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Vols Reach First-Ever Elite Eight, Miss Final Four By One Point
By Will Shelton

The Tennessee Waltz is beauty and heartbreak.  And for the last two weeks, we've danced it as well as we knew how.

It was no different in the Elite Eight, in another to-the-finish matchup with another good team.  Both teams came to play, both teams answered challenges throughout, and in the end...Michigan State was one point better.
Rebounds and turnovers ending up being dead even in this game, and both teams showed they could play at a quick pace in the first half, and a slowdown game in the second.  Durrell Summers was lights out with 21 points on 4 of 6 from three, and the Vols once again got great play from Wayne Chism, J.P. Prince, and Brian Williams.  Michigan State also blocked a season-high 8 shots, any one of which could've been the difference in the game.  So it goes in March.

When the pain from this loss fades, we're going to celebrate this team like none before it. The pain itself exists only because of this team, who put us in position to talk about the Final Four with a straight face, and was one point away from experiencing it.  We've never been this close before.

This team took the next step for this program:  the Elite Eight is no longer the goal, but the Final Four.  The Vols are bringing in a recruiting class that's currently ranked 4th in the nation by Rivals.  The talent gap between Tennessee and everyone else is closing.

But it'll truly be an accomplishment if the next Tennessee teams can match this one in heart, fight, and will to win.  Without our best player, we beat Kansas, Kentucky, and Ohio State, and went deeper than any Tennessee team has ever gone.  This team moved the story forward, and has been its greatest chapter.  And I hate having to write about them in the past-tense.

Now we know just how much we have lost.  We know what it's like to come to the edge of the Final Four.  We know we'll miss Wayne, J.P., and Bobby terribly, both as players and as people.     

And we know that because of this team, Tennessee Basketball will never be the same.  We will miss these guys so much...but because of them, we have never been more encouraged about where the program goes next.

Vols Advance to Sweet 16 for Third Time in Four Years
By Will Shelton

The Bobcats get a standing-o for their late season run, and they created lots of memories for themselves in winning the MAC Tournament and upsetting the three seed Georgetown.  Little stories like theirs are part of what makes this opening weekend so great.  But Tennessee made sure their little story didn't become a big one.  And when Ohio's tank was empty, the Vols stepped on the gas.

This was an "old school" BruceBall effort, with several lightning-quick runs that put enough separation between the two teams for the Vols to stay loose.  The first came after that second media timeout, and was the result of Tennessee continuing to play great defense.

Replenishing their tanks in the locker room, Ohio again played with the Vols through the first two media timeouts, working the lead down to five at 50-45 with 13:03 to play.  Tennessee kept them around a little longer this time, but the Bobcats could get it no closer...and then with the Vols up 11 with five minutes to play, UT's final run sealed the deal.

The Vols went on a 12-3 spurt, this one sparked by a Scotty Hopson three, and when Ohio tried to turn up their defensive pressure, Tennessee broke it repeatedly with dunks in transition, and broke the Bobcats once and for all.  The Vols pushed the lead to 83-63 before Ohio scored the game's final points in an 83-68 victory.  It sends a spirited Ohio team home...and sends Tennessee to the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years.

Unlike the balanced and fairly even matchup we saw Thursday night, against Ohio we knew where our advantage was, and we used it:  our perimeter length really bothered Ohio's shooters, creating a night-and-day difference from the Georgetown game:
• Armon Bassett:  9 of 17 vs. Georgetown, 2 of 10 vs. UT
• D.J. Cooper:  8 of 12 vs. Georgetown, 5 of 13 vs. UT
• Entire team:  58.2% FG, 56.5% 3PT vs. Georgetown, 37.9% FG, 38.5% 3PT vs. UT

On the other end of the floor, we also knew we'd have a huge advantage inside, and yet again we used it:  the Vols owned the paint, outrebounding Ohio 39-28 and crushing them in points in the paint.  And while Ohio was running out of gas, the Vols used their depth and got quality from everywhere:
• J.P. Prince 18 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists
• Scotty Hopson 17 points (7 of 9 from the floor)
• Wayne Chism 9 points 12 rebounds
• Brian Williams 8 points 12 rebounds
• Josh Bone 7 points 4 rebounds
• Bobby Maze 9 assists 4 rebounds

The Vols shot 56.7% from the floor, and had 34 made baskets on 21 assists.  Tennessee played sensational halfcourt defense on Ohio throughout, and then got out and ran when given the opportunity on the other end.  It translates into a complete effort that sends Tennessee to the tournament's second weekend.

Tennessee 74 Kentucky 65
By Will Shelton

On the Vols' first possession, Scotty Hopson got a look inside, and attacked the basket...and DeMarcus Cousins pinned the ball against the side of the rim. 

For Hopson, a player who has struggled so much with both assertiveness and consistency, I feared it was a death sentence in the game's opening minute.  Kentucky is the most physically imposing team in the SEC, and Cousins could've taken Hopson out of the game immediately.

But in the game's final minute, Hopson's confidence was apparently still intact.  Though 0-5 from beyond the arc on the night, he'd still found a way to score a dozen points and grab four rebounds.  And then on the game's most important possession, with Tennessee leading 67-65 with 40 seconds to play and 6 seconds on the shot clock, Hopson fired a three without hesitation...and ended the game.

Between those two possessions were two incredible runs:  an 18-0 spurt by the Vols at the start of the game, and a 30-11 run by Kentucky from the 14:00 mark of the second half until a DeMarcus Cousins' jam with 2:13 to play that finally tied the score.  The Vols ran out in front, and perhaps Kentucky used up everything they had to catch them.  But in the final two minutes once the game was tied, the Vols made every play they had to, and outscored the Cats 9-0 to the finish.  The Vols stood up and made Kentucky take notice, and took home a 74-65 win.  It was big for the rivalry, and it was big for the season - you can now officially put Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament and lock the doors behind them, and with wins over Kansas and Kentucky, plus a one point loss to Purdue, you can still entertain the idea of moving up in the bracket.  All in all, a huge day in Knoxville

The loss at Florida is now a distant memory, as Tennessee goes to 21-7, 9-5 in the SEC.  The Vols will finish either third or fourth in the SEC East, but will be dancing either way.  And if the Vols can finish strong next week against Arkansas and at Mississippi State, they'll add that to the best pair of signature wins in college basketball on their resume.  Today, we're talking more about 4 seeds than 7 seeds...and the Vols can make sure it stays that way next week.

And no matter what happens now, even if this team crashes and burns in Nashville and gets knocked off in the first round of the NCAA Tournament...I mean, what an incredible ride this has been.  What an incredible story this team is.  The Vols made sure that the 2009-10 season was a special one with their win today.  We'll reflect on this more after it's over.  And that's the best news:  we're not done yet.

What We Learned At Kentucky
By Will Shelton

Vol PGs can score after all

If someone bet you that Tennessee's two leading scorers would be Bobby Maze and Melvin Goins, how much money would you have lost?

The two combined for 29 points - Maze with 15 in 21 minutes, Goins with 14 in 19 - and both hit key shots in the early going to keep Tennessee in it.  Goins' play was especially surprising and especially welcome, giving Vol fans hope that there may not be a huge dropoff at the position next season. 

On the other end of the floor, most of John Wall's points weren't the result of defensive breakdowns at the position.  For a team that had struggled with opposing guards outplaying them for the last two years, the play from Maze and Goins was a big step in the right direction, and gives plenty of hope that the Vols won't get destroyed by any great guards they might see in March.

The J.P. Prince roller coaster experience comes to Lexington

Mr. Stat Sheet was at work again:  9 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals...and 6 turnovers.  Prince was also called for a couple of charges (the Vols had 5 on the night), including the crucial one that ended Tennessee's momentum.

Prince is capable of leading this team in more ways than one, and capable of hurting this team in more ways than one.  And we continue to see all of the above almost every night.  His ability to get to the basket and work the baseline on offense are incredibly valuable, and his ability to be "all arms" on defense and create steals that start the fast break is also great.  But his mental mistakes also cost Tennessee valuable possessions.  As the Vols look to March, they need the Prince who fills up the stat sheet without turning the ball over six times.  Until then, we'll continue to settle with both ends of the spectrum.

Where do we go from here?

The Vols lost, but showed up well for themselves.  The hope here is that this is a loss the Vols can build from while Chism and Tatum are getting healthy, because we're getting close to the home stretch and the only games that truly matter in March.

Tennessee is 18-6, 6-4 in the SEC.  The dream of winning an SEC Championship is all but dead with Kentucky at 9-1, but the dream of a good season is very much alive.  The schedule presents a much easier week ahead:  vs. Georgia on Wednesday, at South Carolina on Saturday.  There is no reason for this team to still be down about what happened this week when Wednesday night rolls around.  If the Vols take a deep breath and get guys healthy, I think they're capable of going on a real run to finish the season.  Even a 4-2 finish would get the Vols to 10-6 in the SEC, and position them well in the bracket.

We feel better about point guard play now than ever before.  When healthy, Tennessee still has a very talented trio in Scotty Hopson, J.P. Prince, and Wayne Chism.  Kenny Hall didn't score tonight, but grew up a lot on the defensive end with 4 rebounds and 2 blocks in just 13 minutes. 

Now is the time to come together and play our best basketball.  We saw glimpses of it against a great team on the road.  If the Vols can continue to grow, we're going to be competitive with anyone we play from here on out.  Tennessee is a good basketball team...now is the time to put all the pieces together.
Tennessee Blows Out South Carolina 79-53, Heads To Nashville Next
By Will Shelton

Devan Downey?  He got 26 points, but half of them came at the free throw line, shooting 5 of 20 from the floor.  The rest of the team?  They got 27.

Wayne Chism?  He beat Downey head-to-head, finishing 11 of 17 from the floor, 6 of 8 at the line, 2 of 4 from three for a career high 30.  The rest of the Vols?  They added 49, including 11 each from Scotty Hopson and Bobby Maze, and the Vols rolled Carolina by 26 points.

On a night with a lot of things to be worried about coming in - quick turnaround, frustrating play at times in the last two weeks, a general sense that these new Vols had peaked, plus Downey - Tennessee was firing on all cylinders.  The Vols beat Carolina in every statistical category - +8 in rebounds, +6 in turnovers forced, +20 in bench points, + 10 in assists - and used both Chism's offense and an outstanding team defensive effort to never let Carolina threaten.  The Gamecocks shot only 27.6% from the floor, and the Vols forced them to settle for mostly outside shots (only 7 for 28).  Tennessee didn't allow Downey to go off, and didn't let anyone else show up.

