HOOVER, Ala. -- Assume Tennessee will be back.
Assume 2005 was an aberration.
Assume a few bad bounces combined with a few bad eggs resulted in the first bowl-less season in Knoxville in 17 years.
|Tennessee's fate in '06 lies on the play of junior QB Erik Ainge. (Getty Images)|
Never assume anything.
Don't forget that a year ago Tennessee was a preseason top five pick, a favorite to win the nation's toughest conference. The crash and burn to 5-6 was loud and significant.
Loud because in this age of parity, Tennessee was the latest power to bite the FieldTurf. Significant because this nosedive was different. Tennessee seemingly had the talent. Last year's seniors were part of a 2002 recruiting class that was ranked second nationally by rivals.com.
Something else was missing.
"Your team gets satisfied or assumes too much," coach Phillip Fulmer said Thursday at SEC preseason media days. "Certainly that was part of our issue last year, whether it was off-the-field issues or guys thinking about the National Football League or guys thinking about being All-American."
Apparently you can't spell "attitude" without UT either. Do the Vols have the right kind this year? Does it matter? Climbing out from under .500 is harder than it seems, especially in the SEC.
Tennessee is the 11th SEC program to finish with a losing record since expansion in 1992 (only Florida has been above .500 all 13 years). Of the previous 10, only two won so much as a division title the year after having a losing record (Arkansas in 1995 and Auburn in 2000).
The two schools to rebound the quickest from losing seasons to an SEC title since '92 were LSU in 2001 and Alabama in 1999. Each took two seasons.
It took Georgia six years between a losing season and winning it all (1996-2002). Auburn took five years between 5-6 in 1999 and 13-0 in 2004.
So where does that leave Tennessee?
"That is very, very tough when you fall behind," said Arkansas' Houston Nutt who has finished no higher than third in the SEC West since 2002, "With recruiting the way it is, it's hard to get back."
Yeah, but this is Tennessee, right? It's impervious to parity. That's what they said at Nebraska, USC, even Alabama. The worst thing to do is to assume an immediate turnaround.
There's that word again.
Here are the key points to consider when assuming anything about Tennessee this season:
Common sense: By any reasonable measure, Tennessee comes into '06 as the fifth-best team in the SEC, third-best in its division.
LSU, Auburn, Georgia and Florida are going to be ranked, all most likely in the top 15. Tennessee plays three of the four -- Florida and LSU at home, Georgia on the road.
Fulmer has lost eight of his 12 meetings against the four. That represents almost half of UT's losses since 2002 (eight of 17).
Just a couple of plays away: That seems to be mantra in Knoxville. Tennessee lost three games by a total of eight points last year to Alabama, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
Bad breaks at the wrong time, like Cory Anderson's fumble that sailed out of the end zone against the Tide.
The larger point is that Tennessee never loses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt. And by "never" we mean 23 years since Vandy won and 13 years since the Gamecocks won.
Best-case scenario: OK, let's say Tennessee had won those three close games. It would have finished 8-3. That still would have tied for Vols' fewest victories since the last bowl-less season in 1988.
Tennessee needs to start with beating the teams it should this year, like Cal at home in the opener, Memphis on the road Sept. 30 and South Carolina in Columbia on Oct. 28. Win those three, and Tennessee should at least be bowling again.
Comparable models: All great programs have been sucked into the great parity vortex. A couple of recent examples:
Nebraska went 7-7 in 2002, 10-3 in 2003, then fired Frank Solich and has yet to get its mojo back. The Huskers haven't won a Big 12 title since 1999.
Before Pete Carroll restored the USC dynasty, the Trojans bit the parity bug. They finished a combined two games over .500 from 1996 through 2001.
"I don't think you're just going to flip a switch and say, 'Oh, we're going to be back there,'" Fulmer said.
Erik Ainge: Why is there this overarching assumption that the junior quarterback is ready to take off? Sure, David Cutcliffe is back as the offensive coordinator. Sure, Fulmer and staff goofed up the rotation last year.
But ask yourself this: When Ainge came out of Oregon in 2004, did you expect to still have questions about him in 2006? He rotated with Brent Schaeffer in '04. Last year it was constant shuffle with Ricky Clausen.
Now the job is his alone. Don't screw it up, Erik.
"When he first got here in Year 1, he was young. He was playing ball like he was still in high school," said offensive tackle Arron Sears. "His confidence is getting back to where it needs to be."
Ainge, 6-feet-6, has completed only 51 percent of his career passes and is averaging an interception per game. If he doesn't make a dramatic improvement, Tennessee is shot. If Ainge is just OK, Tennessee might still be shot.
Brother can you spare a Clausen?
So what about Cutcliffe? If there was ever a gift from above, it's Cut. Heart problems forced him to give up his new job at Notre Dame last year. After surgery and rehab, Cutcliffe is back healthy and where he made his reputation as a master quarterback-maker.
Sure, his prize student was Peyton Manning in that previous life. Who could mess that up? But remember Tennessee won a national championship with Tee Martin. Cutcliffe gets a lot of the credit.
Tennessee's offense will be better. It will have to be. Only 16 teams averaged fewer points (18.6).
When Cutcliffe was in Knoxville from 1993-98, his offenses led the SEC in total offense twice. Three times, Tennessee led the league in rushing.
If Ainge doesn't go Glencoe High School on him, Cutcliffe should be able to rebuild his mechanics and confidence. Look what he did for Martin.
Bottom line: Forget about Tennessee winning the SEC, or even the SEC East.
Fulmer must replace four starters on the offensive line. The defensive loses an All-American (Jesse Mahelona) and two players now in NFL camps (Tony McDaniel, Jason Hall). All three starting linebackers are gone.
Vol Nation should accept a bowl, hunker down for Recruiting '07 and hope Vandy isn't in the process of building a dynasty.