
The defense was a mixed bag, especially early on. Cincinnati’s Isaiah Pead broke a 65 yard run on the opening drive of the game to put the Bearcats up 7-0. Tennessee’s front line, got whipped, the safeties were caught biting toward the weakside, and a missed tackle by #9 was all Pead needed to break the big play.
Pead finished with 155 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.
But the defense was also responsible for a pair of big fourth down stops that helped shift the momentum of the game. On two separate occasions Cincinnati went for it on fourth down in short yardage situations and both times were stuffed. The scowl on the face of Bearcats Coach Butch Jones was absolutely priceless after Tennessee made its second fourth down stop of the day.
Once Tennessee went ahead Cincinnati was forced to abandon the run game and became very one dimensional, which doubtless made it much easier on the defense.
The running game continued to be a bit shaky. Tauren Poole 101 yards on 21 carries and helped to open things up offensively later in the game, but had a hard time finding open lanes early on.
It all adds up to a very dangerous package that’s going to be rolling into Gainsville this week. We know Bray is good, but this game should give us a great idea of exactly how good he is. He has yet to face a truly good defense in his career. Florida will be the first, but far from the last.
On the offensive side of the ball, Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps have been shredding defenses like confetti. UT’s defense will have to play four quarters of airtight defense and the front line will have to create holes for the running game if they expect to get out of the swamp with a W.
Season Opener Leaves Plenty Of Room For Improvement
By Brian Estes
Tennessee’s opening statement presents itself as something more of a question.
On paper they did everything they were supposed to do in rolling Montana 42-16. The passing game shined, as QB Tyler Bray delivered another strong performance with a 293 yard passing day that included three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Bray seemed to settle on Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers as his top targets, as the duo finished with 146 and 100 yards respectively, and both pulled in a touchdown catch.
The defense was solid, giving up only two scores and forcing three turnovers.
However, Tennessee made its share of miscues. They gave up a safety, allowed a touchdown on a blown coverage, and committed a slew of fumbles which thankfully didn’t hurt the Vols too much against the lowly Grizzlies.
The bad news is they won’t have much time to fix their issues.
The Cincinnati Bearcats come calling next week in a game that many people predicted as an easy win for the Vols. But I’m not so sure.
In many ways the Bearcats are very similar to Tennessee. Both programs have had great success in the past but both are coming off lackluster seasons and are hungry to turn things around. Cincinnati was in the mix for a BCS National Championship bid in 2009, before falling to 4-8 last year.
Bearcat QB Zach Collaros has established himself as one of the top passers the Big East and didn’t have any issues in his 2011 debut, as he tossed for four touchdowns in a 72-10 win over Austin Peay. RB Isaiah Pead was equally vicious, running for four more touchdowns and averaged 12.4 yards a carry, finishing with 87 yards. The Govenors finished with only 287 yards of offense.
Yes, Austin Peay is one of the worst teams in the nation, but Cincinnati is much better than they’ve been given credit for. Just because they’re from the Big East doesn’t mean they won’t be beast when they come to Neyland Stadium.
I’m going to mark the Vols down as a prohibitive underdog in this game; don’t be shocked if the Vols lose. Collaros and Pead present serious matchup problems for this Big Orange defense. That unit will have to come up huge if the Vols expect to remain undefeated.
Vols Have Reason For Cautious Optimism In 2011
By Brian Estes
Just like that, it's time to kick open the hinges on a brand new season of Tennessee Volunteer football. What an offseason it's been!. The NCAA sanction cloud has finally drifted away from Knoxville, and the verdict was pretty lenient with former hoops coach Bruce Pearl taking most of the heat. The university is looking for a new AD after Mike Hamilton stepped down in the heat of said Pearl fiasco.
And most recently, all-star safety Janzen Jackson was recently kicked off the team for repeated rules violations. It was the right call, but on a less than stellar defense, the loss of a player like Jackson likely will cost the Vols at least one game they would have won with him on the field.
How do this year's Vols squad stack up? Will they be able to make forward progress and erase the stench of 2010? By all accounts Tennessee should be improved this year. But in the SEC, being able to demonstrate a great deal of upward mobility is something that will still likely remain out of reach this year.
Let's start with the offense, where are there are quite a few bright points. The front line was a major liability last year, but by all accounts that unit is expected to be one of the major strengths this season after returning practically everyone. The receiving corps will be positively beastly this year, with phenom Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers gaining a year of experience under their belts.
In the backfield, senior Tauren Poole returns with a wealth of experience and will provide solid leadership for the Vols. He won't be a first-tier SEC back like Marcus Lattimore or Knile Davis, but he runs hard and will get Tennessee their yards on the ground. A key issue offensively will be to do a better job of mixing the run with the pass, something UT struggled with as the 2010 season wore on.
And lastly, there is sophomore QB Tyler Bray who lit Neyland on fire with five consecutive incredible passing performances to end 2010. Bray struggled with interceptions last year and still needs polish. But he has the greatest potential of any UT quarterback since Casey Clausen, easily.
The real problem will be the defense and lack of depth. There are some talented players -- DT Malik Jackson, LB Herman Lathers, and Prentiss Wagner and Marsalis Teague in the secondary -- but there are many new faces and question marks on defense. The secondary was one of the most maligned units and will need to step it up this year. Fortunately it appears to be one of the most talented units on the roster in 2011.
Lack of depth was a key issue last year, and defensively the Vols get very thin behind the starting lineup. Defense is the key to winning games in this league, and the Vols aren't where they need to be right now.
Tennessee should make enough strides to pull at least one or two upsets this year, but it's tough to see where. Florida could be dysfunctional with a new coaching staff and system, but are still more talented than the Volunteers.
Georgia is widely expected to make a major turnaround this year. And the Gamecocks have the three headed monster of Alshon Jeffery, Marcus Lattimore, and Stephen Garcia. If that isn't enough, the defense is also looking fierce.
