Tuesday, November 27, 2007
QB - Tim Tebow, Florida
Part of you wants to argue this, but there's really no other option. Andre Woodson has more passing yards, but Tebow's numbers are much, much better than anyone thought they would be, he's the first player to run and pass for 20 TDs in the same season, and even though Florida is 9-3, Tebow is arguably the most valuable player in college football. When banged up against Georgia, the whole offense didn't fire on all cylinders. He may not win the Heisman and he may or may not deserve it, but he is without question the best overall quarterback in the SEC, in a year where Tebow, Woodson, Matt Stafford and Erik Ainge are clearly above the field.
RB - Darren McFadden, Arkansas
RB - Knowshon Moreno, Georgia
McFadden is the obvious choice, going for over 1700 yards and leading the conference in rushing by around 500 yards while becoming a legitimate Heisman candidate. But you might be surprised to know that Moreno is really an obvious choice too - he finished second in the SEC in rushing despite not carrying the full load at the beginning of the season, but picked up steam after the Tennessee game when he was rewarded with 20+ carries in each of the next five games, and responded with five straight 100+ yard performances. And yes, he's a true freshman.
WR - Kenny McKinley, South Carolina
WR - Percy Harvin, Florida
Picking the receivers is tough this season. Before you look at the stats, your mind jumps to Harvin and guys like DJ Hall and Early Doucet. But when you look at it on paper, you see some very interesting things - like Lucas Taylor leading the SEC in receiving yards. McKinley has been the most consistent receiver in the conference all season, and deserves a spot finishing first in receptions and second in receiving yards. From there, there are several products of systems, such as Taylor or any of Kentucky's receivers. And you find that DJ Hall's numbers are really boosted by two games in October against Ole Miss and Tennessee where he had 24 catches combined. And you could go with Earl Bennett, who had a decent year by his standards and will leave as one of the most statistically proficient receivers in SEC history. In the end though, I went with Harvin because of his ability to change the game - he only played in 10 games and still finished with over 1300 yards of total offense, and was more explosive in his system than any of the other WRs.
TE - Jacob Tamme, Kentucky
Perhaps the most obvious choice on the ballot if I had one, Tamme caught more than 50 passes and made UK's offense a deadly weapon, scoring five touchdowns along the way. Other teams have younger tight ends that will compete for this spot in the future, but in 2007 Tamme was definitively the best tight end in the SEC.
OT - Nate Garner, Arkansas
OT - Erik Young, Tennessee
OG - Mitch Petrus, Arkansas
OG - Jason Leger, Kentucky
C - Jonathan Luigs, Arkansas
Three Razorbacks get the nod up front, blocking for a unit that led the conference in rushing. Erik Young is the Tennessee representative on a team that allowed only 3 sacks all season, and was the Vols' best lineman before getting hurt. And Jason Leger gets the nod at the other guard spot in part for his toughness and ability to play with injury. Center was a hot spot this year, with Drew Miller, Josh McNeil and others also having very solid years.
DE - Wallace Gilberry, Alabama
DE - Derrick Harvey, Florida
DT - Glenn Dorsey, LSU
DT - Geno Atkins, Georgia
Gilberry leads the SEC in sacks, while Harvey has done a nice job of living up to his preseason reputation. Glenn Dorsey hasn't been fully healthy in a long time, but is still by far the most dominant defensive player in the country. And Atkins has been an integral part of UGA's defense. Several others, including Titus Brown, Jeremy Jarmon, and Antonio Coleman have had great years as well. Quentin Groves was on his way to a great year until they tried to move him to linebacker.
LB - Wesley Woodyard, Kentucky
LB - Ali Highsmith, LSU
LB - Brandon Spikes, Florida
Woodyard led the SEC in tackles and helped Kentucky's defense be less of a liability in 2007. Ali Highsmith is probably the best of the bunch, and had a huge game against Arkansas last week to help cement that. And Spikes helped a young defense grow up, finishing behind only Woodyard in tackles.
DB - Craig Steltz, LSU
DB - Derrick Pegues, Mississippi State
DB - Emmanuel Cook, South Carolina
DB - Eric Berry, Tennessee
Steltz has been a force in the LSU secondary all year, and ties for the lead in interceptions with six. Pegues may not show up high in many statistical categories, but deserves credit for leading the MSU defense in a big 7-5 season. And Eric Berry has been the best player on Tennessee's defense all season long.
K - Daniel Lincoln, Tennessee
P - Patrick Fisher, LSU
Lincoln is 21 of 26 and leads the SEC in percentage among kickers who made more than 20 FGs. Fisher leads the SEC in punting yards and average...which seems like a good way to decide who to pick as the All-SEC punter.
Sunday, November 25, 2007
When we talk in August about how they all count, it's usually just to find something neutral to say that sounds good in that coach speak/"it's cliche because it's true!" sort of way. But when we're dealing with this long and strange trip of the 2007 season, Tennessee found a way to make enough of them count. The losses hurt emotionally - the season opener and your two biggest rivals by a combined 77 points - but didn't end up hurting in the standings. As it turns out, the biggest game of the year to date was Georgia - ranked #4 in your AP poll this morning, more on them momentarily - and the Vols more than took care of that one 35-14 back in early October. Then once Georgia did us the favor of beating Florida, they all got big, and the Vols kept finding a way. Blown 21 point lead in the best worst game I've ever seen against South Carolina? Check. Total domination when least expected of Darren McFadden and Arkansas? Check. Biggest 4th quarter comeback in Neyland Stadium history against Vanderbilt? Check. Two blown 17 point leads - during which, by the way, I must've said "Wait 'til basketball season" at least a half dozen times (and by the way, it's a good thing Pearl's boys were lost in the Big Orange shuffle yesterday, giving up 97 in a 19 point loss to Texas, but we'll save it for another day so as not to taint) - including allowing a team to drive 90 yards in 18 plays with the division championship on the line, but the whatever-you-want-to-call-it to still get to overtime? Check. Doing what Tennessee does in overtime, now 7-1 lifetime? Check.
This isn't Fulmer's most talented team, and that's not close and freely admitted. We've had our moments, good and bad and a bit of both, all year. But regardless of any of the means or the parts, the end and the whole is exactly right: first place, ATL Georgia. Tennessee is the SEC's Eastern Division Champion.
If you're complaining this morning, see a therapist. Or call me and I'll talk you through it. Fulmer's not getting fired - he's getting a raise. Deal with it. And things can still get better - because as good and as strange as this thing has been so far in 2007, we go from a nice story to a legendary one if the Vols win next week. We don't play with house money in football in Knoxville...but if we did, this would be close to it. And actually, you have to like Tennessee's chances here better than the last time we were in Atlanta, with Rick Clausen up against the undefeated Auburn juggernaut, in a game we actually played pretty well in.
While he was on the sideline that day, Saturday will be the first SEC Championship Game Erik Ainge has actually played in. He now holds the Tennessee record for touchdown passes in a game (7) - which I know is skewed, but he'll take it I'm sure. He now becomes the first starting quarterback to win two East Division titles in his career at Tennessee. Not Shuler, not Manning, not Martin, not even my beloved Casey Clausen. Even though Ainge got hurt against Notre Dame, he did the work against Florida, Georgia and Alabama, he set the table in 2004, and he deserves credit for getting us there. He deserves credit again this season, where his legacy will once again have a chance to be upgraded.
This will be the first time the Vols have played in the SEC Championship that doesn't include National Championship implications, thanks to our friends at Arkansas. The first three times it was Tennessee, the last time it was Auburn. This year, it simply becomes about the game, this game - which, with the Vols at 9-3, was all it was going to be about on our end anyway - and it means that this game becomes light years more important than our bowl destination. The BCS and the Sugar Bowl against a player to be named later would be spectacular. And even losing and going to Dallas or back to Atlanta (with the potential "dreaded" UT/VT showdown that costs me my job) would be a great opportunity to cap a good year. But they won't get any bigger than Saturday. Tennessee has a chance to become the SEC Champion for the first time since 1998.