More than anything else, this game was fun - the players clearly enjoyed it, and we the fans were reminded of what this basketball team is capable of, and how enjoyable it is when they play that way.  The Vols did to Carolina what everyone expected them to do to LSU...but it was much more fun this way, and was a breath of fresh air I think we all needed.  This team is still a great story...and it's much easier to remember that when they play this way.

All of these factors are hopefully exactly what the Vols need heading into the most challenging week on the schedule:  at Vanderbilt on Tuesday, at Kentucky on Saturday.  The Vols are now 18-4, 6-2 in the SEC.  And with the win, no matter what happens on the road in the next seven days, this team has positioned itself well for March.  Brian Williams was back on the bench, and could return to action as soon as Tuesday (if Pearl wants to put his son back on the bench, of course).  Tennessee played its best basketball heading into its most important stretch.  You couldn't ask for anything more.

The Continued Maturation of Scotty Hopson and J.P. Prince
By Will Shelton

"Is this really what we wanted?"

Thanks to the high arc of Scotty Hopson's shot, I had enough time to get all of those words out of my mouth...before he proved that yes, that contested jump shot was exactly what we wanted coming out of a timeout with the game on the line.

It was unquestionably the biggest shot of Hopson's two year career, even by his own admission.  But more than that, just the fact that the Vols went to #32 with everything on the table shows that the distance between Hopson's potential and his reality is getting shorter and shorter.

Teammates, coaches, media and fans have all chimed in on Hopson's process.  We all saw flashes in his freshman season.  We all believed that Hopson was the difference between a pre-arrest Tennessee team being good and great.  And we all knew that without Tyler Smith, someone else would have to be counted on with the game on the line.

Even Chris Lofton said as much:  "He's got to be willing to have the outcome of the game on him sometimes."

Sometime has come, and Hopson delivered. 

And yet, without J.P. Prince, he never would've had to.
It continues to be the best and worst of times for Prince.  Because without his 12 points and 7 rebounds, the Vols would've never had a chance to win.  Prince was in on several key putbacks, and played a big role in the Vols' +15 rebounding margin in the second half.  Tennessee had the opportunity to win because of J.P. Prince.

And at the same time, Prince had three turnovers, the most costly of which came with the Vols up 57-55 in the final two minutes.  That came the possession after Prince fouled Chandler Parsons on a three point attempt.  And all this comes two weeks after Prince fouled Terrico White in a four point play in overtime during the Ole Miss game, a swing that put the Rebels up one in the final minutes. 

We are winning because of J.P. Prince.  And sometimes, we are winning in spite of him.  Why won't you let us love you, J.P.?

The good news is, he has absolutely stepped up his play when the Vols have needed him the most.  He may frustrate at times, but he too has matured on the floor in the last month:
First 11 games:  19.5 mins, 5.4 pts, 2.1 rebs
At Memphis:  18 mins, 12 pts, 5 rebs
Last 8 games:  27.3 mins, 10.6 pts, 4.3 rebs

Prince has doubled his production in the aftermath of the January 1 arrests.  While there may be technical fouls and complaints about calls that don't go his way, Prince also brings a vital presence to both ends of the floor for the Vols.  When Tennessee has needed him to step up, Prince has responded.

Vols Hit the Wall
By Will Shelton

Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins both saw action on Saturday, meaning Tennessee's run of playing six scholarship players and three walk-ons is over.  Also over is the subsequent win streak, as Georgia ambushed the Vols 78-63, picking up their first win over Tennessee since 2004.

The loss is certainly not the responsibility of Tatum or Goins, who played mostly garbage minutes at the end.  The greatest burden falls on Tennessee's interior defense, where the Vols surrendered countless uncontested dunks, were outrebounded 35-20, and allowed Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie to shoot a combined 17 of 24 for 40 points.

Wayne Chism returned from a scary looking knee injury early, but was never on his game, finishing with only 6 points on 3 of 10 shooting.  And a Tennessee team lauded for its depth found no quality beyond their top players today:  J.P. Prince had only 4 points, Skylar McBee went 0-3 beyond the arc, and Renaldo Woolridge and Josh Bone both finished with goose eggs.  The Vols got solid play from their backcourt (19 from Scotty Hopson, 11 from Bobby Maze), but in the SEC they're going to need more than that.

Down 15 at halftime, the Vols failed to take advantage of several opportunities in the first three minutes of the second half, instead matching Georgia turnover for turnover.  As a result, the Vols got within a dozen at 43-31, but would get no closer as the Dawgs ran away.  Georgia shot 56.3% from the floor and 7 of 12 from beyond the arc, while no one from Tennessee outside Scotty Hopson could hit a three:  Hopson was 3 for 6, the rest of the team was 0 for 10.  The Vols never found the spark to turn things around, and Georgia was more than willing to stay in front.

How much do we read into this?  Much bigger answers are coming in the next week, as the Vols have two home dates with Vanderbilt (4-0 in the SEC) and Florida.  If Tennessee takes care of business there, all will be well.  But if those two exploit Tennessee in the same manner, the Vols could go from the top ten to .500 in the SEC in a heartbeat.

There's a ton of basketball left to be played, and plenty of heart still left in this team.  For starters, Tennessee has to come out of the gate better - in all four conference games, the Vols have dug a hole for themselves in the first ten minutes.  Tennessee must play inspired basketball for all 40 minutes to win with this lineup, not just once they get going.

Georgia will move on to continue to figure out if they're a good team or not, now 1-3 in the SEC but competitive every night.  Tennessee must move on as well to a big, big week at Thompson-Boling.  Was this a minor slip-up or a definitive wall to this team's progress?  We'll find out this week.
Lane Kiffin: Rebound Girl
By Will Shelton

When it ends, you think about the way it began.

We were looking for something new, and this was it.  We knew we needed change, and we went for it in every possible way.  And it was exciting.  It was fresh.  And it was dangerous.

We made new friends and old enemies.  And the early returns were more than we could've possibly imagined, because this relationship brought  Bryce Brown, Nu'Keese Richardson, and Janzen Jackson into our lives.  Nothing tangible yet, but wow, the potential.

I think about those guys now.  About Bryce and Janzen and all of those other recruits who bought into the plan, and are now even more upset than we are.
I think about Nick Stephens.  About Gerald Jones, Ben Martin, Nick Reveiz.  About all of the guys who were around for the last breakup, who have now allowed themselves to get hurt all over again by someone else they were beginning to trust.  If you play defense for Tennessee and you loved John Chavis, but it was okay to move on because now you were playing for Monte Kiffin, where do you go from here?

Did we trust Lane Kiffin?  Most of us did, even if just for the fact that he was our coach.  And even when all the talk faded away and the Vols turned into a 7-6 football team, we were still on board.  We still trusted him.  Even if the blind passion was over, we liked our chances with this one; our serious relationship was off to an acceptable start.

But now it turns out our rebound girl wants to give it a go with her old flame.  She'll say she thinks he's The One, how this is her dream and she wouldn't leave us for anyone else, and that she never really meant to hurt us.  And we will not listen.  To any of it.

When it ends, you think about where things go from here.

The success we enjoyed under Fulmer was rare.  You're allowed to feel however you want about that guy, even a year later, but our success at the top of his game is what it's all about.  We wanted that back.  And in the earliest stages, we were beginning to think that Kiffin could be the one to take us back to the promised land.

Now it's over, and the promised land seems farther away than it did when it started.

Lane Kiffin can say whatever he wants about us being in better shape than we were when he found us 14 months ago.  That was a true statement one week ago.  But in one day, he may have done more to hurt us in the long run than Phillip Fulmer ever did.  When you bail on us three weeks before signing day and do everything in your power to take all of our recruits with you, you weaken us immeasurably.  Whatever good shape we were in last Monday, by his own hand Kiffin changed the entire situation for the worse on Tuesday..for now.

I think about September, when despite our glaring deficiencies in the trenches and inexperience at quarterback, I was already talking myself into a dark horse SEC East run.  I think about our rivals and the way we defended our coach in the face of their accusations, and how we'll do it again for the next guy.  I think about places like Georgia that will try and comfort themselves with some form of "we told you so!" because they have the unique honor of being 0-1 forever against Lane Kiffin and Jonathan Crompton, 45-19. 

I think about the ways in which I try and remember the good times, only to realize that with this one, those memories won't last.

We wanted to believe in Lane Kiffin, and it seemed like Lane Kiffin was doing enough to give us reason to do so.  But in the quick and bitter end, it turns out that Lane Kiffin wasn't worth believing in at all.

Time will tell if he and USC have what it takes to go the distance.  But he will always be our rebound girl and nothing more - the one that, in the end, made us realize how good we used to have it, and the one who will never truly be remembered as part of the Tennessee Family.

I hurt plenty over Fulmer's departure, even when change was necessary.  I will not hurt for an infant who sold out his team at the absolute worst possible moment.  Because while we think about Tennessee, Lane Kiffin thinks only about Lane Kiffin.

The Tennessee Family remains the constant.  And so now, it immediately becomes about the next guy – Derek Dooley - and the next step.  The challenge will be greater than ever before.  But we will be more than ready to love again.
Virginia Tech Exposes Tennessee’s Weaknesses
By Will Shelton

Much in the same way that the overtime win at Kentucky emphasized all the good things about the Vols' 2009 season, Thursday's 37-14 loss to #11 Virginia Tech showed that Tennessee still has a long way to go in some areas.  While the special teams meltdown we were all expecting didn't materialize, the Hokies and the Georgia Dome brought out the worst in the Vols, leaving several questions that must also be addressed for next season:

Smoke and Mirrors on the Offensive Line

If you'd told us all in August that both Cody and Cory Sullins would start the vast majority of games this season on the offensive line, we would've assumed that the performance we saw last night would've been the last of several that left us shaking our heads.  The fact that it was the first is a great testament to what James Cregg and those guys have done all season, setting the stage for Hardesty in zone blocking and keeping Crompton safe, allowing him to mature into a real quarterback.

But in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the Hokies became the first team to take full advantage of Tennessee's undersized offensive line, teeing off repeatedly on Crompton for six sacks, and holding Hardesty to his lowest rushing total of the season.  Hardesty had to work exceptionally hard for every yard he got, including his touchdown run, and the problems in run and pass protection led to the Vols finishing with a total of five rushing yards.