LSU is a wildcard. Even in their best years, Tennessee always plays the Tigers to the wire. But this is a team likely to be in total disarray in leiu of starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson's arrest on felony battery charges. Jefferson stand accused allegedly kicking a man in the face during a bar fight. Reserve LB Josuha Johns was arrested on the same charge, and both have been suspended indefinitely.
QB Jarrett Lee is more than capable of steering the ship, but keeping the team on course may be Les Miles's biggest challenge yet.
However, it all starts with the Tennessee's opening opponent, the Montana Grizzlies. Last season saw the Montana Grizzlies miss the FCS playoffs for the first time since 1992, a fact which will surely have the Grizz fired up for 2011. Montana returns a veteran linebacker unit that should be a team strength for the coming season. Still, this opener should play out about the same as the UT-Martin and Western Kentucky games the past couple years.
We'd all like to see Tennessee reclaim its place at the top of the SEC, but rebuilding projects take time. The only way to rebuild a team much faster than this is to pay a transfer quarterback to come in and win national championships for you, which some schools do. Be advised this year could be every bit as bad as 2010. However, I see UT pulling an upset somewhere and coming in with a seven win regular season.
Victory Over Wildcats Wraps Up Bowl Bid For Vols
By Brian Estes
There’s no question that the 2010 Vols are nowhere near the best team in school history.
But maybe now they’ve proven that they aren’t the worst team either.
Headed into October, the Vols were 2-6 and on pace to set a school record for most losses in a single season. Many of their defeats they suffered in blowout fashion. But the Vols made an unprecedented undefeated run through November to even their record and attain bowl eligibility. Their latest victim? The Kentucky Wildcats, who have now suffered through 26 consecutive years of futility against Tennessee.
The Wildcats, as they have before, certainly had their chances to knock off the hated Vols. A fumble at the goal line potentially took a touchdown off the board for the Cats. They also intercepted Tyler Bray in the endzone, but were unable to establish any positive momentum.
Despite tossing two interceptions, Bray was once again the hero for the Vols. He sliced through the Wildcat defense for 354 yards and two touchdowns, continually setting the Vols up in scoring position with his long bombs. It was a good thing that Bray was effective, because the run was nowhere near as potent. Tauren Poole led the Vols with 59 yards and touchdown.
The Wildcats came out like lightning in a bottle, staking themselves out to a 7-0 lead before falling behind 14-7. After tying the game, Kentucky’s Mychal Bailey picked off Bray in the endzone. At this point I honestly thought UK was going to take control of the game.
But it turned out to be the same old story for Kentucky.
With the win, the Vols now stand at 6-6, and have earned a bid to the Music City Bowl. Their opponent will be a team the school paid $750,000 to not have to play.
Sometimes it seems you just can’t escape fate.
The North Carolina Tarheels were originally on the schedule for 2011-2012. But Tennessee bought them out to remove them from the schedule. So now they’ll face them in the Music City Bowl instead.
If the Vols want to eke out a winning season in Coach Derek Dooley’s first year, they’ll have a tall task in front of them. The Tar Heels are a far cry from the Vanderbilts and Memphises that Tennessee beat up in the regular season. UNC Quarterback T.J. Yates has been impressive, throwing for 3184 yards and 18 touchdowns against eight interceptions. His top target has been Dwight Jones, who has hauled in 57 receptions for 895 yards and four touchdowns.
However, the Tar Heels have been depleted this year after seeing several players receive suspensions in lieu of an NCAA investigation at the beginning of the season. So while North Carolina will be a tough team, they certainly are beatable.
For Tennessee, the extra bowl practice will be invaluable for recruiting and player development. The fact that the Volunteers’ bowl game is being played within Tennessee borders seems to be important to Coach Derek Dooley, who is trying to foster connections within the state. If his team is able to complete their improbable comeback by winning the Music City Bowl, it will place the perfect cherry on top of totally wild season.
Lethargic Effort Comes At The Wrong Time For Vols
By Brian Estes
Saturday’s Tennessee-Vanderbilt matchup was a heated affair.
Tennessee and Vanderbilt treated us to a matchup of West Side Story proportions. That’s right folks, we hadn’t seen anything this intense since the Jets took on the Sharks.
I’m surprised somebody didn’t throw a chair on the field during the game.
But in the end, it was the Volunteers who were feeling pretty and witty and gay after dispatching their instate rival 24-10.
The Vols might have wished they could bring the curtain down on this one early. Tennessee was expecting to blow past the reeling Commodores but Vanderbilt gave them everything they could handle.
A major part of the problem was that wunderkind quarterback Tyler Bray didn’t come through with the same type of prolific production we saw out of him the past two weeks. He did manage 232 yards and and pair of touchdowns, but also threw two interceptions.
That alone would probably get Tennessee beat against quality competition.
The offense showed signs of life in the first half as the Vols raced to a 14-0 lead. But a putrid offensive showing after halftime allowed the lifeless Commodores to hang around and make a game of it.
Casey Hayward, one of the Vanderbilt’s few star players, came up big with an interception as Tennessee was driving for more. The effort put on by the Commodore’s defense was good enough to get them the win, but was once again let down by one of the weakest offenses in the nation.
Quarterback Larry Smith was anemic, throwing for just 76 yards on 11 of 27 passing. That effort got him pulled for backup Jared Funk. Commodore special teams were also dreadful with three missed field goals.
Things got interesting late in the fourth. Funk helped lift Vandy out of their funk by tossing a 16 yard touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews that cut the Volunteer lead to 17-10. It was shaping up to be the worst possible scenario for Tennessee.
But fortunately for the Vols, they were able to recover the onside kickoff. Tauren Poole then sealed the deal on the ensuing possession with a 24 yard touchdown run that left him just shy of the century mark.
The Volunteers were able to extend their win streak and keep their bowl chances alive, but a mediocre performance against a bad football team was not what they needed in terms of momentum.
