Friday, October 31, 2008
Preseason AP Top 25
1. North Carolina
6. Michigan State
9. Notre Dame
15. Arizona State
21. Wake Forest
SESB on Gridiron Breakdown
Saturday morning, I'll once again be joining the boys at Gridiron Breakdown on BlogTalk Radio. The show airs live from 10:30-12:00 EST, and you can catch me live somewhere around 11:45. We'll probably talk about the good Tennessee team some - and because they're good, those very Titans are popping up more and more on my local affiliates here in southwest Virginia, which means I'll get to see them take on the Packers this Sunday just six days after enjoying Monday Night Football. Life is good.
JP Prince out 3-5 weeks
The Vols' hybrid has a partially torn labrum in his right shoulder, meaning he'll miss the season opener and then some. This plus the increasingly mysterious academic situation surrounding freshman Daniel West means the Vols are paper thin at point guard, and Bobby Maze is going to be on the receiving end of 35 minute performances early on. Chemistry is always one of my biggest concerns with college basketball teams that shuffle in dynamic new talent so often, so the Vols will once again be working with it on the fly as the season opens, when the West situation resolves itself, and when Prince finally returns.
Links from the Big Orange Roundtable:
- Rocky Top Talk: Q&A with Garnet and Black Attack, offering proof that some people do still want to talk about this week's matchup against South Carolina.
- Third Saturday: If Fulmer is gone, why you want Will Muschamp as your next head coach. Hard to disagree with anything in this piece.
- Third Saturday would also like to wish you a Happy Halloween, SEC Style
- Gate 21, where lawvol is out of trial and reminding us all why it's still great to be a part of the Big Orange Nation: 21 Things That Make it Great to be a Tennessee Volunteer
- Your Mom and Wilt Chamberlain have a suggestion for Fulmer's next pursuit after coaching.
Enjoy your weekend.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
1. North Carolina
7. Michigan State
9. Notre Dame
15. Arizona State
24. Wake Forest
- The Vols are the clear choice for the best team in the SEC again this year, though the Gators also crack the poll. Vanderbilt and Kentucky were each near the bottom of the "also receiving votes" list.
- North Carolina is the clear choice for number one, unanimous in this poll.
- The poll is littered with future and potential Tennessee opponents, with Gonzaga and Memphis just above the Vols, while Marquette and Kansas hover below. Meanwhile, the Old Spice Classic field includes Michigan State, Gonzaga again, and Georgetown.
- I'm sure we'll talk more about this in the next 17 days...but consider the accomplishment of Bruce Pearl, who, in his fourth year on the job, lost Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith, Jordan Howell, Duke Crews and Ramar Smith...and has the Vols ranked 13th in the preseason poll. Well done, sir. Well done.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Where is this going? - 2008 Edition
The 3-5 Vols play in what's still considered the toughest conference in college football, but that may change at season's end. The Big 12 at least gives the appearance of having more good teams, and they've played more enjoyable football, which makes a real difference in fan perception. The SEC's biggest games have been blowouts - Florida over Tennessee, Alabama over Georgia, Florida and Georgia over LSU - while the Big 12's marquee matchups have turned in some of the best performances of this season between OU/Texas and Texas/Oklahoma State. The showdown matchups in both conferences this week should both be entertaining.
But we say all that to say this: the SEC is top-heavy with four good teams, but from there the dropoff is significant. So when the bowl bids get handed out a month from now...it's going to be more interesting than you think.
Let's say Alabama goes on and wins the SEC West - which they'd do at this point even if they lost to LSU and didn't lose again - and plays the winner of the Cocktail Party in the SEC Championship Game. The winner in Atlanta goes to the Sugar Bowl, the loser goes to the Capital One Bowl. The loser in Jacksonville plays in either the Cotton or Outback Bowl, and LSU plays in the other.
Now...where is everybody else going?
Among the other eight teams in the SEC, here's how things currently shake down:
5-3: Kentucky, South Carolina, Vanderbilt
4-4: Auburn, Ole Miss
3-5: Arkansas, Mississippi State, Tennessee
As you can see, this presents the blessing and the curse. The good news is, there's no one team out of this field of eight that jumps out at you, meaning that any of them still have a shot at playing in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl (which for all of these teams at this point would be a major accomplishment).
