Even if they looked horrid on offense (again) in doing it, Tennessee proved that even at their worst, they can still beat Vanderbilt at will.
Saturday's game showed you a lot of things, including:
We'd all better hope that Tajh Boyd can come in here and play next season. It was no surprise that the Vols' quarterback situation didn't get any better Saturday against an above average Vanderbilt defense. But consider this: Tennessee's two most productive games of the year from an offensive standpoint are against UCLA (366 yards in spite of Crompton's 19 of 42) and UAB (548 yards). How in the world are your two most productive days offensively the first two games of the season?
It's not the competition - the Vols have played equally poor teams since (Wyoming, anyone?). This team has simply regressed, at both the quarterback position and in the overall offensive outlook. And this level of regression is unacceptable - and yeah, Fulmer's gone - but if the head coach had been more secure coming into this season perhaps, Dave Clawson would/should be the least liked man in Knoxville. The Clawfense will come to a merciful end on Saturday, and it has been an epic failure.
The only thing surprising about Jonathan Crompton throwing an interception on the second play of the game is that he didn't find a way to screw it up on the first one. That's harsher than what I'd usually say, but Crompton is and has been so much worse than what I'm used to dealing with. This kid cannot get it done at this university. End of story. I don't care who the new head coach is, if #8 is included in the quarterback competition or whatever we're going to have in the spring/fall, there's nothing about it that'll make me feel good.
BJ Coleman just isn't ready. He was third string for a reason and you saw it Saturday - whether it's the speed or the inexperience or both, this kid is not ready. Maybe by next season he could be more ready, and it's not really his fault that he's not right now. But he's not ready.
Nick Stephens, who I thought played the best for us all season, especially at Georgia, sees no snaps. He suffered a great play by a Wyoming defender and did make an inexplicably bad throw on the second INT in that game - but at this point, who hasn't? I'm not sure that Stephens can be a regular SEC game winner (unless Mike Leach was running the offense, more on that in a minute), but if we're talking about trying to beat Kentucky, I'm the most comfortable/least uncomfortable with Stephens. Gerald Jones and Eric Berry are nice, but if they don't throw it's not at all challenging to stop.
In a backwards sort of way, it's nice to have a game this week I care about winning one more time this year. I know we can't go to a bowl game and all that, but this is Fulmer's last game and we've got 23 years on Kentucky, the longest active streak in the nation. I want to win this one more than any we've seen this year since Alabama.
It's Senior Day as well, and it's interesting to point out that while we're potentially in the worst four year stretch of Tennessee Football in recent memory, when you watch these kids run through the T for the last time Saturday night, you may get a good idea why.
The list of contributing seniors on this Tennessee team includes Arian Foster, who needs 174 yards that he won't get to pass Travis Henry to become the Vols' all-time leading rusher. Here's an honest question that needs to be asked: is it wrong to hope he doesn't get the record?
The list also includes WRs Lucas Taylor and Josh Briscoe, the former who benefited heavily from Erik Ainge and David Cutcliffe and the latter who I still remember most for fumbling against Georgia when he was a freshman.
Anthony Parker will be missed on the line, as well as Ramon Foster, who rebounded well from a tough freshman year to become a solid contributor for us. The most damaging losses will come on defense, no surprise: Robert Ayers has played well and hard all season and really dating back to the Arkansas game last year, when he recorded three TFLs on Pig Sooie's vaunted rushing attack. Demonte Bolden is a solid tackle.
Ellix Wilson didn't get many opportunities to play until this year, but he's been very good at MLB. And the rotation of Adam Myers-White and Nevin McKenzie never really got worked out, but both will be missed, especially next year. DeAngelo Willingham got overshadowed some this year because of the talent in the secondary around him. And then there's Britton Colquitt, who's seen better years but still served his family name well when he was on the field.
There are some solid contributions in that group, but on the whole? There's not a single name in this group that you'll be talking about in four more years. I wish them all the best, and I'm sure the NFL will come calling for a couple of them...but when we talk about a decline in talent, this senior class has been an example of that. And when paired with a no-win quarterback situation and the Clawfense, it spelled disaster for us in 2008.
Still...I need this team to win on Saturday.
The defense will still be good enough to do it. The Chavis haters should again take a heavy dose of fact - through eleven games with an offense that's done nothing but put them in bad situations, here are the national rankings on the 2008 Vol D:
Total Yards: 6th
Points Allowed: 16th
Pass Defense: 8th
Rush Defense: 12th
Pick Sixes: 2nd
This is why the Texas Tech-Oklahoma game was a sobering reminder that the only way you want Mike Leach is if John Chavis comes with him. Because we shouldn't have to sacrifice championship caliber defense for a gimmick offense that's still never won a championship of any kind and now won't again this year.
The Vols might lose Dan Williams to an early NFL departure, but the good news is that Eric Berry isn't allowed to turn pro yet. Berry set the SEC single-season INT return yardage record with another spectacular play against the Commodores (and you have to love the interview-speak too: "I guess he thought he was going to be open."). EB needs around 40 yards of INT returns to set the single-season NCAA record. Which is just another day for a 2009 Heisman Trophy candidate. Seriously, he's so much better than Charles Woodson it's painful to even make the comparison. He probably won't win any awards this year, even though he's the best defensive back in the nation, because he plays on a seven-loss team. And I understand that. But next year, hopefully we can rectify that situation.
So a team with a great defense, a suicidal passing game and maybe...maybe enough horsepower to run to victory will face 6-5 Kentucky on Saturday night. They'll have to field questions all week about Randall Cobb - and I love the kid, he's from my alma mater and won us three state championships in three years as the starter at Alcoa - but the Vols didn't recruit him because Cutcliffe had his eyes on bigger prizes like Terrelle Pryor, and by the time Cutcliffe turned his eyes to Duke we had no shot at rekindling the flames with Cobb. He's up there throwing to another Alcoa product in Kyrus Lanxter, and I wish them both the best every week except this one. Vol fans who get overly critical for Tennessee not recruiting Cobb simply aren't appreciating the facts.
This is a Kentucky team that's become accustomed to success and winning, and aside from getting trounced by the Gators like everyone has, they've lost to Alabama by three, a touchdown to South Carolina, Georgia by four, and a touchdown to Vanderbilt. So when Vegas has the Vols -4.5 (???), don't believe it.
We need to win. But either way, you should come out and support Phillip.
It's funny, I'm conscious of the way I've been calling him by his first name in the last three weeks, which is something I never used to do. He was always "Fulmer". But no matter how wrong things have gone this year and how bad they've looked most of the time along the way, watching that press conference and watching him wear orange and know that soon you won't see him in those colors anymore...it's still very emotional.
I know it's going to be cold on Saturday night. I know we can't go to a bowl game. I know many of you stopped caring about this team and this season long before you even should have by the visions of Alabama fans in places they should never, ever have been at Neyland Stadium a month ago.
And if you're coming to boo Fulmer, sell your tickets because you've already sold your soul.
I shouldn't even have to type this, and my voice reaches merely hundreds on this blog and not the thousands who will show up in the grand scheme of things. But don't prove the Alabama fans right, who've been saying that Vol faithful will laugh and boo Fulmer off the field in his final game. Even if Kentucky beats us by a ton and we look and play terrible.
Phillip Fulmer has given us his life. We can give him Saturday.
Come to the Vol Walk. Stay for the whole game no matter what the scoreboard says. I hope to God we win and I'm excited about getting emotionally invested in a team that's hurt me plenty this year, but I just keep coming back one more time.
But win or lose, Saturday is bigger than that. Saturday is unique.
You give your all for Tennessee this week. Because that's what Fulmer's always given us.