The Wildcat team they play this week is loaded with athletes. Randal Cobb has been a major player, hauling in 839 receiving yards and seven touchdown passes, while Mike Hartline has been solid from behind center.
If the Vols are going to extend their 25 year win streak against Kentucky, the key will be avoiding turnovers.
But if there’s one thing that plays into Tennessee’s hands, it’s that they are the team that has more to play for. Kentucky has already locked up a bowl bid, while the Vols are fighting to keep their season alive.
This could be the one game that defines Tennessee’s season.
Turnovers Propel Tennessee To Blowout Victory
By Brian Estes
The Vols had their back against the wall facing the Ole Miss Rebels. But the Vols moved one step closer to bowl eligibility, thanks to a major league performance from Tyler Bray and the defense.
One more defeat would push the Vols out of bowl eligibility, but Tennessee dismantled Ole Miss 52-14 and proved that maybe the program isn’t as downtrodden as we’d been led to believe over the past nine weeks.
Freshman receiver Justin Hunter continued to impress with another 100 yard game, and with Bray getting time in the pocket, the touchdown passes were falling like raindrops. Bray finished with 323 yards passing and three TDs.
If the Rebels ever had any chance in this game, they spoiled it by committing five turnovers. The Ole Miss offense had been on a tear with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, but he seemed to be struggling with the lingering effects of a concussion he suffered against Louisiana-Lafayette a week earlier.
Masoli threw three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. He only managed to throw for 80 yards on 7 of 18 passing with no touchdowns.
He didn’t get much help from his line either, who gave up three sacks on the day.
The game was never seriously in doubt for Tennessee. Bray first pass of the game was almost intercepted, but instead it slipped through the defender’s hands and went to a streaking Hunter, who went 80 yards for the score. Tennessee led 21-0 at the end of the first quarter.
Tauren Poole also got in on the act, rushing for 107 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries. The lone bright spot for Ole Miss may have been the play of Brandon Bolden, who ran for 113 yards and scored both of the Rebel’s touchdowns.
Tennessee has now put itself in a nice spot. They are left with two very winnable games, and a chance to do even more damage in a potential bowl game.
But they must make it past Vandy first.
The Vanderbilt team they face next week is a squad with little pulse. They hung tough against Kentucky for a half, but got vaporized after halftime for their fifth loss in a row.
Several factors have come together to put the Commodores where they are. The team was left in disarray when former coach Bobby Johnson left just weeks prior to the start of training camp. Injuries have also taken their toll.
Casey Hayward has been a bright spot for the Vanderbilt defense, ranking second in the SEC with five interceptions. Alabama’s Robert Lester leads the conference with 7 interceptions.
First year Vanderbilt Coach Robbie Caldwell may not be around for another season, but it doesn’t seem like his team has the weapons to do anything about it. Vanderbilt ranks last in the SEC in total offense and quarterback Larry Smith has done little to get anything going.
At best, Vanderbilt will play well for a half. But by the time this one’s over, expect Rocky Top to be reverberating through the halls of Memorial Stadium once more.
Tyler Bray Makes Memphis Look Like Paper Tigers
By Brian Estes
The past month had been rough for the Volunteers, who had been beaten like a drum in almost every game. But they were marching to the beat of a different drum against the Memphis Tigers.
Despite Tennessee’s struggles, the Tigers were still no challenge for the Big Orange.
Tennessee snapped its four game losing streak with a 50-14 win at the Liberty Bowl. For Memphis, the rhythm of the blues keeps rolling on.
Early on, it looked like the Vols might be in trouble. Memphis came up with a big fourth down stop on the opening possession of the game. They marched down the field on the ensuing possession, and took a 7-0 on a four yard touchdown pass from Ryan Williams to Marcus Rucker.
A loss to Memphis would be unthinkable. But the Tigers could muster only cat scratches for the rest of the game.
From that point on it was total Tennessee domination. The key theme was freshman QB Tyler Bray throwing for 325 yards and 5 touchdowns in his first career start. Although the Tigers were giving up major chunks of yardage from the get-go, they were able to keep it close early. The Tennessee lead was only 13-7 at the end of the first quarter.
But Memphis couldn’t fight for long. Four second quarter touchdowns pushed the halftime lead to 40-7 and the game was on ice.
The question for Memphis appears to be – do you guys even field a defense? Do you know how to tackle, carry out assignments, and get to the football? For that matter, do you even know how to get in someone’s way? It sure doesn’t look like it.
Tauren Poole, who finished with 101 yards and a touchdown, was gaining massive chunks of yardage like there was no one even there. The Vols receivers were zipping past the outmanned Tiger cornerbacks with ease.
And for once, the front line didn’t give up a single sack. Only minor penalty issues were able to slow the Vols.
The Tigers looked equally lost on offense. The Vols forced six total turnovers, with three interceptions and three fumble recoveries. Memphis does not have the type of personnel it needs to run its system, and it shows. They had a few big plays every now and then, but couldn’t muster enough of a rhythm to make it count.
The Tigers finished with only 117 yards of offense.
It was a much needed win for Tennessee, who is still fighting to keep its bowl hopes alive. More importantly, they just needed a win for morale, and they got a great team effort.
The Vols will now look to carry that success back home with them to Rocky Top, where they will try to snap their streak of SEC futility against the Mississippi Rebels.
This is a winnable game for Tennessee. Ole Miss has plenty of problems of its own, many of them on defense. But the offense is led by former Heisman candidate Jeremiah Masoli, and the unit has put its fair share of points on the board.
Tennessee is no longer up against world beaters; the competition now is much more mortal. It will be key for the Vols to finally make a stand. The next three games will determine this team’s spot in history.
Bray To Take Reigns After Leading Comeback
By Brian Estes
Hopefully the worst is now out of the way for Tennessee.