The bad news is, there's eight teams in the field.
The SEC has non-January 1 bowl tie-ins with the Chick-Fil-A, Music City, Independence, and the coveted PapaJohns.com Bowls. So you've got eight teams playing for five spots, all of whom must get to 6-6 to be eligible.
Now, let's take a look at the remaining schedules, and factor in "almost certain losses", where teams from this lower eight are playing teams from the upper four:
Arkansas: vs. LSU
Auburn: vs. Georgia, at Alabama
Kentucky: vs. Georgia
Ole Miss: at LSU
Mississippi State: at Alabama
South Carolina: at Florida
Vanderbilt: vs. Florida
You'll notice, of course, that the only team here that doesn't have a game remaining against the upper echelon is Tennessee.
So...if Tennessee wins out and finishes 7-5, the bowl destination is probably going to be better than you think.
Now...our apathetic fan base certainly hurts us. Our television draw (and potentially the Fulmer situation) helps us. If I was a betting man and the Vols get eligible, I'd pencil in the Music City Bowl, especially considering it's in state and the Vols have never played in it. But the Chick-Fil-A Bowl isn't totally out of the question.
This is an even more interesting conversation if the SEC gets an at-large team into the BCS. That would bump all the other SEC teams up one bowl essentially, meaning that if that happens, one of these lower eight is going to play on January 1.
And it's not too farfetched - the rule that each conference can only have two teams in the BCS looks to screw the Big 12 this year the way it's done the SEC in the past. That means you can guarantee that two of the three between Oklahoma/Texas/Texas Tech are in, because they all play in the same division. It means you can put Ohio State there too as an at-large.
If Utah and Boise State both finish undefeated, then you might have an issue. But if not, the other spot would almost certainly go to either the loser of the SEC Championship Game, or the loser of the Cocktail Party if they won out from there.
If you just played the odds - and currently, the Vols are six point dogs at South Carolina - you'd have a projected bowl slate that I think looks like this:
BCS: Alabama (SEC Champion)
BCS: Georgia (at-large)
Capital One: Florida
Outback: South Carolina
Music City: Tennessee
Independence: Ole Miss
So we're not playing for championships or a good season or any of that stuff...but we are still playing this week, and aside from building for the future (which is important), the Vols are playing for some real bowl positioning this week...even if it's among the lower tier.
Where is this going? - 2009 Edition
No matter who the head coach is next year, the Vols don't lose much. They've currently got the #7 recruiting class in the nation according to rivals.com. If all of this really is a talent deficiency issue, then bringing all these guys back isn't that much of a positive. But if it's not - and I still don't know what percentage to put on 2007 between "we were good!" and "we were lucky!", which would play into this argument - well, either way, here's what we'll be playing with next season:
QB Nick Stephens/Tajh Boyd
RB Montario Hardesty/Lennon Creer
FB Kevin Cooper
WR Gerald Jones/Quintin Hancock/Ahmad Paige
WR Denarius Moore/Austin Rogers/Je'Ron Stokes
TE Luke Stocker/Jeff Cottam/Brandon Warren
OT Chris Scott
OT Ramone Johnson/Jarrod Shaw
OG Vladimir Richard
OG Jacques McClendon
C Josh McNeil
DE Wes Brown
DE Ben Martin/Chris Walker/Gerald Williams
DT Dan Williams
DT Chase Nelson/Andre Mathis/Donald Langley
LB Rico McCoy
LB Nick Reveiz
LB LaMarcus Thompson/Savion Frazier/Jerod Askew/Marlon Walls
CB Dennis Rogan/Marsalous Johnson
CB Brent Vinson
FS Demetrice Morley
SS Eric Berry
K Daniel Lincoln
P Chad Cunningham
RB Arian Foster
WR Lucas Taylor
WR Josh Briscoe
OG Anthony Parker
OT Ramon Foster
DE Robert Ayers
DT Demonte Bolden
LB Ellix Wilson
LB Adam Myers-White
LB Nevin McKenzie
CB DeAngelo Willingham
P Britton Colquitt
You're weaker at offensive line and have a huge need at linebacker (which has been recruited to fill)...but otherwise, the Vols have most of the pieces back and should be competitive no matter who the head coach is. Now, competitive by definition should be 6-6 every year, so take that for what you will. But the cupboard won't be bare. Could Tennessee still be good next year?
