"That loss is on me. I'm a big boy with broad shoulders. I can handle it." - Phillip Fulmer
One year after suffering the worst loss of his career, Phillip Fulmer was a late fourth down stop away from equalling the worst home loss of his career. That day came fourteen years ago with a team that started Todd Helton at quarterback against a Florida team ranked #1. This day saw a good Gator team - and time will tell if they're a great one - against a Tennessee team that does have some talent, still thinks its good, but instead found a new way to be frustrating in a 30-6 loss that, in many ways, felt worse than last year's 59-20 job.
While the Gators piled on points in Gainesville last season, some things were clear: the Vols weren't very good. At least on defense, simply not very good. After getting burned by Cal and Florida, there was no debate about that. Tennessee, on the Third Saturday of September 2007, wasn't very good.
On the Third Saturday of 2008, Tennessee might have some reasons to think its good. But they'd be better served living in reality: this team is 1-2 with a win over the worst defense in the FBS, a loss to UCLA that looks worse every week, and another "non-competitive" loss to the Florida Gators, who've won four straight in the series now, which means Urban Meyer is undefeated against the Vols. For the record, Steve Spurrier was 1-2 against Tennessee before he won five straight.
And it's the fact that there are quotation marks around "non-competitive" that makes it even worse.
Like I said, Florida is a good team. Their true worth will come out in the weeks ahead. They've got an explosive offense that was going to get its points, and they scored 20 without any help from the Vol offense or special teams.
But the Vols actually outgained the Gators 258-243, while only running five more offensive plays in a virtual dead heat in time of possession.
Could Florida have done more if they had to? Maybe - they only punted once. Which means it's the same answer for "Does Tennessee have a good defense?"
But it's the fact that they didn't have to that has me questioning, for the first time, whether Phillip Fulmer is the right man for this job.
The UCLA game I don't blame on Fulmer. I put that one on Dave Clawson. The blowout losses last season left you wondering about talent more than coaching. 2005 fell in the lap of Randy Sanders.
The way this went wrong yesterday, I don't know where else to go but to Fulmer.
Sure, it was Arian Foster's penalty that hurt a drive. Montario Hardesty fumbled to give the Gators a field goal, but that happens sometimes.
Even Jonathan Crompton fumbling against the fullback, I don't necessarily blame on Fulmer.
But the two biggest sequences of the game can't go anywhere else.
First, Brandon James was allowed to run a punt back for a touchdown against the Vols for the third consecutive year (his 2006 return was called back for a penalty).
When Mark May said Fulmer should have to take a Greyhound Bus back to Knoxville if he punted to DeSean Jackson, we laughed. Then the Vols punted to him and Jackson made them look stupid.
After the obligatory commitment to work on the special teams, the Vols let James score the game's first points on his punt return last season.
This year, everybody knows about James and not to kick to him, use any "special" formations or do anything of the sort. And the Vols, after watching him drop the opening kickoff and then take it back across the 50, instead of kicking away from him or even kicking it out of bounds, kicked it right to him, and watched him turn a 10-0 game into a 17-0 hole that put the Vols' hopes in the shredder only eleven minutes into the contest.
I've lost patience with "we're going to work on the special teams." I don't even care if you tell me we're going to work like heck on them. When Fulmer made the comment that "that's not us"...uh, yeah, it is. Giving up backbreaking punt returns has been Tennessee Football in the last two seasons. And in the absence of a special teams coordinator, the burden falls squarely on Fulmer.
But even with our hopes in the shredder, the Vols resurrected them.
Jonathan Crompton is what he is. He's not Erik Ainge, he's not Casey Clausen. He's certainly not the cerebral mind that Rick Clausen was (show me the play this season where Crompton worked his progression and didn't lock in...show me any play from yesterday where Crompton even looked at a second receiver). My Dad made the point that when you take these kids from small high schools who don't play much of any competition on that level, you just never know what you're going to get. Sometimes you get Heath Shuler. Sometimes you get this.
But he is what he is. Getting pissed at him isn't going to change that. Crompton can grow, even if that's a longer process than any of us expected or want.
Nonetheless, Crompton directed a balanced offensive attack to the three yard line twice. The fumble was unfortunate, but again...sometimes you fumble.
What I cannot find a good excuse for was the drive at the end of the half.
Consider the following:
- A play early in the drive where the Vols lined up in the G-Gun, then stood around for at least twelve seconds, not making adjustments or anything, just standing there...until the play clock hit zero.
- The fact that the drive only progressed because of a too many men on the field penalty against Florida, on a play where Lucas Taylor slipped three yards behind the secondary and Crompton horribly underthew him
- The clincher for me: everything that happened from the 1:13 mark.
At 1:13 in the half, the Vols took their second time out on a dead ball. There was plenty of time to do whatever we wanted with the ball in Florida territory. But instead, Fulmer called time out.
It was at this point that Crompton started doing something that I'm not sure the CBS cameras caught or not: after every play, looking frantically back at the sideline, raising his hands in that "whatdoIdowhatdoIdo?" motion.
And the answers from the sideline certainly took their sweet time.
Crompton's tension became tangible in the stadium. The Vols wasted precious seconds. And even when Crompton hit Josh Briscoe to set up first and goal, the Vols were already giving it away.
I told my friend there next to me in Z11 that if we scored it'd be by accident. The Vols got to the one yard line and had 3rd and goal with over :30 to play. Crompton did that sideline look again.
And the Vols let fifteen seconds run off the clock before they finally decided "Well, let's just call time out."
On 3rd and goal at the 1 with :31 to play with no time outs, you can still run it and if you don't score, you can get off another play.
On 3rd and goal at the 1 with :16 to play with no time outs, you can't run (or if you do you have to score). The Vols shot themselves in the foot with alarming precision.
Two plays later, Crompton was picked off in the end zone, and I came the closest to booing I've ever come in my orange blooded life.
I still don't agree with them...but at that point, I understood.
Who gets the blame for that whole mess? Fulmer.
Clock management, indecision and getting no points ultimately fall to Fulmer. When your quarterback looks to the sideline in a panic, and you've got nothing for him...that's Fulmer. That's what's on his shoulders, and that's what I'm having a really hard time living with.
Maybe there's some sort of veto system between Clawson's play call and Fulmer's ultimate acceptance or denial. Maybe that's what slowed us down. Either way, when it's your ship, you cannot allow this sort of inefficiency. Because it is on you. And you're the only one who can fix it.
It's true that I used to feel these losses more. Part of that is because I've got more going on in my life at 26 than I did at 19, and other things of worth to give me joy and pain. Part of that is because I realize that there are more important things in life than Tennessee Football (though they're few).
But part of that is because after a decade of playing Florida to the wall, the Gators are now back to handing it to us. Or simply being good at getting out of our way while we hand it to them.
1-2 doesn't hurt as much as it should at Tennessee...because we started 1-2 last year.
There's trouble in Knoxville.
Now...I don't ever think a head coach should be fired in mid(or in this case, early)season. Nor do I want to talk about "Will Florida lose twice?"...because the Vols just need to play Auburn and go from there.
But watching that punt return and that drive unfold yesterday, for the first time in my mind, I started thinking to myself, "You know...maybe someone else could do this better than Fulmer."
We don't need a new head coach today and we probably won't get one in 2008 with a fresh contract and a new offensive coordinator.
But we might need an exit strategy.