The problem wasn't just the size of the Sullins boys - the entire line struggled, most notably Chris Scott.  The real issue here is that four of these five guys are now gone:  the 2010 Vols will start sophomore Aaron Douglas at tackle and four players to be named later along the rest of the line.  The solid overall play of the '09 line gives you reason to believe that Cregg can get the next makeshift group ready to go.  But the problems the Vols had last night in dealing with a good defensive front make the offensive line the number one question mark heading into next season. 

A Defense stuck between good and great

Ryan Williams is a great player.  He set Virginia Tech and ACC records this season, the Vols weren't the first to struggle with him, and they won't be the last.

There are some similarities in the three teams that have really busted up Monte Kiffin's defense - Auburn, Ole Miss and Virginia Tech, featuring Ben Tate, Dexter McCluster, and Ryan Williams - but this game was just as much about attrition as anything else, especially at linebacker.  Even though both returned to the game, when Rico McCoy and Herman Lathers went out, you got a frightening look at an LB corps that included several freshmen. 

The good news is Nick Reveiz and Savion Frazier should be ready to contribute again next season.  The bad news is the questions will shift to defensive tackle, where Dan Williams and Wes Brown may be the two players the 2010 Vols miss the most.  Montori Hughes had his moments, including last night, but who's the other defensive tackle?

The easiest way to answer this - and several - questions is to say the Vols need more talent.  And the Chimera is out there right now I'm sure.  The Vols played tough and hard the majority of the time on defense, but were thin and tired in the second half, and helpless to stop VT. 

How will this defense fare next season without Eric Berry, Rico McCoy and the two tackles?   

The Process

Because everybody loves the Nick Saban analogy today.
If we had won this game, everyone would've felt great about the entire season, it would've been a definitive success and we would've looked ahead to the immediate future with greater expectations.

But at 8-5 or 7-6, the issues going forward would've been the same, and next year is instantly what it becomes all about.  We should and will still appreciate this season, but if we're always competing, it's already about 2010.  Hopefully, the Vols become more committed to the process as a result of this loss.  And hopefully the Vols continue to recruit well and bring more talent to help the process along.

Next year is an equally difficult picture to try to paint.  I know we'll have issues on both lines, and I know we'll miss Hardesty and EB.  I know that Oregon and Alabama will probably both be preseason Top 5 teams, and LSU may not be far behind.

But I also know that even eight months away, it looks like the most wide open SEC East in its eighteen year existence.  I'm not suggesting the Vols are going to win it...but I'm not suggesting anyone else is either.

We saw plenty of good things this season, and even if we can't unanimously call it a success, it was tangible progress.  The Vols got better, and gave you reasons to believe in both wins and losses.  And the Vols also have real weaknesses that will be faced again next season.  We have a lot of work to do, and along with the other eight billion Tennessee fans in the Georgia Dome last night and everyone else wearing our orange, I am very, very disappointed we didn't get it done against the Hokies.

But Kiffin has done a good job getting the process started.  It wasn't easy and we had highs and lows, and next year promises more of all of that.  But I still like the start...and now Kiffin has to keep it moving forward.

Blowout in LA Leaves Familiar Questions
By Will Shelton

The #9 Vols went to Los Angeles and turned in a horrific performance against the Trojans, in a stunning 77-55 loss.  There is nothing good to say about what we saw out there Saturday.  There's plenty to say otherwise.

The Value of a Point Guard
Mike Gerrity got clearance from the NCAA to play late last week, a transfer from UNC-Charlotte to USC.  He hadn't played collegiate basketball in twenty-one months.  And in his first game back, he had 12 points, 10 assists, and 5 rebounds.  Tennessee had no one who could guard him, no one who could prevent him from going coast-to-coast and either scoring or drawing a foul, and didn't learn to watch for the deep ball leaving his hands on the inbounds pass.

It's not just that Gerrity was the hardest working man on the floor; you expect that in part when someone hasn't played in so long and then returns.  It's that you saw what a true point guard brings to an offense - something the Vols haven't had since CJ Watson.  It wasn't just Gerrity's scoring, it was his poise and leadership.  He directed the Trojan offense, distributed the ball well, and provided leadership to the entire team.

This is what Bruce Pearl needs, and has been unable to find.  Bobby Maze and Melvin Goins have good qualities, but they're not pure point guards, and they don't bring stability and poise to the offense - they're not leaders.  Which raises a much bigger question for the Vols:

Who is the leader of this team?
There is both a personality component and an on-the-floor component to this question, but it's very valid.  When the Vols need a bucket, who do they go to?  And when the team is in a funk and falling behind, who will pick this team up?  Who will put them on their shoulders and turn the tide?  Who will carry that responsibility?

Right now, the best-case answer is we don't know yet.  And the worst-case answer is no one, because most of these guys faced this question last year.
Is it Tyler Smith?  He was nonexistent in the first half and not much better in the second, finishing with 3 points on 1-6 shooting.  Is it Wayne Chism?  Chism has no problem taking shots, and I'm not even upset about his performance today (3 of 11, 1 of 7 from three)...but the fact that 7 of his 11 shots were threes tells a more troubling story:  the Vols got no post game today, in part because USC clogged the lane the whole game, but in part because it's just not there.  How often does this team run plays for Chism or Smith on the block?  How often did we last year?

Who on this team plays with authority at the rim?  Who is the physical presence that can prevent a rebounding performance like today, where the Trojans treated the Vols like children on the block and picked up an inexplicable 43-17 rebounding advantage?  I understand lots of things and know we're not always going to play our best game, but I will never understand not boxing out and standing around waiting for the rebound to come to you.  While the Vols were standing around, two Trojans recorded double-doubles:  Alex Stepheson (19-16) and Nikola Vucevic (15-10). 

Who will lead this team?

Playing with poise on offense

Pearl said it before the game:  you'd better value possessions against USC, or you're going to lose.  The Trojans stacked the lane and dared the Vols to take bad shots, and the Vols were more than happy to oblige: 
20 of 58 from the floor, 34.5%
2 of 22 from the arc, 9.1%
13 of 25 from the line, 52%

Tennessee got impatient, tried to play one-on-one, and didn't take advantage of trips to the free throw line.  The Vols settled for threes that weren't going down, and had no better option.  At no point did we use the phrase "good ball movement" or even "great pass" watching the game today - the Vols played like five individuals instead of one team on offense.  In the first half, the Vols went the final 4:30 without making a shot.  In the second half, the Vols went another 7:00 without a made basket, and USC put the game away.

Meanwhile, USC was patient and incredibly efficient:  the Trojans took only 42 shots, but made 23 of them (54.8%).  3 of 7 from the arc.  A merciless 28 of 35 from the line (80.0%).  Even though the Trojans turned the ball over 18 times - a number you would've felt good about as a Tennessee fan coming in - their efficiency more than made up for it.  Despite playing a seven man rotation, the Trojans didn't tire, they just kept playing their pace, and it worked brilliantly - this is a team that averaged 59 points per game coming in, and thanks to Gerrity and poise, scored almost 80 today.  USC beat the Vols in every phase - and that includes the fact that Bruce Pearl got outcoached by Kevin O'Neill.

Vols Beat MTSU in Nashville’s Sun Belt Classic
By Will Shelton

Tennessee came back from a nine day break for final exams, and in the first half appeared to be following a familiar formula against a mid-major team:  build a decent lead, watch the other team work it back within a few possessions, and back and forth we went.  The Vols led only 37-30 at halftime with a slower tempo, with MTSU staying in it behind the play of 6'7" senior forward Desmond Yates, who scored 16 in the first half.

But in the second half, Tennessee slowed Yates down just enough (he still finished with 26) to build a lead MTSU couldn't work back from, en route to an eventual 21 point win, 75-54.  And again, the Vols did it with balance:  the Scotty Hopson thermometer was down again tonight, as he finished with only 4 points on only 4 shots.  Wayne Chism was solid (9 points, 9 boards, 2 threes), and Tyler Smith was quietly the same (7 points, 4 boards, 5 assists).

With their best players scoring in single digits, the rest of the Vols more than picked up the slack:  Bobby Maze scored 12, Brian Williams had 6 points and 7 boards, and the player of the game was without a doubt J.P. Prince:  17 points on 6 of 8 shooting, in a huge welcome back game, his first this season in double digits.  The Vols proved tonight they can get the necessary contributions from the entire roster, even when the superstars aren't putting up superstar numbers.

Tennessee remains undefeated in what has become an annual neutral site game in Nashville, adding MTSU to the list of teams that includes Murray State, Oklahoma State, Western Kentucky, and Marquette, all of whom the Vols have beaten at the Sommet Center.  Bruce Pearl has repeatedly stated that he wants Tennessee to play a game in Nashville every year - this year it's also the site of the SEC Tournament - and at this pace, why not? 

The Vols go to 7-1 on the year, and have six non-conference games remaining before SEC play begins in the second week of January.  The competition will build from this point:  the Vols host Wyoming on Tuesday night, then travel to Los Angeles to face Kevin O'Neill and Southern Cal next Saturday.  The Vols may not be truly tested until the December 31-January 10 stretch that will feature a trip to Memphis (where the Tigers should come in with only one loss, by two points to #1 Kansas), a huge trap game with Charlotte, and a date with the aforementioned Jayhawks.  The time for tuneups is almost over...but in lots of different places, the Vols continue to see improvement in these early games.

Vols vs Virginia Tech
By Will Shelton

Looking at Virginia Tech in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl:
Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Williams

Tyrod is one of those guys with name recognition value among most college football fans.  But through three seasons, his street cred is better than the actual on-field result.  Virginia Tech, true to form, isn't looking to pass first - Taylor averages only 175 yards passing per contest.  Take a look at Taylor's passing numbers against bowl teams this season:
Alabama:  9 of 20, 91 yards
Nebraska:  12 of 27, 192 yards, 1 TD
Miami:  4 of 9, 98 yards, 1 TD
Boston College:  7 of 10, 126 yards, 2 TDs
Georgia Tech:  10 of 14, 159 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs
North Carolina:  11 of 23, 161 yards
East Carolina:  17 of 30, 137 yards

For the season, Taylor completes only 55% of his passes.  It's an offense that's designed to minimize risk - Taylor has thrown only four picks this season - but also designed to take advantages of defenses that load up to stop the run at key times.

And in stopping the run, again, it's not Taylor that causes problems there necessarily - Tyrod runs for only 28.6 yards per game.  And while Taylor's decision making has improved greatly from last season in terms of interceptions, he still made plenty of questionable decisions in terms of run/pass situations:  the Hokies allowed 30 sacks this season, 90th in the nation. 

