Saturday, January 12, 2008

Random Thoughts - Saturday January 12

A big day in sports...some thoughts on what's going on:

Dave Clawson as Tennessee's new Offensive Coordinator
I'm in Virginia, so I didn't get to see the press conference this morning, but in listening to the audio, I think you can hear a couple of things in Phillip Fulmer's voice - that he's glad, despite 2007 being a good year, to be on towards 2008 and not be dealing with the week to week job security stresses of the fall. I believe that Fulmer believes that 2008 can also be a good year for the Vols, and I believe that as well.

I also believe that Dave Clawson not only looks like Jimmy from Bull Durham, he also sounds a little like him. I'm not opposed to the FCS hire and think Clawson deserves every opportunity to succeed here, right now and in the future. That being said, it'll be a tough road very quickly for Clawson - his merits will be determined on the field; for all Bruce Pearl's charm, you really fell in love with him because he beat Texas and beat Florida in his first three months on the job - and the Vols' 08 schedule brings a very challenging September with a trip to UCLA, the Florida Gators (who Clawson and the Vol offense may be able to exploit defensively still), and then a tough break from the SEC rotating schedule, which means the Vols will travel to Auburn the very next week.

"At the heart of what we do will be a physical downhill run game." - Clawson. Arian Foster, I bet you liked that. The biggest blow to the Vols was obviously losing Jerod Mayo, but the return of Ramon Foster and Anthony Parker on the offensive line is probably the biggest asset. Foster will have the opportunity to go to the NFL, but if he returns he'll have a chance to get Travis Henry's career rushing mark at Tennessee. And if Arian does go pro, like Mayo we'll wish him the best...and unlike Mayo, we'll feel okay about who steps up next, with Montario Hardesty and Lennon Creer still in the stable.

"It's his offense. It's his offense to run." - Fulmer. He followed that up by saying that he himself is the one who will ultimately be accountable, but really, everyone is accountable and we all knew that already.

Latrell Scott - who says that Clawson is easily the best coach he's ever worked for - comes over from Richmond's staff and will become the new wide receivers coach. I love the fact that you can hear that nervous excitement in Scott's voice, and that one of the first things he mentions is making the wide receivers more physical. Stan Drayton from Florida lines in as the RB coach, and Fulmer is still looking for that all important tight ends coach. Allow me to say, however, that if everything comes through with Brandon Warren, the potential for that position will increase dramatically.

Clawson sounds confident and Fulmer sounds confident in him, and I like all of these things. Of course, this is all talk, and again, as charming as The Bruce was in his first press conference, he said right off the bat that several men had walked through those doors and said a lot of nice things and not gotten the job done, and no matter what he said if he didn't get the job done someone else would be walking through those doors in a few years. Talk is cheap and free. The experience is good today, but true experience yields true result.

Arian's decision and the continuing progress of Warren and Demetrice Morley will bleed into recruiting, and we'll go from there. Already, you can appreciate the SEC East title and the positive aftertaste of the Outback Bowl even more, because all of these events get a slightly more positive spin, and the mouth starts watering a little bit more for 2008. I'd project that this year's Orange & White Game will be the most interesting in a long time, both for another clear look at Jonathan Crompton and the continued progression of these still-young wide receivers, and for your first look at Clawson's offense.

I believe this is a good day for Tennessee Football.

SEC Basketball today
If you're into circling games and making time on your calendar to watch them, then here in about an hour you're going to want to check out Vanderbilt at Kentucky. Or at least put it on as the last channel watched, so you can flip there after you've had your Brett Favre fix. Vanderbilt is undefeated, off to the best start in school history at 16-0, and ranked #12 with a chance to jump into the Top 10 if they can win today. And of course, their next game comes Thursday night in Knoxville with an ESPN audience. You want them to win today.

But it's not blind Kentucky hatred involved - I'm also really interested to see if UK can get up off the deck and compete. The SEC season is usually what really counts, but with everybody and their brother saying how down the conference as a whole is this year, Kentucky really needs to blow the doors off to even think about March after their horrid start. Winning today at home would be a huge lift - if they lose right away at home, even against a good team like Vandy, I think you have to question if Billy G can keep this thing together for the rest of this season. And you never know what you're going to see - the Gators are young, but they're 14-2 and just came from behind on the road to beat Alabama earlier this week. There's still hope for Kentucky as well. So while I want Vandy to win so they come into Knoxville unbeaten, I think this game will be very telling on both sides.