Three points to make about the SEC Championship Game:
1. Tennessee and LSU typically play classic football games
It's a weird dynamic between us and the Tigers - together in the SEC for a long time but never traditional rivals, neither before the divisional format nor after it. We don't see them very often. It's one of those weird dynamics like when Georgia plays Alabama - you don't see it a lot, but when you do it's two teams with great fanbases and lots of history, who'll put two good teams on the field, and both sides know the weight of the opportunity and want to take full advantage. Walking to Neyland Stadium before last year's game with LSU - who won't reappear on the Vols' regular season schedule until 2010 - I remember thinking both that it's a shame we don't see them more often, and probably a good thing that we don't, because we've both got enough rivalry in our lives as it is. But it is always cool to see the orange and purple in the stadium together.
That being said, the last five meetings between the two schools, all this decade, have been epic:
- 2000: LSU 38 - Tennessee 31 (OT) (Vols' only loss in overtime in Nick Saban's first year in Death Valley, as a furious Vol rally led by AJ Suggs fell short in overtime.)
- 2001: Tennessee 26 - LSU 18 (Saturday night in Neyland, first post-9/11 game for either team, with Kelley Washington's record setting day turning a 10-0 LSU lead into a day for The Future)
- 2001: LSU 31 - Tennessee 20 (The most heartbreaking game in Tennessee football history, with the National Championship on the line and a 17-7 second quarter lead that was lost to LSU without Rohan Davey and LaBrandon Toefield and fumbled away for good in the 4th quarter)
- 2005: Tennessee 30 - LSU 27 (OT) (The Rally at Death Valley, first game in Baton Rouge post-Katrina with LSU building a 21-0 lead and Rick Clausen returning to save the day - read more from the 50 Best Vol Games feature here)
- 2006: LSU 28 - Tennessee 24 (Jonathan Crompton, Robert Meachem and a ton of LSU turnovers aren't enough to overcome a 3-to-1 time of possession situation and a final drive from JaMarcus Russell, ending on the TD pass to Early Doucet with under :10 to play)
Will the 2007 SEC Championship Game match the intensity and drama of the last five in this series? If you're looking to argue against the Vols, you can look no further than:
2. The Curse of the Georgia Dome
Here's what I wrote on March 7, the day before the SEC Basketball Tournament tipped off in Atlanta:
As we've just seen, it's not that we have a rosy SEC Tournament history anyway. But the Vols are 3-7 in the Georgia Dome in basketball. The monumental upset losses to Mississippi State and South Carolina in 99/00? Georgia Dome. Ron Grizzard's six threes? Georgia Dome. Buzz Peterson's last game? Georgia Dome.
The football team, the savior of the athletic department? Conspiracy theorists, unite.The Vol football team has played six games in the Georgia Dome. They won the first two - the SEC Championships in 1997 and 1998. In 1997, the Vols turned the ball over six times and still won, 30-29 over Auburn. In 1998, Tennessee forgot how to play offense and gave up touchdowns on a punt return and an INT return. Still won, because 1998 cancels out all bad vibes, 24-14 over Mississippi State. 2-0, but two painfully bad performances.
In 2001, the #1 most heartbreaking game in UT football history, by far, don't argue - the 31-20 SEC Championship loss to LSU with a spot in the National Championship Game on the line. I can't bear to write anymore about this.
And then there are the Peach Bowls. Two embarrassing performances, be it getting blown out by Maryland in 2002, or thinking that we're Florida State or Miami and trying to fight everyone on Clemson's team in 2003. Both losses, the first the punctuation mark on an 8-5 2002 season, the second a missed opportunity to finish in the top five (the Vols, for the forgetful, were ranked #6 going into that Clemson game).
The most recent trip, the 2004 SEC Championship Game, was what some people will call a "good loss", but we don't use that term in Knoxville. Undefeated Auburn beat the Vols 38-28, in a game that Tennessee did rally and tie 21-21 in the third quarter. But a loss is a loss is a loss.Six games, two wins, zero good performances. In fact, the closest thing to a good performance in the Georgia Dome probably is the 2004 game that we lost. Tennessee does not play well in the Georgia Dome. Period. So we're hoping to change that.
Then, of course, the Vols went out and lost to #6 seed LSU in the first round of the SEC Tournament. So we're still hoping to change this.
3. Georgia does not deserve to play for the National Championship
First of all, let's be clear that it's not sour grapes - not only are the Vols going to Atlanta and the Dawgs are selling their tickets, the Vols busted Georgia 35-14 in Knoxville and have now beaten Georgia 86-47 combined over the last two seasons. That can't be it. And it's not that we're not grateful for what they did to Florida.
Listening to the ABC feed of the Missouri/Kansas game on my drive back to Virginia last night, Kirk Herbstreit brought it up that, should Pittsburgh knock off West Virginia next week in the Backyard Brawl, and should Oklahoma beat Missouri (again) in the Big 12 Championship, then you'll have Ohio State vs. who? for the National Championship? And Herbstreit said he would put Georgia in there. Which is insane.
Repeat after me: if you can't win your division, you don't deserve to be playing for the National Championship.
If that scenario does unfold - and it won't, because West Virginia will beat Pittsburgh, right? - then it does still hold some merit for LSU in Atlanta. Because if I had a vote, and that scenario happened, I've have Ohio State at #1, and LSU at #2 if they beat the Vols. If your choices are LSU or Georgia, you take the SEC Champion. Duh.
What if that scenario unfolds and the Vols beat LSU? If I was voting, I'd put Oklahoma in - the Sooners lost one game by three points and were beaten pretty soundly (despite the score) by Texas Tech. Georgia lost one game by four points and was beaten pretty soundly (as the score would indicate) by Tennessee. The difference is, the Sooners lost to TTU, you could argue, because Sam Bradford was concussed. Does this mean I'm not supporting the SEC, or that I think Georgia isn't a good team? Not at all. But I'm also not going to blindly throw my faith to the SEC when logic, reason and justice would dictate that a team with two losses that can't win its own division should not, ever, be playing for it all. I know we're supposed to be all happy and orange focused on this Sunday, but I had to get that out there.
So...for the Vols, it's the Georgia Dome. It's LSU. It's the SEC Championship. A good season now rests secure, and well done for that. The Vols have heart and have shown, since leaving Tuscaloosa, the required x-factor to win ballgames on three occasions. Better make it four on Saturday night. Load up the caravans. We're invading Atlanta.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
I'm at home, winding the day down and expecting to halfheartedly watch Tennessee vs. MTSU on my ESPN Full Court package. And so the game starts, and all I really want to see - aside from no one getting hurt - is if Chris Lofton will continue to warm up, and if the free throw shooting will improve after I watched Ramar Smith go 0 for 12 at the stripe in person on Friday - and he wasn't the only culprit. I've given up trying to deduce how this rotation is going to ultimately work out, especially when you can't even factor in JP Prince for another few weeks.
Then, the game took on a life of its own. At one point in the first three minutes, Tennessee was up 10-0 on 4 of 5 shooting, and MTSU had 0 points, 0 shot attempts, and 5 turnovers. Included in that initial spurt was Lofton hitting his first three and Duke Crews getting in the game right away. And the score ballooned from there, and Tennessee quickly established the non-competitive nature of this game, which is good.
Then JaJuan Smith started having one of those games he'll ultimately tell his grandchildren about. He hit four threes in a row, including one from NBA range and one falling away. He harnessed Chris Lofton - even though both were on the floor at the same time - and then started scoring at the rim. And at the free throw line. And as the lead increased and increased, JaJuan stayed hot. Eventually, he hits his career high and surpasses it with 26 points in the first half. Then senior Jordan Howell - who got the start over Ramar Smith tonight - buried a buzzer beating three to end the first half with the Vols up 61-21.
