Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Random Thoughts - Wednesday December 5

Finally back after an exhausting week on the road and a couple days catching up at home - and now that my Christmas tree's up - some quick thoughts on what's been going on in the meantime...

Orange Pants, The Georgia Dome & Why Chick-fil-A can make it all better
When we got inside the Georgia Dome a little under an hour before kickoff - after having pulled off the greatest consecutive weeks of parking in Tennessee football history (Total combined cost in Lexington & Atlanta: $8.00. Total combined walking distance: maybe half a mile. Maybe.) - and I cast eyes to the field, it was one of the more bittersweet moments in my Tennessee football experience: behold, the orange pants.

Because, I like them. People hate our shade of orange and we love it, so the more we can do it the better for all involved. Plus, it's not something "new" in the way that it screws with our traditional home unis, where those jerseys have been those jerseys pretty much as long as we've worn orange. Or in this case, our traditional "what to wear when LSU wears white as the home team" unis. Don't tell anybody, but if we went to these full time at home, I wouldn't complain.


But the reason you don't tell anybody that is because, while the team had some success with them in the 80s and specifically against Alabama in 1982, my one and only experience with the orange pants before last Saturday was Homecoming 1999, my freshman year at UTK, against the mighty Memphis (State) Tigers. We'd just been beaten the week before by Florida in the toss sweep game, so we're angry about that, and this is the first time we've seen Memphis since they beat us in 1996 for the first (and only) time in the history of the program. My parents are both from West Tennessee, I still have family there, and while most are not what we'd call sports educated, they loved to run their mouths about Tiger High's moment of triumph. Which, by the way, came mostly via a kick return that should've been called back. So I'm picturing us beating Memphis 70 or 80 to nothing, and enjoying every minute of it. Instead, Tee Martin has to save the day late in a 17-16 squeaker. And we said it then, and we'll say it again: orange pants are a bad idea.

Orange pants + Georgia Dome is a really bad idea. And so while you of course can't blame the whole game on either, and it was encouraging to see the Vols play step for step with LSU for three quarters and get the breaks that made you feel like they were going to win (like both of Eric Berry's turnovers), when Erik Ainge fires two 4th quarter interceptions - one ran back for a touchdown, one at the LSU 7 with under 3:00 to play - it just becomes the next chapter in Tennessee's Georgia Dome nightmare. It fits the script.

And here's the thing about Ainge - sadly, that's how the majority of Vol Nation is going to remember him. Forget the rest, he's the guy that threw two 4th quarter interceptions in the SEC Championship Game. Two incredibly costly interceptions, one for points to give LSU the lead back, and one to finish us off. At least the Fulmer-haters have a new face for a week, because you can't blame him for that. It'll take a good NFL stint to erase that, no matter what he does in the bowl game. Because what will you go back and use to defend him? When people attack Casey Clausen, I go to the win-loss record, especially on the road, and say that he didn't get near enough credit for 2001 and got way too much blame for 2002. When people attack Erik Ainge, what will you say to defend him?

Granted, he did get the Vols two SEC Eastern Division Championships, and he did get this team to Atlanta this season when no one expected it at multiple points. The Eastern Division title can never be taken away from him or this team, and I will still say this has been a good year. You land back on January 1, and while the Outback Bowl is never the goal, it's better than what you were thinking on the Third Saturday. It's really a better matchup for the Vols than what they saw last year against Penn State. It's more Big 10/SEC rivalry, though Wisconsin has been on the winning side the past two seasons, beating Auburn and Arkansas in the last two Capital One Bowls. And the Vols are (gasp!) a four point favorite. That'll change.

Atlanta secures, in my mind, a "good" season. But man, wouldn't the bowl game make it so much easier to turn the page. 10-4 and carrying momentum towards what should be, on paper, a more talented and experienced 2008 team. What's at stake is 10 wins vs. 5 losses, and both will be used as ammunition. If the fan base is going to be divided either way, as many have suggested, it's better for all involved if we're divided about 10 wins than about 5 losses. It should be a very interesting bowl game - and this season, you wouldn't expect anything less.

Finally, driving back from the ATL and trying to put the pieces of our hearts back together for the first time this year in a close loss, we escaped the city and decided to pull off to eat in Cartersville, GA. It was 9:50 when we pulled off the interstate and hunted down Chick-fil-A, mostly because the closest one to me here in Ceres is almost an hour in Bluefield, WV, so I make the most of my opportunities. We found other orange faithful inside, because as David Crowder will tell you, Chick-fil-A can make anything better. And so as the clock went past 10:00 and closing time, the entire staff stayed late to make our night better - including the one girl who said "Dadgum Tennessee fans...it'd be alright if it was Georgia fans." - and for this, we are thankful.