The Vols went through Murderer’s Row over the course of their last four games, facing two Top 10 teams and three Top 25 teams. They capped off a winless October with a 38-24 loss to South Carolina, who may be the best team in a weak SEC East.
The Vols were playing their freshman team against the Gamecocks. At one point, there were seven freshman on the field for the Tennessee offense. But all things considered, UT didn’t have a bad showing.
After falling behind 24-10 in the third quarter, reserve quarterback Tyler Bray threw two touchdown passes to knot the game 24-24. Finally, it looked like the fourth quarter might be meaningful for the Vols.
Instead, their lack of depth and experience showed through once again. South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery broke through with a 70 yard touchdown catch on the ensuing drive and essentially iced the game for the Gamecocks. The big three for South Carolina – Quarterback Stephen Garcia, running back Marcus Lattimore, and Jeffery – all had big days as Tennessee failed to limit any of them offensively.
Quarterback Matt Simms started for Tennessee but was pulled after two costly fumbles. His second turnover helped South Carolina go ahead 17-10 early in the third and killed momentum for Tennessee.
Not surprisingly, the big news for Tennessee now focuses on the quarterback position. Reserve quarterback Tyler Bray will be a reserve quarterback no longer; Coach Derek Dooley announced his freshman quarterback will be getting the start next week against Memphis.
After the game, Simms was critical of his coach’s decision to pull him out.
“Nothing much I can do about getting hit in the back and the guy stripping the ball from me," Simms said. "That's one of the better defensive lines in the conference and you know ... hey, if you get hit a lot, sometimes the ball comes out. Other than that, I thought I played really well.”
He also seemed to take a shot at Bray, saying “it’s not like I dropped back and threw it to the other team.” Bray threw a costly pick-six in the third quarter.
Simms played well otherwise, completing 10 of 13 passes for 153 yards and a score.
It’s easy to understand Simms’s frustration. He’s been a fairly productive passer to this point. The lack of support from his offensive line certainly hasn’t helped with the turnover situation.
But Simms’s comments here are just plain dumb. You don’t rip your coach, front line, and backup QB in the press. The way I see it, these comments are the main reason Simms isn’t starting next week. It’s not exactly like Bray has grossly outplayed him – he’s thrown three interceptions in limited action.
So, about the team that Bray will make his first start against – the Memphis Tigers. What is there to say? Memphis is just waiting for basketball season. The Tigers are lacking identity with a 1-7 record and don’t exactly know who their starting quarterback should be.
Look at their last three losses. There was the 56-17 loss to Houston last week, they got beaned by Southern Miss 49-17 the week before, and laid a golden goose egg against Louisville 56-0 on Oct. 16. (It pains me to say that their lone win was against my alma matter – MTSU. But I’ll save that for Ethan Lannom’s column.)
It looks as if the Vols are finally primed to snap their losing streak and earn Bray his first win as starting QB. I predict the quarterback change will energize this team and they will play motivated football through the season’s final month.
The comeback Bray lead against South Carolina was significant. Tennessee is a team that tends to lay down once they get behind. Bray was able to motivate the team to do something they hadn’t done all season – make an actual comeback attempt. But I don’t think he’s that much better pound for pound than Simms, and I predict he’ll still make his share of turnovers.
As the Vols enter November, they are still miraculously in the hunt for bowl eligibility If they fail to keep those hopes alive in Memphis, they’re sure to be feeling the Beale Street blues.
Vol Fans Wish There Were Only Two Saturdays In October
By Brian Estes
When the Alabama Crimson Tide came into Neyland Stadium for their annual rivalry matchup, they hit the Tennessee Volunteers like a sledgehammer.
Tide wideout Julius Jones put on a Kenny Britt-like performance by reeling in 12 catches for 221 yards, which set a new school record for most receiving yards in a game.
Jones wasn’t the only troublemaker for the Tide offense. Trent Richardson hit the Vols with the force of a Dodge Ram in rushing for 119 yards and a touchdown on just 12 carries.
Even banged up Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram gashed the Vols for 88 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.
Tennessee essentially repeated the script from the Oregon game in which they played two quarters of solid football along with two lousy ones. The halftime lead for the Tide was just 13-10, and it looked like it might be a game.
The defense held up well for a half, holding Alabama to mostly field goals. The Tide’s only touchdown of the first half came on Quarterback Greg McElroy’s 1 yard scamper.
The Vols were also able to establish some offensive presence early on. Tauren Poole busted up the middle for a 59 yard touchdown run that put Tennessee up 7-0 in the first quarter.
For some reason, Coach Derek Dooley backed off from the run after that point and put the offense in the hands of his quarterback and receivers. It didn’t work out so well.
Tennessee’s receivers and quarterbacks seemed to have trouble getting on the same page. Matt Simms made several dangerous throws that should have been interceptions, but Alabama defenders weren’t able to reel them in.
Then, in the third quarter, the defense broke through for the Crimson Tide. Simms threw an endzone interception that helped key a barrage of points for Alabama. Three third quarter touchdowns helped the Tide roll to a 41-10 victory.
It was hilarious to watch how laughably ill-equipped the Vols are to take on upper tier SEC talent. Julius Jones was running past Tennessee defenders like he was Usain Bolt at the Olympics.
Freshman quarterback Tyler Bray alternated with Simms through much of the game, but it didn’t seem to matter who Tennessee played. Both quarterbacks were intercepted, and neither was able to establish much of an offensive rhythm.
One bright spot was that the defense got plenty of pressure on McElroy. The Alabama quarterback was battered and beaten throughout the game, but it didn’t stop him from making major plays. McElroy was sacked only once, and made big throws to put the Tide in scoring position.
For Tennessee, it’s a sign of the times. You can say they’re young, but many other SEC teams, including Alabama, have had to play freshman in key spots. Even when the young Vols mature, they may not be able to match the talent of many of the teams they play.
One key issue is the lack of depth. Eventually that will get corrected, and the Vols will be better.