All of us who saw what Dexter McCluster and/or Auburn did to Monte Kiffin's defense are automatically on guard anytime we play a team that runs some gimmicky stuff.  And yeah, Virginia Tech is going to run out of some pistol and shotgun sets, as well as maybe a few Wild Turkey looks.  VT's rushing attack is 16th nationally at over 200 yards per game.  And the Hokies have tight ends and wide receivers that know how to block.  But the reason for the offense's success isn't about Tyrod Taylor.

People who aren't overly worried about Ryan Williams definitely haven't seen Virginia Tech play

It's not gimmicky, it's not trickeration, and it hasn't happened because teams were too worried about stopping Tyrod Taylor:  Ryan Williams might be the best running back Tennessee has faced all season.

I know about Mark Ingram, and I remember what McCluster did to us (which isn't to suggest that Williams is going to run for 250 yards against us...I hope).  But Ryan Williams has better numbers than both of them.

The redshirt freshman (that's right) ran for 1,538 yards and 19 touchdowns this season - his 128 yards per game make him fifth in the nation in rushing.  And he's first in the nation in highlight reel runs. You know who Ryan Williams reminds me of?  Montario Hardesty.  They're both explosive, hard runners with a knack for when to make the right move, both have incredible balance...Hardesty hasn't fumbled all year, and Williams has only one - a costly one against UNC - that I can remember. Stopping Ryan Williams straight up is enough of a challenge.  It's in reintroducing the stuff that changes up a defense that it becomes even more complicated. 

Make no mistake:  containing Williams is the first and most important key to victory for The Vols.

The Story of The Season in One Game
By Will Shelton

Make no mistake:  Kentucky has become a solid program that's accustomed to winning.  UK's rise is one of the biggest factors in the SEC's increased depth. 

The SEC has 10 bowl eligible teams, a conference record.  You could argue that the only reason it's not 11 is that Mississippi State scheduled both Georgia Tech and Houston in their non-conference.  The Big 12 has 9 bowl eligible teams, but three of them are 6-6, while all of the SEC's bowl eligible teams are 7-5 or better.  No other conference has more than 7.

There was no greater evidence of the SEC's dominance than what 7-5 Georgia and 7-5 South Carolina did to the two teams that will play for the ACC Championship on Saturday, bookending the ACC/SEC matchups with what Alabama did to Virginia Tech thirteen weeks ago.  Watch this league in bowl games - we're going to put up an incredibly strong win-loss record, en route to our fourth straight National Championship.

In the old days, when UK was your third biggest win of the season, things probably didn't go well.  But this isn't the old days...and after all, Kentucky was our single biggest win of the season last year.

And make no mistake that, once again, Saturday night they thought they had us.

Adversity came to play early, with a pick six that invoked memories of Evil Crompton.  For me, I immediately thought of the 2002 Alabama game, when the Vols had won seven in a row (where seven in a row over Alabama is probably equal to twenty-five in a row over Kentucky).  On UT's opening drive in that game, the Vols saw a turnover returned for a touchdown, a play that felt like it let everyone in the stadium know that things were going to be different on that night, an eventual 34-14 Alabama victory. 

But Crompton and Hardesty came to play too.  Our quarterback rebounded with 220 yards, no more turnovers and every key throw we needed, including two more to Luke Stocker.  Adversity didn't make Crompton worse, it made him better.

With the LB corps depleted, Tennessee's secondary made the three biggest defensive plays of the night:  a welcome back sack from Janzen Jackson, an incredible game-saving tackle from Dennis Rogan on UK's final drive of regulation, and an OT TFL takedown from Eric Berry to push UK towards a 48 yard field goal they wouldn't make.

And how fitting that the game's final play involved a five-star effort from guys like Cody and Cory Sullins, opening up an unfathomable hole for this season's best player, who was happy to oblige with one more touchdown.
7-5 has never felt this good.  8-5 in January will feel even better.
Tennessee 31 Vanderbilt 16 – Vols Survive and Advance
By Will Shelton

The best and worst of Tennessee's 2009 season were on display at different points Saturday night, but in the end the Vols did just enough good to keep Vanderbilt at bay, and Wes Brown put the nail in the Commodores' coffin.

Tennessee's 31-16 win over their in-state rivals makes the Vols bowl eligible, a guaranteed improvement over last year and a nice start for Lane Kiffin.  It will get even nicer if the Vols can win at Kentucky next week, with the SEC's bowl outlook cloudy but still leaving plenty of solid options for a 7-5 Tennessee team.

On senior day, Tennessee's seniors carried the load on both sides of the ball.  The Vol defense also featured plenty of brand new faces, as a unit decimated by injuries at linebacker and still struggling to find itself without Janzen Jackson struggled at times.  But Monte Kiffin's bend-but-don't-break style continued to pay off, as the Vols kept Vandy out of the end zone at every crucial juncture in the second half.

We'll take any win we can get this season, even when we don't play quite as well as we'd like against Vandy.  The ups and downs of the game:

The Good
Jonathan Crompton didn't put on his Peyton Manning mask this week, but was more than fine in his final Neyland Stadium performance:  20 of 34, 221 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT that wasn't his fault.  Crompton's decision making continues to impress in comparison to where it was in September (and all of last year), and his ability to put the ball exactly where it has to be also led to...
Luke Stocker's incredible touchdown catch, one of five on the night for Stocker to lead the team.  Seriously, quit throwing to this guy, because the NFL is going to notice.

Montario Hardesty, on senior day, finally got the sort of workload we thought he'd see all season, and delivered the expected results:  career highs with 32 carries for 171 yards.  Hardesty now has 1125 yards on the season, and yes, it's a longshot, but if he does that again against Kentucky and in the bowl game, he'll give Travis Stephens' single season rushing record a run for its money.  Hardesty needs 339 yards in the final two games...and even if he doesn't get there, he's had a fantastic season.

The Bad
Ole Miss flashbacks on defense.  The Vols didn't break, but did bend just enough to make you worry.  Vanderbilt may not have had the offensive weapons to fully exploit Tennessee's defense (Warren Norman gets 91 yards of offense), but Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb are putting on a show in Athens right now.  If you just look at the box score, the numbers don't show a huge cause for concern - Vols outgained Vandy 422-297 - but there were enough plays where the Commodores had guys running free and breaking tackles against our banged up defense that you have to be concerned about UK.

Season-long flashbacks on special teams.  Hats off to Devin Mathis for literally coming out of nowhere and making his first field goal.  But when the Vols would rather go for a first down (that they wouldn't get) than kick a 40 yard field goal to ice the game, you know we've got problems.  The Vols went for it three times on fourth down instead of kicking field goals, and only converted once.  When the Vols called a fake punt, a penalty negated it.  When Vandy punted, the Vols got called for the incredibly rare snapper interference penalty, and I'll add my name to the list of people who've never, ever seen that called in a game before.  Which leads us to:

The Ugly
Penalties.  Of Tennessee's 9 penalties for 95 yards - remember when we saw the fewest flags in the conference? - some were deserved.  We got one replay of that snapper interference call, but I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt on that one - it's so rare, I'm not even sure what I'm supposed to be looking for.  But two pass interference calls might cause Lane Kiffin to break out his checkbook in the next 48 hours:  one in the first half was completely phantom on Rico McCoy, who made absolutely zero contact and was, in fact, a full step behind the intended target when the ref threw the flag.  The second was potentially much more damaging, negating Dennis Rogan's end zone interception that would've sealed it with the Vols up 24-13 late, which again looked to be completely phantom on a slant route.  I've never seen such inaccuracy on two pass interference calls in a single game - this wasn't even "well there was contact, but...".  There was no contact, twice.  And if Vanderbilt was more capable of taking advantage, it could've really cost the Vols.  Instead, Vandy got only a field goal, the Vols almost ran out the clock, and then...

The Beautiful
Wes Brown is a senior with bad knees, and therefore no real football future.  We've been hearing the "this guy can barely practice" line since fall camp.  But playing next to senior Dan Williams (who also had a big night tonight), Brown picked up the rare DT interception last week at Ole Miss, then topped himself with the game-sealing DT pick six tonight, carrying a Commodore the final ten yards for the end zone.  Bonus points for Lane Kiffin decking Jonathan Crompton during the sideline celebration.
Vols helpless against McCluster
By Will Shelton

The last two weeks, when faced with potential emotional letdowns, Lane Kiffin pushed all the right buttons.  Heartbroken after the Alabama loss?  Black jerseys provided a lift, and the Vols started fast in a 31-13 win over South Carolina.  Worried about not taking Memphis seriously?  Kiffin opens competition at half a dozen positions, and the Vols bury the Tigers 42-7 in the first half.

Saturday, in what was already an emotionally-charged situation with Ed Orgeron returning to his old 'cruitin grounds, the Vols were thrown another curveball with the arrests of three freshmen on Thursday morning.  And this time, there were no more buttons to push:  whatever Tennessee's emotional state, playing against Dexter McCluster without your starting free safety and with your third string middle linebacker is clearly a recipe for disaster.

No buttons to push, and no answers for McCluster led to a 42-17 Rebel victory over the once-hot Vols, who leave Oxford at 5-5, wounded but still with a chance to improve and get bowl eligible.  You got the sense from the opening kickoff, which went out of bounds - and we'll get to special teams in a moment - that Tennessee just wasn't right.  And it didn't take McCluster long to prove it.

The Rebels went 60 yards in only 4 plays off the out of bounds kickoff, with McCluster ending it on a 15 yard touchdown run.  The Vols were equal to the task early, matching Ole Miss's first two scores with scores of their own, as Jonathan Crompton hit Jeff Cottam and Denarius Moore for touchdowns.  But as the game wore on, the Vols couldn't find consistentcy on offense, and McCluster was consistently great.

While Tennessee struggled to a 275 yard, 4-of-13 on third down offensive performance, Ole Miss ripped Monte Kiffin's defense for 492 yards, 359 of which came on the ground, and 324 total by way of McCluster.  The senior - which is the best word in this sentence - set school records for rushing yards (282) and total yards (324), and averaged an insane 11 yards per touch.  No one on the defense had an answer:  even Eric Berry couldn't get him on the ground by himself, while Rico McCoy - the lone remaining healthy starting linebacker - played his worst game of the season by far.  When you're shorthanded and distracted already against a player like McCluster and your best players don't play their best, you lose. 