So now the second half is unfolding, JaJuan's pushing 30 and the backups will be in soon (I hope). But you're starting to realize that this isn't just Chris Lofton, Bruce Pearl and a bunch of other guys - which I'm pretty sure is the national, if not SEC perception of your #7 Tennessee Volunteers. The whole team is good. Really, really good.
You see Aaron Green on the bench and you start thinking back. You think about that 1999-2000 team that went to the Sweet 16 with Tony Harris, Vincent Yarbrough, Isaiah Victor, CJ Black, and that freshman class with Jon Higgins, Ron Slay and Marcus Haislip. You know those guys were talented. You start thinking about Ernie & Bernie, which always makes you instantly hesitate to use the phrase "best Tennessee team of all time", which of course is highly stupid to even think 3.5 games into the season having played probably no one who'll be dancing in March. And sure, you'll find out a ton about this team over the weekend, where you'll get the best 24+ hours in recent Tennessee sports history:
Basketball: Tennessee vs. West Virginia (Legends Classic - Fri 7:00)
Football: Tennessee at Kentucky (SEC East on the line - Sat 1:30)
Basketball: Tennessee vs. Texas/New Mexico State (Legends Classic - Sat 7:00/9:00)
But the point is this - even if there may not be other individuals besides Lofton who will go down in Vol lore by themselves, this team with this coach...you may not see anything better than this.
Regardless of their ultimate place in Tennessee history, it's now factual for the first time in my life that you won't play anybody - Memphis, Carolina, UCLA, anybody - where you'll concede going in because the other team simply has way too much talent, or because your team's never been deep into the tournament before. There's no more house money (which is good, because the only time last year we played with that we still found a way to get heartbroken against Ohio State). This Tennessee team is talented enough to beat everybody - not by accident or by being hot, but by flat skill and great coaching with a great team environment. You couldn't say that last year. You won't be able to say that next year. This team, right now, can be very special.
Randy Smith (calling the game on SportSouth) just said "things are getting a little sloppy, but when you're up 50 it's hard to focus." It's 75-27 right now, and I've stopped paying attention to the second half because the first one was so good I had to write about it. Sure, it's MTSU. But you don't doubt anyone on the floor - even Ryan Childress, who was the best player on the floor on Friday. That's why figuring out the rotation brings both childlike excitement and massive frustration. The cupboard has gone from bare to overflowing in three years. But the good news is, if there's anyone you trust to figure it out, it's Pearl.
This team is untested (this year) and imperfect (like all). But based on what you see on the floor, there is no ceiling. And there are, barring injury, zero excuses. And since we've never been down this road before, there's little pressure. We could be the perfect storm.
I need to calm down. I know. It's MTSU. Even though it's 83-28 with 11 minutes left in the game, it's MTSU. I know. But what I also know is that come Friday, you'll be watching them play Bob Huggins' West Virginia team differently than you've watched Tennessee Basketball in a long time. You expect to win. And you'll expect to win every night. And finally, finally, you'll have good reason to. Four days away from a potential championship in football, and here we are giddy as a child about our basketball team. This is Tennessee.
(And just as I was about to hit "publish", JaJuan threw a backboard-slapping alley-oop to Tyler Smith. And then when I finished typing that JaJuan hit another three for 32 points - 7 of 11 from 3. It's 88-28. Good grief.)
Monday, November 19, 2007
Sunday, November 18, 2007
A season that's swung hard between disaster and championship now hangs in the precious balance between the two, and it's a tighter grip than most predicted but we all should've seen coming. For many, after the 34-13 dominance against Arkansas, the thought creeped in that the Vols would routinely take care of Vanderbilt and Kentucky the way they do, and we'd be in Atlanta. The News-Sentinel reported earlier this week that calls to SportsTalk last week were 3-to-1 in favor of talking about LSU in Atlanta rather than Vanderbilt or Kentucky. But if you haven't figured out that nothing is routine in 2007 yet...well, you've still got two more weeks to learn it.
Actually, a few things are still routine. Like Vanderbilt finding a way to lose.
With a crowd more lifeless than you'd expect and Inky Johnson earning the most volume from Neyland on the night until the 4th quarter - which is nice, but not good - the 2007 installment of Tennessee/Vanderbilt really felt like it was turning into one of those games where Tennessee makes mistakes and simply isn't good enough to overcome them. Where you can't throw the kitchen sink at Fulmer or this team for their effort or performance, but a blocked PAT here, a field goal off the upright there, a dropped pass/lateral at the end of the half thrown in for good measure, and the Vols dug themselves a 24-9 hole early in the 3rd quarter. And I kept remembering what I'd seen of the South Carolina/Vanderbilt came back on the Third Saturday in October, knowing that Carolina was flat and mistake prone, Vanderbilt built a 17 point lead, and Carolina's offense flat wasn't good enough to make that up. So as the minutes ran down and the Vols kept having to run Britton Colquitt on the field, it seemed like this was going to end up the same way - whether it's Vanderbilt or not (and sure, losing to Vanderbilt again may have been irreparably damaging to Phillip Fulmer), the Vols gave it away early and couldn't get it back late. And if there was a year for the Vols to go down to Vanderbilt, as has been stated, this be it.
But while it's true that death, taxes and Vanderbilt losing may have been bent, you found out on Saturday that it's still not broken. And whether you allowed yourself to remember it or believe it during the closing moments on Saturday afternoon, the truth was ultimately in the pudding as usual: Vanderbilt did some giving and the Vols did some taking in the 4th quarter, and when the clock hit 00:00, the Vols came out on top. One point. One hundred points. Doesn't matter. They're Vanderbilt.
(Remember, I wasn't at the game in 2005 and I didn't see it on TV, so it's like it never happened in Will's head.)
You'd be hard pressed to argue that the roughing the punter call wasn't the biggest play of the game, because it carried a tangible turn. You'd also be hard pressed to figure out how Erik Ainge went from great to shaky to great in the course of one game. If you're like me, you're still hard pressured to figure out how the back judge decides to throw a flag 20 yards and 5 seconds off the play for pass interference when the Vols appeared to have sealed the game after finally regaining the lead on an icy Daniel Lincoln field goal.
But I will tell you one thing: when Vandy lined up to kick that field goal, by that time I'd remembered and I was believing. Either they were going to miss, or we were going to take two time outs and the :38 left on the clock and kick our own field goal to win anyway. Because they're Vanderbilt. And putting game winning kicks off the uprights is what they do.
I'm not being mean. I'm being factual. At home this week against Wake Forest with bowl eligibility once again on the line? Take Wake. I like Bobby Johnson a lot, I think he's done a tremendous job in Nashville in an impossible situation. Because they're Vanderbilt, and no one wins there. Johnson has done the best he could. But Vanderbilt's best still isn't good enough to beat Tennessee with championships on the line.
You can nitpick it. You can complain. You can be like the guy on my row who screamed "(expletive) YOU, FULMER!" when Austin Rogers jumped early on the first play of the eventual game winning drive. Because that makes sense.
And here's the point: all of this talking and hypothesizing and back and forth is coming to a head in six days. Because in six days, it either will or it won't. Saturday afternoon in Lexington, either the Vols will walk off as SEC East Division Champions, or they'll walk off as an 8-4 team that lost three games by 77 points and lost to Kentucky for the first time in 22 years. And maybe that's unfair, but it's also incredibly true.