For even when they do improve, it may not be enough to get them anywhere near the top of the SEC.
Vols Face Uphill Climb In Second Half
By Brian Estes
What can be said about the first half of the season for this UT Vols team? So far it’s been pretty dismal, but that hasn’t been completely unexpected. The Vols may be taking this week off, but I’ve got a full midseason recap for you, featuring info on who’s emerged as standout players, who needs to step up, and how I think the second half of the season will go.
Hunter turns heads
Offensively, the Vols have had some struggles this season. But wideout Justin Hunter has emerged as an impact player this season. The former track star is a tall target on the field and has the speed to potentially vaporize SEC defenses in the coming years. He had a pair of expert touchdown catches against Florida and Georgia and shows he has what it takes to be a major player.
No longer in the kiddy Poole
In the backfield, Tauren Poole has shown flashes of greatness but has been held back by a lackluster offensive line. Poole ranks eighth in the SEC with 478 yards and has five touchdown runs, but a faltering front line has forced Coach Derek Dooley to focus on the passing game.
Matt Simms finds out what it’s like to be David Carr
The offensive line is a major point of concern. The unit boasted five new starters at the beginning of the season, almost all of them underclassmen. But injuries have hit the line hard, and its shallow depth has already been put to the test. The result? Defenses are piling up sacks against Quarterback Matt Simms and the run game is in a tailspin. If UT had a solid front line the run game could be potent, which could help jump start the offense. But it doesn’t look like Tennessee has the talent or the depth to make that happen this season.
Jackson’s time to shine
The defense has been slightly better, but still has room for improvement. The 41 point gashing Georgia put on them last week was particularly nasty. If there has been a standout player on defense, it has been Janzen Jackson. The sophomore cornerback has made his presence known with a pair of interceptions, a forced fumble, and many big hits. Jackson has always been a steady presence on defense, even coming up to help with the run defense.
Quarterback-wise, Matt Simms has been decent but hasn’t really delivered what the Volunteers need this year. He’s made several key mistakes that have hurt the Vols in big games, namely an interception in the endzone against Florida that served as a major turning point in the game. He exhibits big play potential, but has a long way to go when compared to Arkansas’s Ryan Mallet or Auburn’s Cam Newton. I predict Simms making a couple more key errors that lead to Vol losses this season. He’ll need to step up, or he may find reserve quarterback Tyler Bray taking his place.
Schedule softens in November
But if there’s one wacky fact about the season so far, it’s this: despite the Vols struggles, they still have a realistic shot at a bowl bid. The October schedule is brutal, but November is much kinder. They face three teams – Memphis, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky – that they haven’t lost to in a bajillion years. (Well okay, they lost to Vanderbilt in 2005. But that doesn’t count).
They also get Ole Miss – a team that scores points in bunches but also lost home games against Vanderbilt and Jacksonville State. If Tennessee sweeps their November schedule, they would find themselves bowl eligible no matter what they do against Alabama and South Carolina the next two weeks. I predict Tennessee beats Ole Miss – the home crowd gives Tennessee an edge against a Rebels team with a suspect defense.
Naturally, they should continue their winning ways against Memphis and Vandy. It’s the Kentucky Wildcats I see causing problems for the Vols. This Wildcat team legitimate playmakers, and this past Saturday they snapped a major streak. Their win over South Carolina was the program’s first against a Steve Spurrier coached team. They had lost 17 in a row against the Ol’ Ball Coach.
I say it’s not the only streak they snap this season.
Kentucky’s last football win over UT was in 1984. It’s been said by many a sports blogger before, but I’ll say it now: I predict this will be the year Kentucky finally KOs the Vols, and Tennessee will fall one game short of bowl eligibility.
Vols Turn Belly Up Against Bulldogs
By Brian Estes
Coming off their worst start in years, the Georgia Bulldogs looked to right the ship against the Tennessee Volunteers. Georgia must have believed they would have to play a great game to have a chance to defeat Tennessee.
No need for that. The Vols did it to themselves.
Tennessee looked to rebound after a gut-wrenching loss to LSU last week, but killed their chances with three first half turnovers.
Some of the Vols may have struggled to put the LSU loss behind them. It looked like the effort just wasn’t there on defense as Georgia Quarterback Aaron Murray ran for a 35 yard touchdown.
The Vols turned the ball over on a Matt Simms interception and two Eric Gordon special teams fumbles, which helped Georgia stake a 17-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. The game was basically over at that point.
Esteemed Georgia receiver A.J. Green was as good as advertised. If he wasn’t grabbing touchdown passes, he was making plays to get the Bulldogs into scoring position.
Murray accounted for four touchdowns, two through the air and two with his legs. He finished with 266 passing yards and 41 yards on the ground. In all, the Bulldogs tallied 402 yards of offense to Tennessee’s 269.
Once again, Simms was basically the entire offense for Tennessee. He threw for 179 yards on 9 of 13 passing, including a sweet 38 yard touchdown pass to Justin Hunter. Without a quality offensive line, however, Tennessee’s offense is becoming painfully one-dimensional.
The run game was held to nine yards. The offensive line was once again dismal, surrendering four more sacks, costing the Vols 27 yards.
This team seems to be suffering from a lack of mental and emotional toughness. They laid down and quit when the going got tough against Oregon, and they did the same thing here following a crushing loss against LSU last week.
If I can, I’d like to suggest a song for the Volunteers. It’s called “Cry, Cry, Cry” by Johnny Cash.
“You're gonna cry, cry, cry and you'll cry alone,
When everyone's forgotten and you're left on your own.
You're gonna cry, cry, cry."
Which pretty much sums up where Tennessee is at this point in the season - lounging on their couches, crying, stuffing themselves with ice cream, and watching soap operas.
Coach Derek Dooley hinted after the game he may be ready to make personnel changes. “I’d rather lose with somebody who’s competing,” he told the media. “I was a little disappointed… especially how we came out in the second half.”