The Vols had their chances at times, especially at the end of the first half and the start of the second, when Ole Miss shanked a field goal, the Vols kicked one of their own, and then Wes Brown scored an interception on the one truly well defended play of the afternoon.  Down 21-17, Tennessee had a chance to take the lead...but Jonathan Crompton (20 of 37 for only 176 yards, 2 TDs and not responsible for stopping McCluster) threw behind Denarius Moore on 4th down, and the Rebels were done giving Tennessee opportunities.

The rest of the game felt like a flashback to both times the Vols played Nebraska in bowl games following the 1997 and 1999 seasons:  you knew what was coming, and you knew we wouldn't stop it.  McCluster's success allowed Jevan Snead to hide for most of the day with a 13 of 20, 133 yard performance.  Tennessee's defense has been statistically very good all season, but the two SEC opponents they've faced that spread the defense out have crossed them up all day long:  Ole Miss had 492 yards today, and Auburn had 459 yards, both Tennessee losses.  And while we won't see Gus Malzahn again for quite some time, Ole Miss comes to Knoxville 52 weeks from today...sans-McCluster, but still.  The defense has to improve against teams that run offensive systems like this.

The reality is, this team is still young and still improving, and also still learning.  The Vols are 5-5 and still have a chance to improve on last year, and a trip to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl is still very much on the table, which I think would be a very big deal for this team.  There is still a lot to be happy about with this team.

That said, our special teams play is indefensible.

Daniel Lincoln returned and made a 27 yarder, but apparently anything we try over 40 yards is going to get blocked.  Tennessee has now surrendered 4 blocked field goals, 1 blocked punt, 1 missed extra point, and 2 kickoffs returned for touchdowns this season.  This is unacceptable, regardless of how many years Lane Kiffin has been here.  This isn't why the Vols lost, but is a glaring, glaring hole in our football team; if the Vols are down 2 to Vanderbilt next week on the final drive, how confident is our kicker and our entire team in our ability to make a field goal of any real length to win?

On the whole, you tip your hat to Dexter McCluster and wish him well in his future endeavors, and we turn our attention to Vanderbilt.  We'll apparently do so without yet another linebacker, as LaMarcus Thompson went down on the Rebels' final drive with a head or neck injury, where we don't really know any details except that he was in a lot of pain.  And in terms of button pushing, the Vols' four previous losses were by 4, 10, 4 and 2, two of those games to the #1 team in the country.  This is Kiffin's first taste of getting blown out in Knoxville...how will he respond?  How will this team respond?

The answers come next week, with a solid finish and a trip to a solid bowl still on the table.  For now, congrats to the Rebels, and we look forward to seeing McCluster again only in our nightmares.
The Vols & Lane Kiffin do whatever they want to Memphis
By Will Shelton

If you didn't see it and you're only looking at the final or the box score, the real numbers aren't the double-up on the scoreboard, or the fact that Memphis gained 401 yards and scored more points against Tennessee's defense than anyone has all season.  Any eyebrow-raising is reserved for next season.

Because the real story of this game was told in the first thirty minutes and the first two drives of the second half.  Tennessee had eight possessions in that span, and scored touchdowns on seven of them.  We still don't know if we can kick field goals, because Lane Kiffin and the Vols weren't playing that game tonight.

Instead of settling at any point in the first half, Kiffin and the Vols went for the throat from the first play.  After David Oku set the tone with a 69 yard return on the opening kick, the Vols ran a trick play on their first snap, an incomplete halfback pass.  No matter, the Vols scored five plays later, and we were off to the races.

En route to a 42-7 halftime lead, the Vols never punted, tried the onside kick, went for it on fourth down three times (including once at our own 35), forced a fumble and got Eric Berry six yards closer to his record with an interception, dialed up two unsuccessful trick plays, and basically did anything they wanted to on every snap.

During Crompton's time in the game - again, just the first half and the first offensive drive of the third quarter - he went 21 of 27 for 331 yards (career high), throwing five touchdowns to five different receivers (GJones, Denarius, Stocker, Hancock, and Nuke) and sneaking one in himself for six total touchdowns (career high, and only short of the all-time UT record because Erik Ainge had four overtimes to get seven in 2007).  If Memphis doesn't like being called Tiger High, maybe they'd settle for Career High.

Tennessee was up 49-7 with more than 12:00 left in the third quarter, and we were thinking about all-time scoring records, when Kiffin decided that what he wanted to do next was put the backups in and see what we had.

From there, Memphis outscored the Vols 21-7, broke loose for almost 300 yards in the second half, and did cause a few raised eyebrows about Tennessee's depth, especially defensively.  Nick Stephens had his moments (5 of 9 for 98 yards with a touchdown and an interception) and plenty of guys got experience.  Yeah, we're not thrilled with the way our second and third team defense played...but the fact that they got 27 minutes of work means we're very thrilled with everything else.

Kiffin - the head coach of a 5-4 football team who said he thought a game against then-ranked South Carolina "shouldn't have been close" and expressed disappointment when the Vols won by 18 - is going to do whatever he wants.  You've probably figured that out when it comes to his mouth.  But Memphis got the same deal tonight on the field, where the Vols showed no mercy.  It's not running up the score when you do it in one half and one drive.

There are questions of depth for the future, sure.  Monte will have plenty to stress this week.  But right now, Tennessee is a confident, dangerous football team.  The Vols wiped the floor with Memphis for the 21st time in 22 tries.  Now we turn our attention to a game that will make the difference between a good season and an average one for both teams:  Ed Orgeron and the Vols are headed for Oxford, full speed ahead.
Putting Jonathan Crompton’s Performance Against Georgia in Perspective
By Will Shelton

Against Georgia, our favorite quarterback threw for 310 yards and 4 TDs against our favorite defensive coordinator.  When's the last time a Tennessee quarterback went for 300 & 4?  Glad you asked:

Erik Ainge did it three times:  against Memphis in 2006, Arkansas State in 2007, and Kentucky in 2007, working with the extra added benefit of four overtimes to throw seven touchdown passes.

Casey Clausen did it twice:  as a freshman against Kentucky in 2000, and as a senior against Mississippi State in 2003.

Tee Martin did it only once, against South Carolina in 1998 in his NCAA record-breaking 23 of 24 completions game.

Peyton Manning...well, he did it eight times, cause that's how he rolls.

So, outside of Manning, you can see that most of these performances have come against severely disadvantaged defenses.  I'll let you decide whether or not to take the bait on the obvious joke about Georgia's defense there...but either way, what Crompton did last Saturday shouldn't be understated.

And for a more present perspective, Crompton is tied for 16th in the nation (and tied for second in the SEC) in touchdown passes, with 13.

If Crompton keeps this pace, counting a bowl game he'd finish the year with 28 touchdown passes.  That number would be good for third all-time at UT, behind only the senior seasons of Peyton Manning (36) and Erik Ainge (31).
...not bad, right?  I know, one thing at a time...I'm just taking the chance to appreciate Crompton before the moment passes.

The moment may pass quickly on Saturday against #1 Alabama’s defense, which has 10 interceptions already this season and tons of talent. Last year against much of the same personnel, the Vols struggled to score any points even when opportunities presented themselves. Tennessee will need a heroic defensive performance to keep the game low-scoring if they’re going to give themselves a chance to win: while it’s good to appreciate what Crompton did against Georgia, to expect something similar against Alabama would be unwise.

Still, Crompton has given Tennessee fans something to think about as the Vols head on the road to face the number one team in the country for the second time in six weeks.

What We Learned In September
By Will Shelton

We're playing Russian Roulette with Jonathan Crompton.

It's no longer a matter of if Jonathan Crompton is going to hurt Tennessee each week, it's simply when, and how bad is the wound going to be.  That's not to say he isn't capable of doing some good things at times or making some decent throws, as he did last night against Ohio.  In fact, his numbers would've been better against the Bobcats if Vol receivers held on to the football.

In his entire Tennessee career, Crompton has now seen significant action in 12 games spanning three seasons.  In those 12 games, he's been responsible for 18 turnovers.  That's 1.5 per game. In fact, only twice has Crompton played a turnover-free game:  his backup duty performance against Wyoming, where he went 11 of 27 in a Vol loss, and against Kentucky last season, where the Vols passed only eight times.

This is who he is.

Again, it's not to say Nick Stephens should be playing instead, or that he can't make some good throws, or that the Vols can't win when he's under center.  You just need to know, and you might as well embrace at this point, that Tennessee's quarterback is going to cost you 1.5 turnovers per game.  How the Vols choose to manage these expected mistakes will go a long way in determining how successful the month of October is.

Montario Hardesty is the best back to wear the orange since Travis Stephens
Last night, the Vols opened things up in the first half in hopes that Crompton would produce.  When it wasn't going as well as we'd hoped, it's no big deal:  we'll just give it to #2 and watch him run for 135 yards in the second half.

I don't know if this is Hardesty or Eddie Gran or both, but when that kid gets the handoff, he's already at full speed.  There's no waiting for this or that hole, he takes the ball with explosion, and then leaves defenders in the collateral damage.  When was the last time you didn't just expect a Tennessee back to break tackles, you got used to it?

Hardesty has 485 yards in 4 games, which includes two tremendously tough performances against great defenses from UCLA and Florida.  He's still averaging 5.8 yards per carry.  He's 7th nationally and 1st in the SEC in rushing yards (storyline alert:  numbers two and three both play for Auburn). 
And Hardesty has been here.  He's done his time, waited on the depth chart, showed flashes of greatness like that run against Cal way back in 2006.  But now, there's no more waiting:  #2 is the man.  And in this offense, he'll need to be that and then some this month to get the Vols where they want to go.  I don't expect him to disappoint.

How good is Chris Walker?

He sacked Tim Tebow twice.  He gets the rare defensive lineman pick-six on an incredibly savvy play last night.  Through four games, he has 5.5 TFLs, 4 sacks, a pick, a forced fumble and a touchdown.  When they said he was unblockable in the spring...again, maybe Lane Kiffin really is a man of his word.

Walker is the kind of dominant presence at end the Vols have been sorely missing.  He's got better numbers than Robert Ayers and been a bigger presence in the opposition's backfield than anyone we've had in recent memory - like Hardesty, you have to go back to 2001 to find a better DE performance thus far.

Suddenly, I'm worried about this guy turning pro early.