If the Vols win, they'll get to Atlanta and win a title this season. And if you don't think it's a big deal to win the division, I feel sorry for your outlook on life. It doesn't matter if it comes at 9-3 or 12-0 - winning this division, which is the toughest in college football, and putting yourself in Atlanta to play for the SEC Championship and the BCS, means you've had a good season. I don't care that it means this year that the rest of the SEC has beaten each other up more than usual. And I also don't care if LSU goes on to beat us by sixty. If you get to Atlanta, it's a good year. And nothing you say, short of ultimately losing to LSU and the bowl game by about 100 combined points, will be enough to make me believe that any coaching changes are necessary or a good idea. Any argument will be countered with Atlanta. And Mike Hamilton will tell you Atlanta is the goal every year.
If the Vols beat Kentucky, 2007 is a good year. It will have a chance to become a great year in Atlanta and then again sometime in late December/early January. But you won't be able to go back and take away the division title. It would set up - unless they stub their toe against Pig Sooie this week - a showdown with the #1 team in the nation. It would present the only realistic opportunity to make the second Saturday of December, 2001 a little bit more alright. It could become one of the most memorable games in Vol history. And win or lose in Atlanta, it would be a great way for Erik Ainge & company to go out. Winning the East is the first goal every year. Winning the East is a good season any year.
I will not be swayed on this argument. But I also could do no logical swaying the other way should the Vols lose on Saturday.
If you lose to Kentucky, it's not a good year. It's not a "fire Fulmer!" year (factor in the bowl game first) just yet from the masses, but there's nothing you can go back and point your finger at and say "yeah, that was good." Beating Georgia becomes lifeless if you lose on Saturday, because then Georgia wins the division. Slowing down Darren McFadden is a good isolated story but not a great year. And this isn't last year, where you can say "back from the dead of 5-6" or point to a resurrection effort against Cal and Georgia, a one point loss to the eventual National Champions and two games played without your quarterback. There. Is. No. Middle. Ground.
We've been saying this a lot this season, and it's never been to be dramatic. The Georgia game really was first place in the East/coach is fired. And every game since South Carolina really has been control your own destiny, win and you're in/lose and you're toast. The bowl destinations remain as muddled from New Orleans to Nashville. Kentucky is the final step, the final chance to swing the balance to the good. So it becomes the most important, even without the Wildcats being good or that whole 22 years in a row thing (which is, once again, the longest active streak in an annual rivalry in the country, thanks to Navy).
And Kentucky isn't Vanderbilt, even if I can't make that make sense with the whole 22 years straight thing. While we really don't blow out Vanderbilt with any greater regularity than we do Kentucky, it seems like UK has taken us to the limit with greater frequency. 1995 and 2001 immediately come to mind, and there have been others. And Kentucky always, always has a greater probability of putting a good team on the field, let alone a team with an offense that seems designed to beat us with Randy Sanders on the trigger.
So it will be anything but easy. But as we've said since August - Tennessee is every bit flawed enough to lose, and every ounce good enough to win. It was true at Cal, it'll be true at Commonwealth. One more to get home. One more to win the East. One more for the good. Everything is on the line.
Expect to win.
Friday, November 16, 2007
But for the last hour, I've gone back to Oregon and Arizona. I watched it early before hitting the TiVoed Office, which I will contest is the best show on television that isn't Lost and the one I will miss the most during the strike because of the way it just makes my week more enjoyable. Then I saw Dennis Dixon go down in a sad situation, before firing up the 360 for the rest of the night. But for the last hour, the drama of this game has sucked me back in.
And it's been a good game. Arizona's up 34-24 with 3:00 to play on #2 Oregon. But the point is, it's not just a good game. It matters.
This Sunday, we'll play Week 11 in the NFL. And we've reached the point where several teams are out of contention, which leads to a percentage of games on Sunday that are, in effect, meaningless. And that percentage will slowly rise over the next six weeks. No matter how great football is on any level, and no matter how many times I'll say in June or July that I'd love to just watch anybody line it up and go on the gridiron, this time of year you realize that the majority of your interest in the NFL is your fantasy team and not the actual results.
The Boston Celtics are 7-0....
Wait...as we're typing live, a ton of Arizona students have just jumped the wall and are waiting on the sideline to storm the field. There's 2:06 left and Oregon is still driving. Intriguing.
The Boston Celtics are 7-0, which is great. But sooner or later, they'll lose (did you know that seven wins in every eight games is roughly the pace of the latter Jordan Bulls? Absurd). And once they do, the rest of the regular season, all 82 games of it, will be about not getting hurt and playoff position. But they won't all matter. And the situation in baseball is so bad, it's on the complete opposite end of the spectrum - there are so many games, the phrase "we'll get 'em next time" is fully realized over a 162 game season. There's always tomorrow.
But this game, in the AM hours on a Thursday night, matters. Not because it's a rivalry. Not because it's teams I know. These are Pac-10 schools. And not just because Oregon is #2, though that certainly helps. But it matters because they all do in college football, September thru November, every single week. It can be the Vols in an SEC battle, or two Pac-10 teams on a Thursday night. On Saturday, with so few meaningful games in the NFL, the college game finds meaning on campuses across America. Whether you're ranked #2 or not, there will be meaning and value and rivalry and bowl position and computer points and war. The games matter. Michigan/Ohio State. Georgia/Kentucky. Tennessee/Vanderbilt. Cincinnati/West Virginia. Boston College/Clemson. Even Nevada/Hawaii tomorrow night. These games matter. It's why there are a million Arizona kids waiting to rush the field. It's why Dennis Dixon is crying. College football is the one and only. Nothing else keeps me up late.
Speaking of reasons why things are great...it's two weeks old, and it's not online, but if you can find Rick Reilly's column from the SI with the Patriots on the front after beating the Colts, about why he still writes sports instead of going onto something "more serious", it's one of the best pieces I've read in a long time.
And as soon as these kids run on the field, I'm going to bed.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Monday, November 12, 2007
Because I dare you to tell me you saw that 34-13 dominating performance over Arkansas coming. And subsequently, I dare you to tell me what's going to happen this week.
A season that's already produced three of the most painful losses in recent memory - where the Vols lost the season opener for the first time in 13 years, lost to Florida by 39 points in the worst single loss of my lifetime, and lost to Alabama 41-17 in the worst lost to the Tide in 21 years - has now also produced three of the most enjoyable victories in recent memory - a 35-14 woodshed job saver against what's become a Top 10 Georgia team, the unique and dramatic 27-24 OT season saver against Steve Spurrier, and now another out of nowhere blowout win against a Heisman Trophy frontrunner that keeps you in front of the SEC East where all you have to do is beat Vanderbilt and Kentucky. And in any other year, we'd love those odds and I'd be telling my lay speaker to get ready on the first weekend in December, because I'll be in Atlanta. But this Tennessee team, these Vanderbilt/Kentucky teams, and the absolute madness of this season allows us no breathing room nor the ability to talk about what it'll take to beat LSU. The first time we can talk about that will be walking off the field victorious in Lexington. And the first time we can talk about what it'll take to do that will be walking off the field victorious this week on senior day in Knoxville. Anyone who's complained in the past about the post-Alabama/November Vol football schedule being anti-climactic, welcome. This is your year, because Vanderbilt has just become the biggest game of 2007, one week after it was Arkansas.
Normally, having just been in for Arkansas, knowing I'll be in Knoxville for Thanksgiving in two weeks, and thinking about making plans for the Georgia Dome the week after, I'd consider skipping the 185 mile drive to Knoxville this week. Because after all, it's only Vanderbilt right? But saying it's the biggest game of the year isn't an attempt to be overly dramatic - it's become absolutely true. There are no more scenarios - Florida's mudhole they stomped in South Carolina (a week after doing the same to Vanderbilt) means the Gators finish SEC play at 5-3, which means a single Tennessee loss will eliminate them from the SEC East race. The Vols' only road to Atlanta is by beating Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Georgia needs to beat Kentucky on Saturday and hope the Vols lose one of those games. Florida is still alive too, contrary to what I thought last week - the Gators need the Vols to split the next two weeks AND Georgia to lose to Kentucky, because the only way Florida can win the division is in a three way tie, which they would win due to their 4-1 record against the East Division. If there's anything we've learned this year, it's that you take nothing for granted and every one of these counts, so for Tennessee, the road to championships goes through Vanderbilt before it goes through Kentucky before it goes through LSU. Only Vanderbilt right now.