Georgia scored another touchdown on their first drive after halftime to extend the lead to 34-7.
One bright spot was the play of true freshman Tyler Bray, who spelled Simms in the fourth quarter. Bray led the Vols to the goal line, throwing for 81 yards of 8 of 12 passing. He was unable to punch the ball in, but it’s hard to not be proud of his effort.
At this point in the season, the best option may be to try to get the young guys as much playing time as possible. This season might go down the tubes, but it may be the best move for the future.
Late Penalty Spoils UT’s Chance For Upset
By Brian Estes
They were oh so close to victory.
The Volunteers were primed to pull the upset and get Coach Derek Dooley his first signature win. LSU was on the ropes. But if the UAB Blazers gave the Vols heart problems last week, then the Tigers just plain ripped them out by claiming a 16-14 win in shocking fashion.
Tennessee had a 14-10 lead with under a minute to play, but the Tigers had a goal-to-go situation. On 3rd-and-goal, LSU’s offense tried to make substitutions but it looked like there was some confusion.
With under 10 seconds, the clock was still running, and LSU out of timeouts. Tigers quarterback Jordan Jefferson tried in desperation to snap the ball, which rolled into the backfield. Jefferson was pounced on covering the ball as time expired.
Game over. Or so we thought.
An official review revealed the Vols had 13 men on the field for the final snap, giving LSU one final try. Stevan Ridley broke the goal line from inside the 1-yard line, and the Tigers stayed undefeated.
It was a cruel fate for the Volunteers. They had essentially played a perfect game up to that point.
For the second straight week, the Volunteers had no turnovers, while the defense forced four from LSU – two Jefferson interceptions, a fumble recovery, and a Jarrett Lee interception. LSU also helped out by being flagged nine times for 54 yards.
A key possession came late in the fourth quarter, when Tennessee was driving with the lead and the ball. The Vols faced fourth-and-inches inside LSU territory. Kicker Daniel Lincoln out for the game with a groin injury,
Dooley so elected to go for it and try to seal the win.
The Vols were stuffed. The ball went back to LSU, who embarked on the eventual game-winning drive.
Tennessee was expected to struggle mightily against the nasty Tigers defense, led by former UT defensive coordinator John Chavis, but the Vols were able to do some impressive things. Matt Simms did basically everything he needed to do to win the game. He threw for 121 yards on 12 of 23 passing, protected the football, and even added a rushing touchdown that gave the Vols a late 14-10 lead.
Tennessee seemed energized by the return of the top receiver, Gerald Jones. Thanks in part to his efforts, Tennessee was much more efficient on third downs, converting 7 of 15 attempts.
The run game also revived after having been stagnant the last two weeks. Tauren Poole topped the century mark with 109 yards on 24 carries and a touchdown.
LSU topped that by producing two 100 yard rushers of their own. Ridley had 123 yards on 22 carries and scored the game winner, while Jefferson ran for 100 yards, including an 83 yard touchdown sprint on the Tigers’ opening drive.
There are many things Tennessee can take away from this game. They showed great heart and determination by playing four quarters of great football. There was no fourth quarter fade like there had been the last three weeks.
But I still don’t think Tennessee is ready to compete against the top tier SEC teams. The Vols took advantage of LSU’s many mistakes to stay in this game – mistakes the SEC’s elite teams don’t often make.
LSU clearly has problems. The offense is one-dimensional, the defense was not as great against Tennessee as I expected, and turnovers will kill them against better teams. If there’s a positive, I think it’s the emergence of Lee as their premier quarterback. But I still think this team is going to finish third at best in the SEC West.
The Volunteers now look to regroup against Georgia. The Bulldogs are hurting after losing four straight games, the latest of which was a 29-27 heartbreaker at Colorado. Wide Receiver A.J. Green is one of the best players the Vols will see all year, but the Bulldogs have had some issues trying to run their 3-4 defense.
I give a slight edge to Georgia. A.J. Green will have had a chance to knock some of the rust off, the Bulldogs are at home, and they could be playing to save their coach’s job. But I honestly think this game could go either way, and a win would go a long way towards getting Tennessee bowl eligible.
Vols Try To Give Fans Heart Problems Against UAB
By Brian Estes
There’s something funny about this UT team.
Even when they win, it’s hard to feel good about them.
The injury riddled Volunteers were dominated on both sides of the ball for much of the second half, but managed to grab a 32-29 double OT victory against the UAB Blazers.
Things started off reasonably well for Tennessee. Matt Simms energized the passing game, and the Volunteers were able to build a 17-7 lead at the end of the first quarter.
After that, the offense just vanished. It’s the biggest no show I’ve seen since Joaquin Phoenix on David Letterman.
The major issue? Third downs. The Vols were a putrid 2-15 on third down conversions. Part of the problem was the offensive line.
Injuries to an already thin and inexperienced unit forced some players to start who honestly weren’t ready. The line had problems generating a push up front and struggled to protect the quarterback.
Time after time, Tennessee faced third-and-long. When it was third-and-short, the Vols were buggered by false starts. When Simms had time to find an open man, the receiver drops the ball. Could anything else have possibly gone wrong?
Simms was sacked five times. He has now been dropped 11 times in the last two contests.
For the second straight week, the run game was a "non-factor". David Oku led the team with 33 yards on eight carries. Fortunately, the offense never turned the ball over.
Defensively, the Vols had major problems with UAB’s dual quarterback combo. Bryan Ellis threw for 373 yards and a touchdown, on 29 of 55 passing. David Isabelle ran for 63 yards and a score of his own on 16 attempts.
Ellis was UAB’s Kerry Collins, while Isabelle fits more in the mold of Vince Young.
The Vols might have wished they could borrow a few Titans defenders to stop them. The Blazers offense was off the charts, ringing up 544 yards compared to just 287 for Tennessee.