Random thoughts on the Vols’ 31-13 win over South Carolina:

By Will Shelton

The Jonathan Crompton we would've happily settled for a month ago
I think this was the type of performance from Crompton (and the offense) we thought we'd get back in August, and we prayed for in September:  a run-heavy attack (40 rushing plays to 24 passing), a completion percentage at or above even (12 of 24), keeping it simple and safe (only 142 yards passing, half of the 12 receptions going to backs & tight ends, including the ultra-rare double fullback touchdown pass), and no mistakes (zero interceptions).  In fact, on that last point, when our quarterback did what he still likes to do by trying to turn it over around once a week, Crompton beat everyone else to his own fumble.

Keep in mind, South Carolina entered the game with the nation's third best pass defense, and both Kiffin and Crompton played it smart, taking few risks with the short fields they were given, while still finding ways to finish drives. 
Crompton's average performance - and again, we would've killed to use the word "average" to describe him just four weeks ago - makes what he did against Alabama look even more impressive, and his numbers against Georgia belong in their own separate category.  It may not get easier specifically for Crompton - Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky all wield Top 25 pass defenses - but after three straight weeks of playing anywhere between average and Manningesque, and doing so twice against elite pass defenses, I think Crompton can continue to play somewhere between the two from here on out.

Tennessee's Defense is a Beautiful Thing
Yes, South Carolina got 300 yards passing, but Stephen Garcia threw 50 passes to get there and completed only 25 of them.  Meanwhile, the Vols stonewalled Carolina's ground game, giving up only 65 yards.  And while a great catch by Moe Brown broke the Vol defense's 10 quarter streak of keeping teams out of the end zone, their continual bend-but-absolutely-no-breaking play gives Tennessee the advantage against everyone left on the schedule.

Have you ever seen one team have three consecutive field goals blocked against them?

Seriously, has this ever happened in college or the NFL?  As good as we are on defense, we're that bad on special teams.  Hopefully, it's already cost us the only game it's going to.

Bringing Order from Chaos in the SEC East
For the present, the Vols should now finish the season as the clear-cut second best team in the SEC East, having disposed of the other candidates - no offense to our November opponents - by a combined 44 points.  That'll help with bowl seeding, as I continue to see no way the Vols miss out on January 1 if they win out.

But in terms of recruiting and the future...if you were going to win two games this month, the Vols won the two most important ones.

When the Vols were at their best from 93-99, Tennessee went 14-0 against Georgia and South Carolina.  Florida is always going to be good, and Alabama should be too and will be as long as Nick Saban is there.  LSU has the in-state talent base to join the conversation...but we only see them every four years.  The fewer good teams there are outside those three, the better.  The Vols need to become the fourth, and then lock the doors behind them. 

Lane Kiffin can't establish dominance over anyone in his first year, and it'll take several seasons before Tennessee can even begin to think of themselves more highly than Georgia and Carolina.  However, the Vols have history on their side:  Tennessee has ripped Georgia apart in three of the last four meetings, and Tennessee is now 22-4-2 all-time against the Gamecocks.  Despite the outcome last night, the talent differential between Tennessee and Carolina isn't that wide:  the Gamecocks actually outgained Tennessee, and if they just held on to the ball in the first half, that's a tight ballgame to the finish.  They are the two youngest teams in the SEC and will compete in a wide open SEC East next season.  Georgia, meanwhile...well, they're not in a good place right now.

But the point is, if Tennessee can keep their boot on the throats of Georgia and Carolina and re-establish a definitive advantage on them both as a program, the recruiting battles become easier to win in states the Vols once pulled from, making it easier for the Vols to be back on par with the Floridas and Alabamas of the world from a talent standpoint.  We're a long way away from that right now...but Saturday might have been the first step.

And finally...   
I'm a traditionalist.  I was a history major, I love talking about the great Vol teams of the Fulmer or Majors eras, and I think our orange uniforms are great, and borderline sacred.  I don't like it when teams change their unis on a whim (or Nike's whim), and I think there's a reason the winningest teams in college football history - Alabama, USC, Penn State, etc. - don't mess around with their uniforms.

I wasn't prepared for the black.  I never thought we'd actually do it - I thought we might work it in more on the road at some point, but never a sudden replacement of the sacred orange at home.  During pregame warmups, I was texting my dad and others who come from the same line of thinking to assure them that all was well.

When the Vols came to the edge of the tunnel, and suddenly the JumboTron showed the black unis, at first I was stunned.  And I still think that had I been sitting at home watching that game on TV, I would've hated them.

But to have been there, and to have heard and felt the reaction of that crowd, and then to have seen the way this team came out and played off of that emotion - in a week where we were all worried about an emotional letdown - I think everyone in the stadium Saturday night liked those uniforms within ten minutes of first laying eyes on them.  Including me.

Do I want to see them every week?  No.  But now that the ice is broken...you know what would look even better?
Black pants

This is what The Third Saturday in October is all about
By Will Shelton

It was true in 2003 when the Vols survived five overtimes to break Bama hearts, and it was true again today where survival was the key word, regardless of who was ranked where.  That five overtime game we came out on the right end of, but I remember thinking that day that both teams had a lot to be proud of and were just a part of something really special.  And I feel the same way today, even on the wrong end of the outcome:  that was special.
I tip my cap to Alabama - and especially to their kicker - because they did what they had to do to win.  Teams that win games like this one today are teams that go on to win National Championships.

But can't we say that the only difference between Tennessee and Alabama today was their kicker?

Mark Ingram outrushed Montario Hardesty, but Jonathan Crompton outplayed Greg McElroy.  The Joneses - Julio and Gerald - each had seven catches.  Each team had only one turnover, and neither was particularly adept at scoring touchdowns:  the Vols got one, Bama got zero.

The Vols won the total yardage battle with two great defenses on the field 341-256, won time of possession by four and a half minutes, and the only stat you can decidedly favor Alabama in is penalties, with the Vols committing eight and the Tide only one.

That, and the kickers.

Postgame comments from Lane Kiffin suggest that Lincoln had re-injured his quad, costing him distance (short on the 47 yarder) and trajectory (blocked kicks x2).  Leigh Tiffin went four for four, including kicks from 50 and 49 yards away.  Daniel Lincoln went one for four, with two blocks.  That's the difference in the ballgame.

(Note:  Alabama has great defensive tackles and we did a poor job preventing penetration on the final kick.  I know we're all eager to take our built-up hatred of Jonathan Crompton and turn it on Daniel Lincoln - and he certainly bears plenty of responsibility - but not everything wrong with that last kick was his fault).

So the difference between Tennessee and the number one team in the country is two points and two blocked field goals.

This hurts.

But the entire Tennessee family - players, coaches, administration, fans, boosters, and Smokey - needs to get past it.  Because after seven games and two toe-to-toe showdowns with the best teams in the country, the Vols aren't just hoping that we'll be a good team one day soon anymore, and won't just be satisfied with being close - the Vols have a chance to be a good team right now.

Tennessee isn't among the most talented teams in the country right now, especially on offense.  And even a strong finish of five straight wins and a January 1 bowl doesn't promise great success in 2010 (see:  Ole Miss '09, Georgia '08).  But we might be better than we thought we would be, sooner than we thought we'd be it.  We might be good now, not later.  The best chance to prove it will present itself Saturday night in Knoxville.

Lane Kiffin and the SuperStaff have proved they can recruit, and proved they can put together great gameplans on both sides of the ball.  This is the week we'll find out how well Kiffin can manage his team.

This season can end one of two ways.  The Vols are going to be an emotionally vulnerable team next Saturday, playing a Top 25 South Carolina team with a very good defense, and playing in the dog-eat-dog SEC means you have to be ready every single week regardless of opponent.  The Vols are a team that's had to eat four tough losses, each of them coming down to a handful of frustrating moments that, had they gone the other way, could've turned 3-4 into 5-2 or even 6-1.  We've been good enough to be right there all season, but have come up short more often than not.

After awhile - and especially after today - losses like this take their toll, and it becomes harder to prepare for the next challenge.  If the Vols feel sorry for themselves, look back instead of look forward and don't continue to improve, this season can still end at 6-6 - or worse - and frustration will be its dominant emotion.

But if Kiffin takes care of his team this week and has them ready to play Saturday night against South Carolina, and throughout the remainder of the season...this team isn't just game enough to win the rest of them, they're good enough.  And while 6-6 or worse would be frustrating, 8-4 and January 1 would give this team a chance to finish with an exclamation point - not just to point towards the future, but to finish the present the right way, as a definitively good football team. 

The Vols have decimated Georgia and served notice to Florida and Alabama that they're going to be a factor.  The future looks good...but the present still can too.
The First Big Win For Lane Kiffin
By Will Shelton

Last year, the Vols suffered the most frustrating competitive loss in recent memory against Auburn, and were more or less noncompetitive in the rest of the big SEC games, losing by 20+ to Florida, Alabama and South Carolina.  Plus, the Vols gave up 458 yards to Georgia and ran for one total yard themselves in a 26-14 loss.

This year, it's been competitive, but up until today that was all.  We were close against Florida.  Close against UCLA.  We made it close at the end against Auburn.  There was reason for hope.

But we needed more than hope.  This program hadn't won a big game in two years, and Lane Kiffin needed a reason to be believed besides his work behind a microphone and in the living room on the recruiting trail.

The Clawfense was our hope once.  But when it never became tangible, the players never had a reason to fully buy in, and that hope eventually collapsed and took everyone down with it.  Phillip Fulmer's inability to keep the snowball from rolling downhill by winning a big game was the final nail in his coffin last season.

Kiffin was next in line to give us hope.  But unlike last season, today he and the Vols got a return on that investment.  A big one.

Any win would've been huge today.  But the how of it all, in a 45-19 game that could've/should've been 45-3 if you remove special teams from the equation, gives Kiffin his big first win, and gives him something to hang his hat on.  Now we've seen it, now we know for sure that this can work - players, fans, everyone.  That's not to say that Kiffin is going to have success here forever, but when you win like that in your first year against one of your biggest rivals, you earn a whole lot of trust.  Tennessee needed to win one of these big SEC games in the worst way.  And turns out, we won in the very best way.

Georgia got 458 yards of offense last year.  This year they got 241.  Tennessee had 1 rushing yard last year.  This year we got 162.  And if you liked the running game...  

At halftime, I told my friend next to me in Z11 that I didn't want to see Crompton's numbers.  There was a Raiders of the Lost Ark feel about it - "Shut your eyes!  Don't look at it!" - because what #8 did in the first half was so totally unnatural, I feared that seeing 12 of 15 for 205 yards and 3 TDs and then having my brain try to comprehend it might, in fact, make my face melt off.