And remember - the Dores are 5-5. We don't always see this scenario when we face them, but Vanderbilt is playing for bowl eligibility. They've also got a shot to get there by beating Wake Forest in two weeks, but anyone who thinks this isn't a hugely important game for them would be kidding themselves, and only needs to go back and watch the film from the last time the Dores were in Knoxville. I was, ironically, in Vanderbilt at a conference that day, watching parts of the first half at a restaurant and waiting impatiently for voice mails to tell me the sad details of the 4th quarter. And I remember staring at the floor for a good two or three minutes after the last one from my Dad told me we'd lost, followed by about a dozen other people calling me to "make sure I knew" (how come no one ever wants to call me after we win, but my phone blows up when we lose?). It's the exact same reaction - staring at the floor - I have when someone dies.
Vanderbilt can kill us again on Saturday. And even if the 2005 loss doesn't seem real to me because I wasn't there and I didn't see it happen, it did. The butt of all our jokes can swing our season, which currently continues to hang in the precious balance between championship and disaster. And we've seen it all year - Tennessee getting crushed three times, Georgia beating Florida, Mississippi State being Alabama State Champions, Kentucky beating the #1 team in the nation...if karma is a factor, this would be the year for Vanderbilt to beat Tennessee.
Speaking of their possible bowl eligibility, Mississippi State's win over Alabama makes them the 10th SEC team with six wins. The crowded field, however, may get a break if Georgia keeps winning, which would make them - however improbable in October - a viable BCS at-large contender. The SEC needs that to happen very badly, because it'll open up another slot for someone else.
With two regular season weeks remaining, you finally have a chance to make a fairly realistic bowl projection scenario on paper. So, if things fall as they should over the next three weeks - lol, as the kids say - here's how things would shake up:
BCS Bowl Projections
National Championship - LSU (SEC) vs. Oregon (Pac-10)
Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma (Big 12) vs. Hawaii/Boise State winner (at-large)
Sugar Bowl - Georgia (at-large) vs. Texas (at-large)
Rose Bowl - Michigan/Ohio State winner (Big 10) vs. USC/Arizona State winner (at-large)
Orange Bowl - Cincy/WV winner (Big East) vs. ACC Champion (UVA/VT/BC/Clemson)
SEC Bowl Projections
National Championship - LSU
BCS At-Large (Sugar) - Georgia
Capital One - Florida
Cotton - Tennessee
Outback - Alabama/Auburn winner
Chick-fil-A - Alabama/Auburn loser
Music City - South Carolina
Independence - Arkansas/Mississippi State winner
Liberty - Arkansas/Mississippi State loser
TBA - Kentucky
For the first time this season, there's a clear break between the teams who have January 1 on their mind, and the teams who are just hoping to make it. It's also interesting that despite the parity and the rise of the lower half of the conference, it's still the traditional power six - Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee - who should get the six most prestigious bowl bids. Kentucky is still very much in that group that's hopeful for January 1, these projections simply assume things fall as predicted, which means UK losing to Georgia and Tennessee over the next two weeks. Don't worry, we'll piss off the Wildcat fans next week.
If Tennessee wins the next two weeks, they'll finish the regular season at 9-3. Obviously, if they beat LSU in Atlanta, they'll play in the Sugar Bowl, and we'd all salivate at the chance to play Texas if they steal an at-large bid from Missouri/Kansas (and they would). If LSU wins the SEC Championship, the 9-4 Vols would clearly fall below 10-2 Georgia and 9-3 Florida (unless the Gators are upset by Florida State), but would still be far more attractive than anyone other than the Iron Bowl winner. And I've got the Vols in Dallas and the Iron Bowl winner in Tampa simply because the Vols played in the Outback Bowl last year. If it was today, I'd say you'll see Missouri in Dallas and Illinois in Tampa as the opponents, but hey, what do I know?
The News-Sentinel's Dave Hooker thinks that if the Vols lose the SEC Championship, they'll go back to Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Bowl (once again setting up the potential "Will loses his job over a Tennessee/Virginia Tech game" scenario) - which is what will happen if Georgia fails to earn a BCS at-large bid - but I still like the Dallas scenario best. We'll see.
And of course, we're getting ahead of ourselves. But at worst, if the Vols beat Vanderbilt and Kentucky, they should do no worse than a January 1 bowl.
And before we talk about what it'll take to beat Vanderbilt, let's give some much deserved space to what happened against Arkansas. First - shame on the UT students who were still asleep or still drinking at kickoff, leaving a hole in the upper deck student section. For LA-Lafayette, I understand. For Arkansas, with Darren McFadden and the SEC East race on the line - there's no excuse. Get off your *ss, get to the game. Coming to the games for free and getting great seats as a UT student, especially in big games like last week (and this week), is a privilege. Be worth it.
Second, Arkansas - and surprisingly so - was the first team we've beaten this year where I've wanted to taunt their fanbase after the game was over. With Georgia, we were all too stunned and too elated to worry with Dawg fans, a significant percentage of whom left when the score was 21-0. You know, back when they were unhappy with Saint Richt. Against South Carolina, we were still stunned, and Carolina fans were wearing that face I love when it's not on mine - game ends in stunning heartbreaking fashion, and you don't move, you don't talk, you just stare straight ahead at nothing for a good five minutes. My friends and I know it as The Jabar Gaffney Face, Florida fans know it as The Collins Cooper Face, Arkansas fans know it as The Clint Stoerner Face. So when Gamecock fans are breaking in The Ryan Succop Face, you want to give them a hug and tell them to get those Gators, but you can't because Steve Spurrier is still their ballcoach.
But Arkansas was incurring my wrath, and due in large part to the antics of DBs Michael Grant and Matterral Richardson. On the opening drive, one of them (they're #8 and #9, respectively, and it was hard to see which was which, plus Will forgot to TiVo the game...) slammed the head of one of our receivers into the ground well after the play - which happened right in front of the field judge, who waited until the next play to throw his flag - in an apparent attempt to intimidate. It looked like they were jawing with Austin Rogers the whole game, who was the first person to jaw back when Arian Foster broke lose for 59 yards. And all that talk about press coverage and no respect and what not, Rogers got the best of them on those matchups, and the Vols definitively got the best of them on the scoreboard. I like very much that we will not be intimidated - nor should we be at this university - on both sides of the ball.
Darren McFadden did get 117 yards, but they were the quietest 117 I've ever seen. An absolute hats off to the defense, including and especially the defensive line, which I have previously called out as the worst part of an already bad defense. You could tell they were ready to play, and play they did. And well. As McFadden - who, like watching Marshawn Lynch last year, you can tell is very talented even as they struggle to pick up yards - kept getting denied, I kept thinking back to Notre Dame circa 1990, where the Vols held Rocket Ishmail in check all day until the very end, and then all it took was one play, one bust to ultimately beat us. And I kept waiting for McFadden to make that one play...but he never did. So don't let the door hit you on the way out to the NFL Draft, and the Vols won't see Arkansas again until 2011 unless it's in Atlanta between now and then anyway, but it was highly encouraging to see Tennessee play that well against him. Also, I'm pretty sure that "Eric Berry, son!" is the phrase I've used the most during Tennessee Football games this season. It's becoming the "You better guard him!" of Tennessee Basketball/Chris Lofton. (Sidenote: I accidentally typed "Christ Lofton" just now, and it took me a second to delete it. But we'll get to that in a minute.)