There were some bright spots. The defense may have succeeded in giving Ellis heart problems. They generated great pressure against the junior quarterback, delivering huge blow after blow. But in spite of that, they were never able to get an actual sack.
Prentiss Wagner returned an interception for a touchdown right before halftime, which gave Tennessee a 23-7 lead. No one knew it at the time, but that would prove to be the play that kept the Vols in the game.
UAB scored two second half touchdowns and a pair of two point conversions to tie the game 23-23 late in the fourth.
UAB kicker Josh Zahn, who missed 5 field goals in regulation, kept the Blazers in it by knocking home a 35 yard field goal to end the first overtime period at a 26-26 tie. After another Zahn field goal, Simms ended it with a 25 yard touchdown strike to Moore.
Had Tennessee lost, it would have been a season crushing upset. The Blazers are 1-2 in the middle of the pack Conference USA. Granted, UAB isn’t the worst team in the world. With the dual quarterback tandem of Ellis and Isabelle they could make some things happen.
But Tennessee shouldn’t have let them get this close.
The month of October will be the witching hour for the Volunteers. A road trip to LSU is next, followed by Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. The Bulldogs lost to Mississippi State and sit at 0-3 in SEC play.
I want to say that looks like the easiest of their next four games. But a more accurate way of wording is probably that it’s their least hardest game.
Either way, they’ll need a much better effort than they showed against UAB. I expect we’ll see it. Otherwise, they won’t stand a ghost of a chance of winning until after Halloween.
An Outcome That Is Becoming All Too Familiar
By Brian Estes
There were several noteworthy storylines headed into Saturday’s UT-Florida matchup.
For Tennessee Coach Derek Dooley, it was his first league game in the SEC.
For Gators Quarterback John Brantley, it was his first road start.
Florida was trying to adjust to life without Tim Tebow.
And for Tennessee, it was an outcome that is becoming all too familiar.
The Volunteers buried the ghosts of their 48-13 loss to Oregon and played well for four complete quarters, but it wasn’t enough against the Gators. Florida capitalized on several key mistakes to capture a 31-17 victory, their sixth straight in the series.
The Tennessee defense was stellar from the get go. Florida’s Jeff Demps was shut down in the first half, and the Gators were only able to build a 7-3 by halftime. Tennessee’s defense made me proud when they stopped Florida on a 3rd and 1 early on, then stuffed the Gators on 4th and inches in Tennessee territory to regain possession.
Offensively, Tennessee tried to do something I don’t think many people expected. The obvious gameplan would be to put the ball in the hands of your best offensive player, Tauren Poole, and run, run, run. Given how effective the run game was against Oregon, it seemed clear what Tennessee would do.
However, last week I said the key to the game for Tennessee would be how Quarterback Matt Simms played, and I think Dooley recognized his offense could not afford to become one dimensional. In a gutsy but brilliant move, the Volunteers turned their focus away from the run game and tried to do what no one thought they could do – throw the ball.
Matt Simms’s performance was a real mixed bag. His stat line isn’t terrible – 19 of 31 for 259 yards, 2 TDs and 2 interceptions. The interceptions crippled the Volunteers chances – one of them was in the endzone. After the second pick I was ready to hang Simms out to dry. But he did take advantage of some Gator miscues to throw touchdown passes of 49 and 35 yards.
With eight picks in their first two games, Florida’s secondary had established itself as one of the best in the nation. Considering what he was up against, it’s hard to say Simms had a bad game. But the interceptions were a large part of what separated these two teams.
The play of the game, in my eyes, was Florida Coach Urban Meyer’s call to go for a fake punt midway through the third quarter.
Here’s the setup: The Volunteers had just tied the game 10-10 on Matt Simms’s 49 yard TD strike, and the offense was rolling for the Orange & White. UT’s defense forced a three and out on the ensuing possession. If Florida punts here, there’s no telling how this game unfolds.
Instead, Meyer dials in a fake punt and keeps the chains moving, which led to a touchdown and a 17-10 Florida lead. The Gators are in control for the rest of the game.
It seemed like every time Tennessee got something going, they would turn around and do something to give the momentum back to Florida. Missing the coverage on the fake punt was a prime example. In the fourth quarter, the Volunteers recovered a Demps fumble, which led to Simms’s 35 yard touchdown pass. That score cut Florida’s lead to 24-17. The kickoff went out of bounds, helping to set up Florida for another touchdown on the ensuing possession.
As soon as the momentum was there for Tennessee, it was gone.
However, I do feel like Tennessee played a good game. They fought to get back into the game and still had a shot at it in the fourth quarter. They have a chance to surprise some teams later on, but to do it they will have to play a mistake free game. They aren’t quite there yet.
Blowout Loss Exposes UT Inexperience
By Brian Estes
If football championships were decided in the first two quarters, you might be ready to pencil Tennessee into the thick of the national championship hunt.
Unfortunately, the clock struck midnight for UT when the second half began, and the Oregon Ducks imposed their will on the Volunteers to win big, 48-13.
Tennessee came out determined to start the first half. A major question was how the Volunteer run game would fare behind an inexperienced offensive line. Early on, the front line was making all the right blocks and opening up huge lanes for running back Tauren Poole, who finished with 162 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.
The Volunteers racked up 198 yards in the first quarter.
Later, quarterback Matt Simms connected with freshman wideout Justin Hunter at the Oregon 1 yard line. That set up Poole’s touchdown run to make it 13-3 for the Vols.
In the second quarter, the Ducks began to make the adjustments they needed to stymie Tennessee. The explosive runs the Vols made in the first half disappeared.
Oregon’s offense had success moving the ball in the first half, but struggled to put up points. They would have no such problems after halftime.
LaMichael James’s 72 yard touchdown run in the third quarter gave the Ducks their first lead at 20-13 and broke the game open. Quarterback Darron Thomas also found Lavasier Tuinei open over the middle for a 29 yard TD.