The Commodores won their SEC opener by beating South Carolina, but they were pushed, 80-73. And so while you can check out Vandy/Kentucky on a national CBS telecast today at 1:30, you'll get the Vols in an NFL Playoff-free environment, tonight at 8:00 on Fox Sports South. You can also catch the game on the ESPN Full Court package, which is in the midst of a free preview weekend, so Vol fans far and wide can check this one out tonight.

South Carolina isn't projected to go dancing, but no team in recent memory has had Tennessee's number like the Gamecocks, especially in Columbia. Aside from busting Tennessee out of the 2006 SEC Tournament on Friday, South Carolina is 5-2 this decade against the Vols in Columbia. And they should be 7-0; Tennessee came back from down 9 with a minute to play in 2002, sent it to overtime with a Terrence Woods three at the buzzer, and won in overtime. In Bruce Pearl's first season, the Vols went unconscious from three in the second half and again rallied from a double digit hole to win by seven. But every other year, the Gamecocks have gotten it done, and usually with inferior talent. And it's usually not even close - last year the Vols laid an absolute egg in Columbia coming off the home win against Kentucky in an 81-64 loss. Buzz Peterson lost all four of his games in Columbia by a combined 54 points.

SEC wins are precious even in a "down year" for the conference, and if the Vols want to remain in that national elite conversation and seriously consider a #1 seed come March, these are games you simply have to win. And it's really too early to even be talking about #1 seeds; the Vols need to win the SEC, something they haven't done since 2000. Carolina will bring solid guard play to the floor tonight, including the returning Brandis Raley-Ross, who is a sick 30 of 46 from three this season, the best shooting percentage in the nation. This could easily be a trap game for the Vols, coming off the emotional high of the SEC opener and busting Ole Miss' unbeaten season in dramatic fashion in Knoxville, and with the marquee week next week, hosting Vanderbilt and Ohio State and then traveling to Rupp in a six day span Thursday-Tuesday. Good teams don't let this one get away. Great teams win this one. We know we're talented and we know we play our butts off. But tonight may be one of those character opportunities. We'll see what we've got.

NFL Divisional Playoffs
I wish they'd quit calling this "the best weekend in football", because that's just a slap in the face to the first Saturday in October all across college football, which in 2007 featured unranked Illinois upsetting #5 Wisconsin, the Red River Shootout, Clemson and Virginia Tech, Stanford's epic 41 piont underdog win at Southern Cal, Missouri scoring 200 points on Nebraska, Florida and LSU playing an absolute classic under the lights, and oh yeah, Tennessee beating Georgia like a dog. I'm just saying.

But it is an enjoyable weekend, and even with the Titans home and carrying around that sense of "we're as good as we can be right now" - which I'm sure will lead to greater frustration in the offseason when the team neglects to address that issue - I'm still wildly interested in these playoffs. All of the divisional matchups are interesting and nationally relevant, from the Favre/Holmgren saga in Green Bay, to the unbeaten Pats, to the Tony Romo/Jessica Simpson fun in Dallas against Eli and the Giants, to oh yeah, the defending Super Bowl Champions.

And I think you have a chance for a really special end to this run as well. Bill Simmons made the good point last week that it's been ten years since we've seen a great Super Bowl that everyone cared about, when Denver and Green Bay played. Lots of great games were unattractive matchups (Rams/Titans, Rams/Patriots), and even attractive matchups didn't pan out - like last year, when we were all still catching our breath from the AFC Championship Game when the Colts beat the Bears.

So in these playoffs, it's not even that you need New England vs. Dallas to draw the fans. Any combination of New England/Indianapolis vs. Dallas/Green Bay/NY Giants would do. And my apologies to Seattle, because I do like you, I just don't think much of anyone else does. No apologies to San Diego or Jacksonville, because I hate you. Sorry, John Henderson.

Actually, that New England vs. Dallas matchup is the one thing I absolutely don't want to see. I'd take Jacksonville vs. Seattle a million times before I wanted to see Pats/Cowboys, simply because I loathe both of those teams. The Cowboys I hate more than anyone else in the NFL, and the Patriots I hate this year because, well, they're the Patriots and they cheated. So in my fantasy scenario, they win tonight only so Peyton can head north next week and play dream killer, then Peyton busts up the Cowboys in the Super Bowl. Because I really don't want two weeks of Manning Bowl hype, and I really don't want to cheer against Brett Favre, which is what I'd do if it was Colts/Packers. But man, any of those would still be really fun.

Still though, methinks Vanderbilt at Kentucky is going to win the remote wars.

EDIT: Wonder of wonders, the NFL Playoff games don't start til 4:30. So this way, you can watch Vandy/UK, then watch Favre, then the Vols - cause really, who cares about the Patriots anyway?

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