Last week, we talked about how to beat Arkansas...check out how the Vols followed that script perfectly:
Control the ball & clock, keep McFadden & Jones off the field...
- Tennessee runs the ball at a clip of almost 2 to 1, including at one point 14 runs in a row (and if you're booing this while the Vols are up 21 points, you're an idiot and you should give up your seats), wins the time of possession by almost seven minutes, limits Arkansas to one first down in the first half by doing so, and Felix Jones goes out with a thigh bruise.
Minimize mistakes and turnovers...
- For the Vols, three penalties, no turnovers.
Force mistakes and turnovers...
- For the Pigs, twelve penalties, three turnovers.
Get a lead and force Casey Dick to beat you...
- Tennessee scored off the opening kickoff and never trailed, building a 17 point halftime lead that turned to 24 on Arian Foster's run. Arkansas' three turnovers were all interceptions; Dick was pulled from the game.
Score a bunch of points just in case...
- 34 points qualifies.
So the win over Arkansas was outstanding. But this is Monday, so we're on to Vanderbilt, which is the latest installment of the Game of the Year. And these may or may not be your father's Vanderbilt Commodores - we'll find out over the next two weeks. They have won five games by double digits, which is jarring when you consider two of them were against SEC foes. They are clearly not the worst team in the conference for the first time in recent memory (they blasted Colonel Reb 31-17, who continues to have the dubious honor of being the only SEC team that has no shot at bowl eligibility). They put the defensive hammer down on South Carolina, pushed Georgia to the limit, and had every chance to beat Kentucky last week. They've also looked very Vanderbilt-like against Florida and Auburn.
You're already hearing about their defense - check Mike Strange today - and while the Vol defense looked great against Arkansas' running attack, teams that are more apt to throw have been the ones who have really damaged the Vol D. Tennessee will need to continue to avoid mistakes - no turnovers last week. And while the Vols have opened as a 12 point favorite, I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that makes me nervous. I'd say I'd expect a close, hard fought football game, but then I'd also say that I have no idea what to expect.
What I know is that it's one win to set up one game to get to Atlanta. On Senior Day, at home against the team you (almost) always beat. No more room for error. This is what it's all about.
And we'll keep saying it...all you have to do is win.
Chris Lofton goes 1 for 8...
And the Vols still won by 17 points.
In the last two years, if Lofton went 1 for 8 (who did finish with 10 points thanks to 8 for 8 at the free throw line), against a nationally respected team like Temple, the Vols would've struggled at best. If you go back to the four game stretch the Vols played without Lofton last year, three of which the Vols lost by double digits, you see the issue. You can even argue that at points last year, when Lofton was on the bench, if JaJuan Smith wasn't hot, it looked like the Vols were stalling time until we could get #5 back in the game.
With Lofton struggling - which we won't even begin to worry about until the Vols play another big game, which won't be until next week at the Legends Classic against West Virginia - the rest of the Big Orange machine came to life. The players are mostly the same, and Dane Bradshaw's loss will be felt least in the points section of the box score. But instead of Lofton leading the way and everyone else "contributing", everyone else led together.
And it wasn't like Ohio State leading together, where no one can miss from three. The Vols shot 6 of 22 from the arc (27%). Instead, Tennessee's old players showed a new presence in getting to the basket. JaJuan does what he's supposed to and scores 15. Ramar Smith - still working on that jumper, clearly - still scores 14, all from the field, by breaking down the defense and getting to the rim. And Tyler Smith may not show up huge in the box score with 9 points and team leading 5 assists are merely a shadow of his presence on the court. Tennessee is no longer just a perimeter team with a press who can beat anyone on any given night. And it's wholly unfair to make a blanket statement about a team after one regular season game, but the Vols look like a frightening hybrid that's going to be capable of beating lots of teams in lots of ways. Wayne Chism adds 11 points on the block. Duke Crews doesn't even play. And even the young kids, Cameron Tatum and Brian Williams, who looked their age at times, made positive contributions. If you'd shown me Lofton's numbers and the 3 point percentages going in, I'd have been really worried and wouldn't have been surprised if we'd lost. Instead, the Vols rolled. A good and intriguing start, to say the least. It's two "gimmie" games in the Legends Classic this week, against two of the most intricately named teams the Vols have faced in recent memory - the Arkansas-Monticello Boll Weevils on Wednesday, and the Prairie View A&M Panthers on Friday. The Vols will also get MTSU next Tuesday before heading to Newark to face West Virginia next Friday, and either Texas or New Mexicon State next Saturday (bonus question: who's going to call these games with Bob Kesling in Lexington?)
It's just one game. But when your first complaint is Chris Lofton, you're in good shape. Also - well done on the arena renovations. I'm still getting used to the idea of waiting in line for the men's restroom (which, in a strange and nostalgic sort of way, I'm glad did not see any of the renovation efforts...I mean, it's not every day you get to pee in the trough). And it's also weird to not have the old attendance marks from Thompson-Boling - the 21,817 on hand for Temple is the capacity number, which I'm sure you'll see more than once this year. And it also makes my day anytime I come back for basketball and get to see John Ward, who got a 2-3 minute standing ovation during halftime in the festivities to celebrate the arena renovations. You can't just think you can bring out John Ward and people are going to clap for the same 5-10 seconds that everyone else gets. It's John Ward.
It's very good to be a Tennessee Vol right now. And it might be great in two weeks in Atlanta. You didn't see that one coming in late September, eh?
Are the Titans good or bad?
Bill Simmons has had the Titans listed as loiterers in his power rankings more than once this season, and after Sunday's 28-13 loss to Jacksonville at home, you have to wonder. Tennessee's six wins this season look very different after the first two - at Jacksonville, at New Orleans - when you look at the remaining four: 20-13 vs. Atlanta, 38-36 at Houston with the blown lead and the multitude of field goals, 13-9 vs. Oakland, 20-7 vs. Carolina. In the NFL, wins are precious - and if the playoffs started today, the Titans would still be in as one of the two wild card teams (along with Jacksonville in the loaded AFC South). And the remaining schedule doesn't look nearly as daunting as it did at the start of the season. So maybe they'll just chalk this one up to injuries, especially on the defensive line (I continue to be amazed at the way Al Haynesworth plays so much harder and better when he knows he's got something to play for).
The not-yet-rumblings about Vince Young will get a national spotlight this week - which means, wonder of wonders, I get to see the Titans on TV next Monday at Denver - but from what I read and hear, it wasn't pretty yesterday. The defense probably won't play so poorly the rest of the way, though it's worth nothing that I can't even tell you who played quarterback for Jacksonville with Garrard hurt without looking it up, and they still scored 28. And the long season means you can't read too much into any win or loss. Making the playoffs in this conference with this team would be a great achievement - and thanks to San Diego channeling the Florida Gators last night in a six interception performance from Peyton Manning, the Titans are still only a game out of first in the division - and I still feel like the Titans are (much like the Vols) good enough to beat anyone they play, and flawed enough to lose every game. So the remaining schedule will answer this question of good or bad, at least as far as making the playoffs:
Week 11 - at Denver (MNF)
Week 12 - at Cincinnati
Week 13 - vs Houston
Week 14 - vs San Diego
Week 15 - at Kansas City
Week 16 - vs NY Jets
Week 17 - at Indianapolis
Looking at it right now, I'll still say the Titans should win the next three, and are plenty good enough to beat San Diego in Nashville. I'd also say that while it would be nice to play for the division title in Week 17, I don't want to be going to Indy fighting for our playoff lives on the last week of the regular season. We played that game last year with the Patriots and weren't good enough to win it. With the Patriots locking up their division and the other two in gridlock top to bottom, the AFC South should have every chance to get Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee in the playoffs. More wins and more distance between the Titans and the rest of the AFC field would be nice here over the next three weeks. And either way, I'm still just excited about seeing them next Monday.