The game played out the way I expected it would, with Tennessee’s young offensive line struggling against the more experience Oregon defense and the Ducks running game shoving the ball down Tennessee’s throat.
It just took longer for that to happen than I expected.
UT quarterback Matt Simms didn’t have the greatest game. He overthrew several open receivers and had a fair share of balls batted down by the Oregon defensive line.
Admittedly, when the offense was rolling, he complemented the run game by making some timely throws. And he played a pretty mistake free game.
Mistake free, that is, until Cliff Harris intercepted and returned it 76 yards to paydirt.
I believe this game says a lot about the type of team we can expect to see from the Volunteers this year. They showed great heart and determination by playing the No. 7 ranked Ducks to a standstill in the first half. But they were ultimately just outmatched.
One of the bright spots for Tennessee so far has been Tauren Poole, who has proven himself a major playmaker in the first two games. On the first play of the game, he darted around the left tackle for a 31 yard gain. Poole has produced many explosive runs that energize the Vol offense.
But a key question is where will the leadership on this team come from? With so many young players, I sense I real lack of leadership. If no one steps up, then this likely won’t be the last time the Vols lose by a wide margin.
Next week the Florida Gators come calling. How long has it been since Tennessee’s last win over Florida? The last time Tennessee beat the Gators – on September 18, 2004 – I was still a senior in high school.
The number one movie at the box office that week was Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow with Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow. President Bush’s approval rating was still hovering around 50 percent. And James Wilhoit was the kicker who banged home the winning field goal in that game.
There isn’t much reason to expect UT to snap that streak next Saturday.
Gators Quarterback John Brantley has been getting in sync with the offense, and Jeff Demps has stepped up as a major playmaker. However, Florida’s offense has had a slow start in its first two games. If that trend continues, Tennessee may be able to capitalize if they can put up some points of their own.
I don’t expect the Vols to give up 48 points again. I do, however, expect the Tennessee run game to struggle against a tough Florida defense. Simms will have to have a much better game if Tennessee is to put points on the board.
Blowout Win Cause For Optimism? ... Maybe
By Brian Estes
If you’ve followed the University of Tennessee football program at all over the past eight months, there’s no doubt you’ve heard it all. All the hubbub about new coach Derek Dooley, all the melodrama about former coach Lane Kiffin, and how the Vols are supposed to be just too darn young to compete this season.
Well at long last it’s time to forget about all that. Football season has finally arrived in Rocky Top.
Dooley and crew set out to prove doubters wrong in the season opener against the Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks. Granted, no one’s going to crown you world beater for vanquishing an Ohio Valley Conference team, but the orange and white jumped on virtually every opportunity in pasting their in-state foe 50-0.
This year’s Vols team returns very few starters. Quarterback Jonathan Crompton wasn’t exactly the greatest player to run through the T, but no one had really stepped up to take the reigns of the QB position headed into fall camp. Another huge loss was that of Eric Berry, who the Kansas City Chiefs selected as their first round draft pick in April.
Though it’s still early, Tennessee may have discovered some key playmakers in running back Tauren Poole and quarterback Matt Simms. Poole led all rushers with 110 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. But it was David Oku who got the ball rolling with five minutes to go in the opening quarter when he darted 44 yards for the game’s first touchdown. Oku finished with 77 yards and a score on six carries.
As you might expect, the defense had a dominant day as well. The highlight reel will belong to Prentiss Waggner, who returned an interception 54 yards to paydirt. But that wasn’t the only standout performance. The defense recorded a safety, three forced fumbles, and held UT-Martin to just 142 yards and three first downs. Waggner led the team with six tackles, while Johnson also had an interception.
However, there were some troubling injuries to the wide receiver unit. Star wideout Gerald Jones injured his left hand, and Dooley estimates he may be out two to three games. Receiver Denarius Moore suffered an ankle injury and could miss time as well. Jones and Moore are two of the major go to guys for the Vols offense, and their absence could be a huge blow to UT’s hopes.
The highlight for UT-Martin may be that they didn’t give up a touchdown on special teams. Julius McNair led the way for the Skyhawks offense with 34 rushing yards on six carries, including a 22-yard scamper. The defense also picked up a fumble recovery and interception.
It seems the immediate impulse is to be jubilant about UT’s chances this year following such a big blowout, but in many ways I’m not so impressed. I’m reminded of how Tennessee pounded Western Kentucky 63-7 last year, then posted a less than stellar 7-6 record. Big opening wins do not a season make. On the field, there were some mistakes that may cost the Volunteers against tougher competition. One of those was a Gerald Jones fumble that gave UT-Martin possession on the Volunteer 36 yard line. There were also some penalties, but nothing huge.
On the other hand, you can’t underestimate the importance of getting out to a good start. Compare it to the 2005 season, when the Vols were picked as preseason national title favorites. UT struggled in its season opener against UAB that year, winning a narrow 17-10 decision in a game that was expected to be a blowout. It perhaps set the tone for the rest of the season, as the Vols stumbled to a 5-6 record.
Will this year’s Volunteers have enough? The reigning Pac-10 champion Oregon Ducks are coming off an even more impressive blowout – a 72-0 rout of New Mexico – and visit Neyland Stadium this week. I’m not going to predict a win against Oregon - the Ducks are deep and experienced, something Tennessee is not.
However, I find it interesting that other teams on UT’s schedule struggled in some of their opening games. Florida played a relatively sloppy game against Miami (Ohio) while breaking in new QB John Brantley. UNC pushed LSU to the limit, and exposed the Tigers defensively. And then there was lowly Jacksonville State, whose two point conversion heard round the world shocked Ole Miss in the grove. In light of Tennessee’s dominant performance, might this be reason for optimism?
One thing’s for sure – there are many teams in the SEC that possess more raw talent than Tennessee. For Dooley and his young squad, the emphasis will have to be on growing up quickly.