Then in the second half, when the dreaded tipped ball pick six reared its ugly head and Georgia was right in the middle of one of those games it seems like that team always wins - statistically overmatched, but in it thanks to special teams and defensive touchdowns - Crompton went right back to work.

Let's take nothing away from him.  That offensive performance was stunning, and he deserves every ounce of credit for his role in it.  So do the receivers for catching almost everything - eight different Vols caught passes, and Gerald Jones gave us the type of go-to performance we've been waiting for with 105 yards and 2 TDs. 

So does Montario Hardesty, for giving every defense a reason to be vulnerable to play action, and for continuing to be the best running back in the SEC.

In a world where Florida has beaten you five years in a row and won two National Championships in the process, Alabama is back to being Alabama and LSU is also ahead of you, it was absolutely critical for Lane Kiffin to keep Tennessee from slipping any further in the SEC hierarchy.

Beating Georgia was, is, and always will be key for recruiting.    

But it also pays off in the short term:  being just the fifth best team in the SEC is still good enough to get you to January 1, and after that performance the conversations about bowl games move from if to where.

And even if I'm too busy feeling Georgia's pain to fully appreciate it the way I'd like to today, it should be noted and remembered that three of the last four years, the Vols have beaten the Dawgs 51-33, 35-14, and 45-19.

So now the bye week comes at the perfect time, as the Vols will carry some spring in their step to Tuscaloosa to face a tremendous challenge.  And they'll face it not as a 2-4 team still looking for answers and their first big win, but a 3-3 team that isn't just hoping anymore...now we've seen it.  Now we know.
Sooner than later, we've got to win one of these
By Will Shelton

The Vols haven't won a big game since 2007, haven't beaten a ranked foe - which Auburn wasn't, but should've been and definitely is now - since Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl that season.  And that's using a looser definition of "big game" than we're used to 'round these parts, because you'd have to go back to October of that year to find a win that this program could truly pound its chest over.  In the two years between Georgia's last visit to Knoxville and their trip to Neyland Stadium at the end of this week, it feels in many ways like everything has changed.  The last time Tennessee secured a win they could really feel good about feels like it was a million years ago.

The optimists among us will tell you that we're right there.  We were right there against UCLA and couldn't finish drives, we were right there against Auburn and missed two kicks.  The realists know we're probably not as close as we'd like to think.  And we all know that most of the good we acccomplish is in spite of ourselves in the passing game.

But sooner than later, we have to stop being close and playing hard and being excited about this or that aspect.  Sooner than later, we have to win one of these games.

Meanwhile, Nick Stephens' only window of opportunity is in the bye week, and it's still not a very big window.

You can hate it, you can question it, and you can dream of a day when things are different, but at this point you might as well embrace it:  Jonathan Crompton isn't going anywhere.  And this is who we are as an offense.

In the immediate postgame on Saturday, Kiffin told Vol Network listeners that he was displeased with Crompton's start (7 of 22) and encouraged by his finish (13 of 21 in the 4th quarter).  He can go back and watch the film, but he's going to find the same Jon Crompton that's always been there, only a little more hidden behind a month's worth of drops from his wide receivers.  Note to Gerald Jones:  no more complaints about not getting the ball thrown your way until you catch more of the ones that are.  The fact that he still finished with 7 catches for 75 yards probably makes that point irrelevant.

The only way you're going to see Nick Stephens is if Crompton plays even worse this week.  Because as it stands, Tennessee is still competitve in spite of their quarterback, and their quarterback will make a throw every once in a while that gives Kiffin just enough to think about.  Just enough to dream. 

If Crompton tanks again against Georgia - especially if he tanks in such a way that the game isn't competitive, unlike the losses to UCLA and Auburn, and really even Florida - I think Kiffin could give Stephens the keys during the off week and let him get two solid weeks with the ones.  Throwing Nick Stephens to the wolves in Tuscaloosa is no more frightening than sending Crompton under center in Gainesville, and we "celebrated" a moral victory for a week over that one. 

If the Vols fall hard against Georgia, the QB change comes at a time to reignite some spark in a 2-4 football team.  And if Crompton actually finds a way not to hurt us just once, and the rest of the team takes advantage of a vulnerable Georgia squad, then Kiffin gets to keep riding his man under center towards the finish line.  Crompton is Kiffin's guy, and that point has been made repeatedly and unwaveringly.  Which is why Crompton going the rest of the way is still the most likely scenario.

Is it equal parts insanity and depression that the best we can hope for is that our quarterback gets out of his own way and just doesn't hurt us?  Yes.  And I'm telling you, embrace the madness, because the madness is here to stay.

The Vols may not win any championships this year
By Will Shelton

I started going to Tennessee Football games in 1985, when I was 4 years old. I started going every Saturday three years later, and watched the Vols start the 1988 season 0-6 before winning their last five in a row.

Starting the following season in 1989, Tennessee would find themselves in the nationally relevant college football conversation for two decades.

The end of Johnny Majors’ tenure and the start of Phillip Fulmer’s marked the highpoint of Tennessee football: in the 90s, Tennessee had more talent than just about everyone else, and it showed as the Vols won three SEC Championships and the 1998 National Championship. While Tennessee took a step back from college football’s upper elite after the 2001 season, I have always believed that Tennessee was still good enough to win against anyone, anywhere, anytime.

That perception took a beating last season, as the Vols went 5-7 and Phillip Fulmer lost his job. When the Vols lost to UCLA last week and the Lane Kiffin Era got off to a rocky start, it became harder to blame 2008’s struggles on Dave Clawson and more likely that Tennessee was simply several steps behind much of the SEC in terms of talent.

Saturday’s game in The Swamp was slated to be the final nail in that coffin, as the Vols would be led as lambs to The Swamp, and Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer would repeatedly hammer the Vols. Tennessee was a thirty point underdog against the defending National Champions, and Kiffin’s words had seemingly made it worse. Even the biggest optimists among us would be forced to let go of any notion of Tennessee being competitive enough to play with the big boys.

Tennessee didn’t win on Saturday. And I would never use the word “happy” to describe my feelings about a loss, much less the fifth in a row to the Gators.

But the Vols’ effort, especially in the running game and on defense, and especially in spite of deficiencies at quarterback with Jonathan Crompton, leaves one with a good feeling about this team. Both in terms of what they could be when Kiffin and staff continue to recruit to close the talent gap once more…but also, what they can still be this season.

The Vols may not win any championships this year, but the new hire has pushed back the immediacy of those expectations. If Tennessee can play with Florida, they can play with anyone. They may not win them all, and they may not always look good along the way. But on a day when Lane Kiffin was supposed to be humbled and the Vols declared irrelevant until their recruits caught up to full speed in 2011, both parties did their part in keeping Tennessee alive and well in the national consciousness, and making sure that the rest of this season will be very interesting.

That starts this week, as Jonathan Crompton gets a chance to rebuild himself against a softer defense from Ohio. And then it goes full speed in October, as the Vols face four games – Auburn, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina – that will ultimately define success for Tennessee in 2009.

The story of Kiffin and the Vols remains interesting. Stay tuned.

Can Lane Kiffin Win with Jonathan Crompton?
By Will Shelton

A one week respite was nice, but the real Crompton came back on Saturday against UCLA, with four total turnovers and an inability to move the ball downfield, the two biggest factors in the Vols’ 19-15 loss to the Bruins. Tennessee’s season and Kiffin’s administration had been nothing but promising after the Vols blew out Western Kentucky 63-7. But just one week later, Kiffin’s honeymoon is over and Vol fans have to wonder if this year is going to turn out an awful lot like last year.

You can say whatever you want about Lane Kiffin – and many have – but he’s proved himself to be a man of his word. He said he would play freshmen, and he did. He also said he would not rotate quarterbacks, and he stood by that one too, a much less popular decision. Clichés are clichés because they’ve been true for a long time: the backup quarterback is the most popular player on campus, and Nick Stephens is surely feeling a lot of love this morning.

A team with a fragile psyche headed into the lion’s den to play Florida – a game in which the Vols could be the biggest underdog in the history of the program – Kiffin must make his next move very carefully, and has been thrust into a difficult coaching situation in only his third fall week on the job. If a team with a great defense for the second year in a row – the Vols gave up only 186 yards to UCLA in a losing effort – turns on a Vol offense that struggles to produce for the second year in a row, the young head coach will be tested in bigger ways than he signed on for.

All of this before the Vols face, and presumably fall to Florida for the fifth year in a row.

Every season tells a story. This year’s roller coaster starts with a steep incline.

The Right Opponent And The Right Moment
By Will Shelton

Between the quality of the opponent and the importance of the moment, Tennessee and Lane Kiffin had a chance for a lot of things to go wrong on Saturday against Western Kentucky. Instead, it all went right:

Jonathan Crompton, last seen as part of the problem in 2008, was part of the solution in 2009. He fired five touchdown passes, one more than he threw in all of 2008, and managed the game brilliantly. After waiting for five years and learning under four different offensive coordinators, Crompton had his moment, leading the Vols to victory with a great individual performance.

Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown led a Vol rushing attack that picked up 380 yards on the ground, Tennessee’s best performance in 15 years. Brown was impressive in his freshman debut, but anyone who thought he was going to unseat Hardesty got a quick reminder that #2 is fully capable of the feature back in this offense as well.

Eleven different Vols caught passes, led by true freshman Marsalis Teague and junior Quintin Hancock. Both caught zero passes for the Vols last season.

The offensive line, when they weren’t paving the way for UT’s 380 rushing yards, was keeping Crompton’s orange jersey crisp and clean. The senior quarterback was hit once all day. Cody and Cory Sullins completed their transition from walk-ons to contributors, with Cody starting at center and Cory playing with the second team.

A brand new defensive line recorded 4 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss, led by Chris Walker and Gerald Williams at end. The Vols held Western Kentucky to 83 total yards, 66 of which came on one drive when some of the starters had already been pulled.

The linebackers probably got talked about the least during fall camp, but the Vols may have found a playmaker in LaMarcus Thompson, who forced and recovered a fumble. And Rico McCoy showed he’s still fully capable of delivering punishment. But it was Nick Reveiz in the middle who earned the most praise from Lane Kiffin in the postgame show. The Vols are more than fine at LB.

Eric Berry made one tackle. One. And the Vols still held Western to 83 yards.

All in all, the perfect start for the new era and the new administration. Yes, it was only Western Kentucky. Yes, this team will still have some growing pains. But you couldn’t ask for anything more on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

UCLA comes to town next week, and the bar will be raised. As much fun as last week was, this week should prove to be just as educational. But through one week, Tennessee Football is fun again.