Speaking of Mondays, I need four touchdowns from Matt Hasselbeck tonight to win my fantasy game this week. I'm just saying.
The Boston Celtics are the best team in the NBA
It's fact, baby.
The Celtics are 5-0 and the only undefeated team in the NBA. Only one of the five games has been close, and in that one Kevin Garnett absolutely took Chris Bosh to task in overtime, and Ray Allen made the money shot in a 98-95 win last week. The Celtics are averaging 108 points a game and are winning by an average of 17 points a night. The Big Three's box score is a thing of beauty:
Paul Pierce: 23.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists
Kevin Garnett: 22.6 points, 15.8 rebounds (!!), 6.0 assists (!!!)
Ray Allen: 22.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists
They're scoring 70 points per game...and maybe Garnett's been getting 16 boards and 6 assists a night his whole career and I just don't pay enough attention to the T'Wolves, but good grief. The Celtics are also getting more than expected from Eddie House and the continued maturation process of Rajon Rondo. It's only five games, sure. And my cousin and I this weekend, in discussing the Celtics' other guys, couldn't agree on whether to use the word "garbage" or "young". But right now, Boston is on top of the world.
Finally, my Dad made mention this weekend of something he'd seen about the Celtics trading Pierce and Garnett for Kobe Bryant, and I'm pretty sure my heart stopped beating for a full second, then restarted to initiate a little throwup in my mouth. I refuse to even search this out on ESPN.com's trade machine, and we're going to assume humor and move on with our good lives.
Wednesday, November 07, 2007
If Arkansas beats Tennessee, the Vols can still win the SEC East if South Carolina beats Florida and Georgia loses to either Auburn this week or Kentucky next week. However, there is no more room for error - the Gators' date this week with Spurrier is their last SEC game, and thus their last chance to lose. And of course, the easiest way to avoid that fate is to win.
Tennessee is also rolling the dice on bowl bids with any loss(es). Arkansas' win last week makes nine bowl eligible teams in the SEC, with Vanderbilt and Mississippi State on the threshold. Even if you pencil in LSU as the SEC Champion, try to sort out the rest of the field, I dare you. All of whom have meaningful regular season games left that could go either way. Games in the next three weeks with major bowl implications:
Alabama at Mississippi State
Arkansas at Tennessee
Auburn at Georgia
Florida at South Carolina
Kentucky at Vanderbilt
Mississippi State at Arkansas
Kentucky at Georgia
Vanderbilt at Tennessee
Alabama at Auburn
Arkansas at LSU
Florida State at Florida
Georgia at Georgia Tech
Tennessee at Kentucky
Ole Miss at Mississippi State
Clemson at South Carolina
Wake Forest at Vanderbilt
All of those, plus the SEC Championship Game, means that outside of LSU, you've got about eight teams with a legitimate shot to play on January 1 right now. Which means you've also got about eight teams with a legitimate shot to play in the Liberty Bowl. And once again, unless other conferences don't make their required bids, at least one bowl eligible SEC team is going to be home for the holidays, and if Vanderbilt and Mississippi State find wins, you could be talking about three SEC teams with records as high as 7-5 that don't go bowling at all.
So the stakes remain insanely high for everyone, but for Tennessee in a unique way. The Vols control their own destiny. Phillip Fulmer is in a mixed place that could go either way. Tennessee's holiday destination could be anywhere from the Sugar Bowl to nowhere. Typically, these are questions that are answered before the calendar turns to November, let alone the second week of this month. And again, you don't need anything crazy for this to fall into place - Tennessee just has to win.
Which brings us to the task at hand this week.
If you were to devise a plan for how to beat Arkansas, it would look something like this: control the ball, control the clock, keep Arkansas' explosive rushing attack off the field, jam the box and force Casey Dick to pass to beat you, don't turn it over, and score a bunch of points to keep up just in case. This seems like a solid game plan, right?
South Carolina thought so too.
Check the box score from Saturday night's game:
First Downs: 29
Total Offense: 489 yards
Pass Defense: 109 yards allowed
Time of Possession: 37:37
You look at those numbers - especially the time of possession, which is a +15:14 margin - and you'd think that Carolina executed the perfect gameplan against the Razorbacks, and would've won for sure. But if you watched the game, or you check Arkansas' box score, you see a different story:
First Downs: 26
Total Offense: 651 yards
Rush Offense: 542 yards
3rd Down Conversions: 10 of 13
Scoring points, eliminating turnovers, controlling the clock, making Casey Dick a non-factor - none of that mattered. Arkansas ran the ball 58 times for 542 yards. That's 9.3 yards per carry. They passed the ball 10 times. 11 if you count McFadden's attempt. Old school fans, rejoice.
Gameplans like this go out the window when Darren McFadden and Felix Jones are the opposition. Even executed exactly how you wanted it, McFadden gets downfield and scores quicker than any passing attack. His 80 yard untouched run when Carolina had cut it to 35-29 was pure Heisman, right down to the flexing in the end zone. Arkansas lined up and said "this is what we're doing", and then did it so well, that they could afford 36 points, 489 yards and 15 extra minutes from the other team. It didn't matter. McFadden and Jones prevailed.
Now, raise your hand if you think our defense is better than South Carolina's.
While what Arkansas brings to the table will be different than the spread attack that's ripped holes in the Vols defense on three occasions, the task is nonetheless a tall one. The much maligned defensive line and their lack of pass rush will now have to make plays in stuffing a ground attack that can run between the tackles and around the edge with equal efficiency. The linebackers and secondary have to help in contain, while keeping an eye on Marcus Monk. And the Vols must, must, MUST finish tackles and not leave a bunch of missed ones on the field.
Even without the rushing and defensive stats, this is a peculiar matchup. Both coaches have warmer seats than what they're used to. Tennessee is ranked 22nd in the AP poll and controls its own destiny in the SEC East. They've lost three games to ranked opponents by a combined 77 points. Arkansas is unranked and an almost non-factor in the SEC West race. They've lost three games to ranked opponents by a combined 18 points, and held a lead in the 4th quarter in all three. Anyone who suggests that the Vols are heads and shoulders better than Arkansas hasn't been paying attention to either side. Vegas has - Arkansas opened as a two point favorite, though I'm sure much of that has to do with McFadden's performance last week.
So...what will the Vols do? Tennessee has, at times, been very good at executing 10+ play drives that eat clock and score points. The big plays have been fewer, but against a weaker Arkansas defense they might show up again. The RB workload is limited - and I fully believe this is a good thing - with the departure of LaMarcus Coker. This means Arian Foster could see the same 20 carries he saw last week, with the change going to Montario Hardesty. All those who clamor for Lennon Creer after one series need to remember the difference between the SEC and the Rajun Cajuns.
Even though Arkansas ripped it to shreds last week, the same gameplan should be most effective. Control the ball, control the clock, keep Arkansas off the field, eliminate turnovers and make some of your own, touchdowns not field goals, etc. And do the one thing that South Carolina wasn't able to do: get and extend the lead, which will make Arkansas more likely to pass. It's an odd and unique game, something in the matchups the Vols haven't seen this year. You can look at the defensive struggles in the losses and worry. You can look at the overall effort against Georgia, where the Dawgs' talented backfield was limited, and find hope. But really, this is another one of those where you just don't know what you're going to see until you see it. Both teams are good enough to win and flawed enough to lose. For Tennessee, everything they want continues to be right in front of them. It's simply a matter of getting it done, one way or another. So as the #7 Basketball Vols tip off the night before, this weekend is one final chance to keep the 2007 Football Vols relevant, and to keep talking about championships and January instead of new coaches and Shreeveport. And for the umpteenth time this season...no magic, no miracles, no chance, and no one else. All you have to do is win.