Tennessee Basketball in December
After escaping a dangerous situation at Chattanooga last night, the Vols are 8-1 and ranked 10th as they head to final exams. Believe it or not, there are only four games left before SEC play starts in January, plus the two biggest non-conference dates that come in 2008, with Ohio State in Knoxville in January, and the battle with Memphis down on the Mississippi in February. As JP Prince starts warming up, you'll get a chance to see some excellent building block games over the holidays:

Sat Dec 15 - vs Western Kentucky (at Nashville) - 9:30 PM - ESPNU
Wed Dec 19 - vs UNC-Asheville - 7:30 PM - SportSouth
Sat Dec 22 - at #21 Xavier - 2:00 PM - ESPN
Sat Dec 29 - at #17 Gonzaga (The Battle in Seattle) - 4:00 PM - ESPN2

There's been more complaining about this season than last, despite two performances in the 06 Preseason NIT that were just as bad, if not worse, than the one game against Texas in the 07 Legends Classic (and we all feel a little better about that one now that they've beaten UCLA). But as Pearl has said, the 07-08 Vols should be a team that gets better and better as the season progresses and they learn to play to their strengths, play better together and all that stuff, instead of a team that ceilings at the tail end of the regular season and has no extra gear for the postseason. Which I'd like to see when I return to the Georgia Dome for the SEC Tournament. But one thing at a time - the games with Western and Asheville won't be gimmies, and the two "road" tests will be huge challenges. This is the price of relevance.

A huge game for the Titans this week
And really, they're all big from this point on. They snapped their skid last week by beating the Texans, and now sit at 7-5 with four to play. For the second year in a row, I'd forgotten how nice it is to have relevant Titans football to fall right back on when there's no college football on my television this weekend for the first time in 14 weeks (which will include the Heisman Trophy presentation, now celebrating 10 years of not being watched in Shelton households...even though I did get to see the actual trophy at the SEC Championship last weekend).

The Colts have a stranglehold on the division at 10-2, so at this point unless there's a collapse in Indy, the Titans are playing for the wild card. Even if you pencil in a W in the home finale on December 23 against the mighty Jets, they're going to need at least one more win among this week against San Diego, next week at Kansas City, or the finale in Indy. And if it's like last year, 10-6 may not even be safe.

Right now, the Jaguars have an edge on the wild card at 8-4. The Patriots and Colts should cruise into division titles, Pittsburgh has a two game lead, and even San Diego at 7-5 has a two game lead. If it ends up that way, outside of Jacksonville and Tennessee, there's upstart Cleveland (7-5) and the surging Bills (6-6) to worry about. If the Titans win this week, you might have to start worrying about Denver in the playoff picture again too.

All of that will sort itself out, but the playoffs are still there for the taking for the Titans. And as I've said before, I don't want to be going to Indy in Week 17 fighting for our playoff lives. I'd rather sort all that out now, starting with a big home win against the Chargers this week. It's interesting to read how many people credit snapping the streak to the return of Al Haynesworth. Regardless of how much of that is warranted, he and the defense need to continue to play at a level that compliments the play of Vince Young - about whom the nation can't seem to decide if he's progressing or regressing - and allows the Titans to win ugly if need be, as they did in starting 6-2. This thing should push to the conclusion of the regular season as it did last year, and hopefully this time around the Titans have what it takes to go over the top and into the playoffs for the first time in four years.

The Boston Celtics are still great
You knew that. Boston is 14-2 and has the highest winning percentage in the league. What's interesting will be to see if the early division leaders can keep this up all year, because at this pace, the drama is going to be taken out of all six division races very early. The six best teams in the NBA all play in six different divisions:

1. Boston 14-2 - Atlantic
2. San Antonio 15-3 - Southwest
3. Orlando 16-4 - Southeast
4. Phoenix 13-4 - Pacific
5. Utah 13-5 - Northwest
6. Detroit 11-5 - Central

Outside of these teams, New Orleans and Dallas (12-6) are also both playing well. And while the top of the East may be better, the rest is not - Boston already has a 5 game lead in the Atlantic, Orlando has 6.5 in the Southeast. I know we're only at the 1/5 mark of the season, but don't be surprised if you see those six teams as the top three seeds in each conference come playoff time.

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