It’s Florida’s world, and we’re all just living in it
By Will Shelton

The Gators have won two National Championships in the last three years. They have the poster child of college football, a player more universally recognized than any SEC player since Peyton Manning, who also has the Heisman Trophy that slipped through Peyton’s hands. They are the most dominant preseason #1 in the history of college football, looking to become the first team to repeat as National Champions since Nebraska did it in 1994 & 1995, and Tim Tebow seeks to become only the second player to win the Heisman Trophy. By year’s end, Florida’s run under Urban Meyer could be one of the best ever, and Tim Tebow could, in total seriousness, be the greatest player in the history of college football.

When you just won the National Championship, it’s more difficult to get excited about the upcoming season – you don’t have payback as a motivator, because you’ve beaten everyone on your schedule (Florida doesn’t play Ole Miss this season, the only team to get the best of them last year). You have to find new ways to inspire your team. So thanks to Lane Kiffin, Florida’s date with Tennessee in three weeks has arguably become the most anticipated game on their schedule. A 5-7 team on the road at the defending National Champion, and a team that’s beaten the Vols 59-20 and 30-6 in the last two years…it shouldn’t be this way. Urban Meyer is undefeated against the Vols, and Florida will still be favored on The Third Saturday in September by at least four touchdowns.

And yet, Kiffin has drawn national attention to the game. I’m not entirely sure it’s a good thing to have the nation watching while you get beat by 28+ points…but if the Vols simply stay competitive with Florida, Kiffin may have established a foothold. It’s been this way with many of Kiffin’s antics, some of which he’s said in recent weeks that he didn’t enjoy partaking in, but felt were necessary to get Tennessee’s name out there in a college football landscape where the Vols must recruit nationally. For better or for worse, Kiffin has made the Vols one of college football’s most interesting offseason stories. And as we enter gameweek, the Vols will have a chance to ensure that balance swings for better.

Tennessee doesn’t have to beat Florida to do it…but if the Vols win the games they’re supposed to win (Tennessee could be favored in as many as eight contests this season) and score an upset here or there, Kiffin can keep the Vols in the relevant conversation all season, and build for the future. Last season the Vols were only relevant because of what went wrong. This time, even if Florida exposes them, Kiffin and the Vols can be relevant with a solid first season.

So even in Florida’s world, the Vols can find a way to carve out some space for themselves. And this time, the Vols can be relevant for the right reasons.
Eric Berry Is Special!
By Will Shelton

At the Tennessee-Florida basketball game in Knoxville back in January, Eric Berry strode onto the court during a timeout, and was met with a thunderous standing ovation. It was the joyful release of a fan base that struggled to find anything to cheer for last season, and at that point still wasn’t quite sure what to make of the new coaching staff (though they too received generous applause).But what Eric Berry has done in just two seasons in Knoxville has been so special, he likely would’ve received the same reaction had the Vols won twice as many games last year.

For now, he’ll settle for being the primary face of hope and redemption, the rally point for a hungry fan base. Make no mistake: Berry is the most beloved Vol during his playing days since Peyton Manning #16 left Knoxville with an SEC Championship, an infamous appearance at the Heisman Trophy ceremony, a spot at the top of the NFL Draft board and a street named after him. And while #14 will need help from his teammates to win a championship this season, the other heights reached by Manning in 1997 are all attainable for Berry in 2009. A poll of ESPN.com college football writers placed Berry fifth among Heisman trophy candidates coming into the season, meaning he’s not an outside long shot but someone clearly in the conversation from day one. And even if it would take all three of college football’s best quarterbacks – Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford – stumbling to get an above average shot at taking home the award, making the ceremony would be a significant accomplishment; no defensive player has done so since the guy we don’t talk about stole Peyton’s trophy a dozen years ago.

Berry is a lock to become a first round draft pick in the NFL next April, should he choose to leave school early. And depending on the needs of the teams picking early, the sky’s the limit for how high Berry could climb on the draft board. It’s no stretch of the imagination that the Vols could have another number one overall draft pick in eight months. But before awards and NFL dollars come his way, we get one more chance to watch him shine. For Berry is truly special, the kind of player you tell your grandchildren about. The Vols have been blessed with great talent and great success in the last two decades, and names like Jamal Lewis, Albert Haynesworth, and of course Peyton Manning have enjoyed greatness in Knoxville for a few short years before going on to additional success in the NFL. Berry’s name already belongs on the first part of that list, a once-in-a-decade talent who could easily end up as the best defensive player in Tennessee Football history if he merely duplicates the numbers he put up in his first two seasons.

The NFL awaits. The Heisman conversation could include his name all season. And while we all hope for the best this season in terms of championships, at the very least we’ll have the pleasure of watching one of the best of all time in Knoxville for one more year. Eric Berry is special. And don’t be surprised to find his name on a street sign on the Knoxville campus this time next year.

Opportunity Knocks!
By Will Shelton

As the depth chart for the 2009 season begins to take shape, many of Lane Kiffin’s prized recruits should find significant playing time with the first or second team this season. Under Phillip Fulmer only a select few freshmen saw meaningful game action, but Kiffin has promised more opportunities for new players, and almost a dozen freshmen may be taking him up on that offer.

Bryce Brown and David Oku have both shown flashes at tailback, and should both see carries when senior Montario Hardesty isn’t in the game. Marsalis Teague looks like the third or fourth best option at wide receiver right now, and Nu’Keese Richardson is seeing work at quarterback, wide receiver and returning punts. On defense, the Vols brought in a loaded class of defensive backs, and Janzen Jackson, Darren Myles, Mike Edwards and Eric Gordon could all see playing time this year. And Greg King and Jerod Askew are already considered second teamers at linebacker. Opportunity knocks.

Expectations are especially high for a few of these kids, most notably Bryce Brown. For now these “impact” freshmen are still most recognizable for their high school exploits; in two weeks we’ll all get to see the real thing. Here’s a look back at some of the most famous Vols who came in and played right away in the last two decades:

Eric Berry SS 2007 – Berry started in the Vols’ nickel package in his very first game at California, became the starter at strong safety in game two, and made a name for himself in game three by intercepting Tim Tebow and returning it 96 yards for a touchdown. By the time his freshman campaign was done, Berry had 5 interceptions and a spot on the freshman All-American team…and he was just getting started.

Erik Ainge & Brent Schaeffer QB 2004 – This dual freshman threat was thrown to the wolves right away, and produced a win over Florida 30-28. Though both would eventually be lost for the 2004 season to injury and Schaeffer would eventually transfer away, they combined to produce enough wins to earn the Vols an SEC Eastern Division Championship.

Casey Clausen QB 2000 – After sitting out most of the first half of the season with a shoulder injury, Clausen was given the reigns in mid-October at quarterback, and responded with a victory over Alabama in his first career start. It was the first of six straight wins for the Vols to close the 2000 regular season.

Jamal Lewis RB 1997 – It took four games for the Vols to get Lewis in the starting lineup; after that Lewis rushed for 1,364 yards and seven touchdowns en route to a freshman All-American season and a second-team spot on the All-SEC squad.

Peyton Manning QB 1994 – Thrust into action when senior Jerry Colquitt was lost for the season on its seventh play, Manning took over for Todd Helton (yes, that Todd Helton) by game five and would lead the Vols to an 8-1 finish. He did alright after that.

Aaron Hayden & James Stewart RB 1991 – This freshman duo was giving the starting assignment in their very first game, and each rushed for over 100 yards at Louisville. A promising start on what would ultimately become two NFL careers.

Chuck Webb RB 1989 – The definitive impact freshman. After playing with Reggie Cobb in the backfield thru mid-October, Webb then turned in the two best rushing performances in Tennessee history.

The Vols Remain Volatile - But Hope Springs Eternal This Fall!
By Will Shelton

Hope is most tangible in August, just before kickoff. It breathes life into 120 college campuses and is intensified in the south, where at least half of the SEC fanbases enter every season believing their team will be crowned champion. It will breed only disappointment for the majority of those teams in just a few short weeks, but for now the grass is green, the pads are popping and all is right and beautiful in Tuscaloosa, Athens, Gainesville and the rest.

In Knoxville, Lane Kiffin is getting his first taste of that hope, though it is tempered with the shadows of 2008 that still linger at Neyland Stadium – shadows that will continue to do so until he chases them away. In nine months on the job, Kiffin has done everything in his power to move the program in the right direction: assembled the highest-paid coaching staff in college football, stole prized recruits from Florida and LSU before landing the nation’s number one overall player in Bryce Brown, and kept Tennessee in the national consciousness after a 5-7 season with verbal jabs at Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier. During the same span, the Vols recorded the highest team GPA in four years, and have had zero players arrested.

But wins and losses are what truly count, and Kiffin is getting ready to accumulate both.

The shadows of last season fall darkest on quarterback Jonathan Crompton, whom Vol fans will be happy to forgive until his first mistake of this season. As the first days of practice unfold and early reports suggest Crompton and all the quarterbacks are still struggling, tangible hope is preparing to go hand in hand with a dose of reality.

Earlier this month, more than seventy percent of our readers at RockyTopTalk.com said the Vols only had to win eight or nine games for the 2009 season to be considered a success. Allowing for three or four losses while still maintaining the notion of success is a drastic change for the majority of Vol fans, who just witnessed Phillip Fulmer’s forced departure after he built up his own lofty expectations, only to eventually be crushed under their own weight. A new coach breathes both life and grace into a program, and while Tennessee’s championship expectations will never fully go away, the immediacy of those expectations has changed.

But with clear questions at the most important position on the field, both now and in the future as the Vols’ efforts to land a highly-touted quarterback in the 2010 recruiting class have come up empty thus far…is even eight wins asking too much from this team?

To their credit, Tennessee’s defense came to work every Saturday last fall, and now under Monte Kiffin’s leadership they will again have a chance to carry this team to success. And with Eric Berry wearing orange for another year, Vol fans get one more chance to see a once-in-a-generation talent, and the defense has a chance to again be among the SEC’s very best. The schedule is full of toss-up games that could go either way, and though last year’s team struggled mightily, they were really only one or two fumbles away from the eight wins we would now call successful.

So for now, hope lives in Knoxville. A trip to The Swamp may humble it, poor quarterback play may threaten it, and lots of close games may leave us with plenty of Monday mornings where we still have no idea what to make of this team. But one thing’s for sure: this is going to be interesting.