UPDATE: You can catch the 2002 six overtime classic between Tennessee and Arkansas tomorrow (Thursday) at 3:00 PM on ESPN Classic.
Monday, November 05, 2007
- ESPN.com's Expert's Picks lists the predictions of 10 ESPN college basketball personalities, with Fran Fraschilla and Bracketologist Joe Lunardi picking the Vols to make the Final Four, and Fraschilla picking Tennessee to win the National Championship (the graphics are currently backwards on Fraschilla and Andy Glockner). Dick Vitale picks, no surprise, THE TAR HEELS BABY!
- CBSSportsline's Gary Parrish has his initial bracket projections up, with the Vols as a 2 seed. Which allows me to be the first to raise the question, is anything less than a 3 seed a disappointment this year?
- The Sporting News has the Vols at #7 in their preseason poll, same as the AP/Coaches. Lindy's has Tennessee ranked #3.
- Chris Lofton has been named an AP First Team Preseason All-American, joining Tyler Hansbrough (UNC), Roy Hibbert (Georgetown), Drew Nietzel (this year's "he's still in college?!" favorite, Michigan State), and Darren Collison (UCLA). SI.com's Luke Winn had earlier ranked Lofton as the best senior in America (whole feature here).
- And oh yeah, the Lady Vols are ranked #1 in the preseason AP poll.
Saturday, November 03, 2007
Cheer for Alabama today
Saban Bowl I kicks off at 5:00 later this afternoon from Tuscaloosa, where LSU is rested and ready, and can essentially put the SEC West to bed with a win today. But if the Crimson Tide can pull off the home upset, they'll take over first place in the West and clear a path to Atlanta for the first time since 1999, something they could clinch next week against Mississippi State. And so while LSU continues to make a claim as the best one loss team in the nation and give itself a chance to stay in the National Championship conversation, if you're an optimistic Vol fan like myself, who would you rather see in Atlanta - LSU or Alabama?
The obvious answer is Alabama, because despite the 41-17 loss earlier this year, on paper the Tide are an easier opponent than the Tigers. But even deeper, that 41-17 loss is precisely the reason Vol fans need to get behind the Tide today - because there's still a legitimate shot that we could (finally) see them again in the SEC Championship Game, where the phrase "double or nothing" would be used more than once. A Tennessee/Alabama SEC Championship Game has never happened, and is number one on the list of things I've never seen in sports. So while you won't be sweating the conference race for the Vols today (who would also be helped by an Arkansas home victory over South Carolina, because every game counts in the East race of insanity), you can take that energy and feel the weird vibes of cheering for Alabama. It's the greater good.
The Vols are ranked 7th in both preseason basketball polls
Exhibitions are just that, so we won't go into the plusses and minuses of last night's "win" over a team named California that's from a different state. Nor will we fret over Monday night's second preseason game. But on Friday, it gets real - and I, like many Vol fans who are making the trip in for the Arkansas football game, get the bonus double feature of the basketball season opener on Friday night against Temple.
The Vols are ranked 7th in the AP and Coaches poll to open the season. And college basketball is a fickle thing early, and you never really figure out who's who until halfway through the conference season in February anyway, and then somebody else can get hot late and hit a run in the tournament. But right now, Tennessee is getting respect. Whether or not they deserve it is up for debate, but they'll certainly have a chance to earn it.
More thoughts on Super Bowl 41.5
Alright, so maybe I'm only a 99% Titans fan, because instead of hoping the AFC South leading Colts lose anywhere along the way, I have to get behind Manning on Sunday against the evil Patriots. Who are five point favorites on the road at the undefeated defending Super Bowl Champions who are winning their games by an average of 17 points. I'm just saying.
Bill Simmons said on his podcast this week that, barring injury, he can't see the Patriots even being challenged in this one. The NFL - as interesting as a "can they go undefeated?" story might be for the Patriots - needs the Colts to win this one, or at least to keep it close. The Chicago Bulls might've been good for business, but they had Jordan, and Tom Brady might be Tom Brady, but he ain't Jordan yet. A true Patriots juggernaut will get boring, I promise. Dallas was competitive for a few brief moments before it was over. It's better television if the Colts knock them off now, then Indy loses down the line, so we can all stop worrying about who is or isn't undefeated and focus on the league as a whole, because there are other good teams out there. Even if they're not as compelling to watch.
So we're setting aside our rivalry and putting the full Super Bowl effort behind Manning. I've got both Vinatieri and Gostkowski on my fantasy team, and we're definitely rolling with Adam. Go Colts baby.
And hey, I might get to see the Titans in the early game since they're playing "nearby" Carolina! Life is good.
Friday, November 02, 2007
On his blog, September 28:
Oh man, everybody is jumping on this Celtics band wagon. You know what? I was going to go prediction-free for the whole year, but I guess I'm going to break that now.
Now, if anybody remembers back when I got drafted, I got a report back that the reason I dropped so far in the draft was that Jim O'Brien of the Celtics said that I was too immature and that I wasn't ready for the NBA. What really happened was that I had an Achilles injury and I went back to L.A. to go get it healed when I was supposed to have a two-day workout in Boston with O'Brien. He didn't like that. So word came back to me that he was trashing me and it put this knife through my chest about the Boston Celtics.
Back in the day when I would day dream I thought that if I could score 100 points against any team it would be the Boston Celtics. Now, I knew it would never happen, but if I could do one thing in the NBA it would be to score 100 against Boston. So anyway, since everybody is back on the Boston bandwagon it brought back old memories. So listen here. On November 2nd, we're going to go into that building, we're opening up Boston. Right now I'm telling the Boston fans: You guys are going to lose. It's not going to be a victory for Boston. You might as well just cheer for me, because Boston isn't winning in Boston for the season opener. I'm sorry.
On his blog, October 30:
When I said we were going to beat the Celtics on November 2, was that really a prediction? I don’t think I wanted to say, “Hey, we’re going to play Boston and we’re going to lose!” Agent Zero is coming in the building. I’m back. I know all you Boston fans are going to want to go to see Kevin Garnett, but y’all are going to see him 41 games. You’re only going to see me twice! Me and my handsome self. I got a fresh cut for the Boston and Indiana fans. Break out the Arenas jerseys. I’m coming to town.
I mean, when you look at that Celtics team, that’s a powerful team … on paper. Once those guys get going, you’re in trouble. You can’t guard that team … on paper. You still have to play the games. But with Kevin Garnett, the way he’s playing, you’ve seen some of the stats. He hit a triple-double once and he was one rebound and one assist away from a triple-double the game before that. So once them guys get their niche, they’re going to be a good team. But November 2 for them, that’s going to be truh-bull. Trouble.
So in less than two hours, when more-than-relevant basketball returns to Boston for the first time in three years, with the Celtics expected to advance deep into the playoffs, which they haven't done in five years, and with Boston pegged as a legitimate Finals contender for the first time since I was seven years old...this is yet another situation where Adult Will is trying to figure out how to handle it. But change can be good. And so tonight, when they announce Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the starting lineup along with Paul Pierce, Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo - who I still contest was drafted as high as he was because Tennessee decided not to guard him for the entire second half at Thompson-Boling in 2006 - if things could possibly get any better in the city of Boston, busting up Arenas and starting things right would be it. The Ghosts of Celtics Past meet the present tonight. And this time, they should stick around through the winter, into the spring, and flirt with the summer...
Well...one at a time...but tonight would be a good one to start with.
UPDATE: And a good one it was.
The New Big Three combined for 67 points, Gilbert Arenas scored 21 points on a "troublesome" 5 of 20 from the field, and the Wizards went 0 for 16 from the three point line in a 103-83 Boston win. One down.