The sun will come out...
(Eat it up, Vol-Colts fans. We'll keep the bandwagon warm for you when you all come running as soon as #18 retires.)
Bet your bottom dollar...
Monday, October 27, 2008
Jeff: A quick (as quick as I’m capable of) team-by-team evaluation to set the stage for my playoff predictions:
In the West:
Dallas Mavericks – the Kidd trade sent them into a downward spiral and I don’t know what they have done to address it, counting on time to jell the team. Still talented enough for a 6th seed.
Denver Nuggets – they simply lost too much. Camby was their only defensive presence and he’s gone. Will probably rebuild next year.
Golden State Warriors – Also lost a lot but Ellis and Maggette should do a decent job of replacing B.Diddy. In the running for the 8th seed.
Houston Rockets – Please, please, please let them get out of the first round. Artest will either launch or sink the team; crossing my fingers for “launch.”
Los Angeles Lakers – Rotation and chemistry will be an issue but on paper the cream of the crop.
Memphis Grizzlies – Ownership has demonstrated a commitment to failure; they don’t want to win and their city deserves better.
Minnesota Timberwolves – Too young, no identity. Maybe in a few years (if any of their young guys re-sign which is a big if).
New Orleans Hornets – They have the best player in the West from last year and added Posey. I’m expecting big things.
Oklahoma City Thunder – Watch them for Durant and Westbrook but not wins. Karma also a significant threat to this franchise.
Phoenix Suns – I just believe Nash and Shaq plus Grant Hill can make one more legitimate run. Maybe it’s nostalgia. These Suns will be heartbreakingly worse to watch though; I miss D’Antoni even if they don’t.
Portland Trailblazers – I came this close to putting them in the playoffs but I think perhaps they are a year too young. I would happily be wrong. I will say I don’t think anyone will enjoy playing them; they’re going to be good.
Sacramento Kings – Too young, too little talent. Kevin Martin is worth watching though.
San Antonio Spurs – Aging rapidly but players and coach are almost perfect compliments to one another. They are still elite but purists need to enjoy them while they can.
Utah Jazz – The more you watch Deron Williams the more you want to. This is a well built and well coached team. They could potentially make a run at a title if chemistry is there.
In the East:
Atlanta Hawks – They lost a lot, have the worst front office in the league (take that Clippers!), the coach is shaky and doesn’t get along with the team’s 2nd best player. Still, Joe Johnson is the most underappreciated player in the league and they might make the playoffs in this conference.
Boston Celtics – I worry about age, Doc Rivers’ “strategy” and rotations, and whether or not the hunger that drove them has been satiated. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt though.
Charlotte Bobcats – The pieces are there if a bench can be developed. They will be well coached. I know I’m crazy but I think maybe…
Chicago Bulls – they have talent and some experience but what were they thinking with that coaching hire? A steady hand was needed, not someone who needs on-the-job training.
Cleveland Cavaliers – Lebron is the best player in the NBA. Stick him with the pu-pu platter and he can make a run at the Eastern Conference title. In fact, he’ll do just that this year.
Detroit Pistons – Dumars does a remarkable job adding quality young guys to keep the windows open. Top 3 in the East, perhaps a contender if the young guys grow up fast.
Indiana Pacers – They are trying to rebuild and will be an afterthought when the playoffs arrive.
Miami Heat – I wish I was in a fantasy NBA league this year so I could draft D-Wade; he’s going to have an ENORMOUS year. His team has copious amounts of talent but I don’t know how they’ll fit together on the floor. That’s irrelevant; Wade will get ‘em up in the Eastern rankings.
Milwaukee Bucks – Hmm…a roster of underachievers, minus their best PG, plus a Nazi head coach? Has potential as a sitcom premise I guess. My counsel to Bucks fans is abandon all hope. Enjoy that WI winter though!
New Jersey Nets – “Heeey Lebron. Look at all the nice pieces we have Lebron. Sure would be better than what suits up in Cleveland, huh Lebron?”
New York Knicks – In writing notes about this team’s hopes this season I just wrote “Are still the Knicks.” The state of this franchise is the longest running tragedy in the NBA. Hopefully D’Antoni enjoys counting money because that will be his only fun this year. At least with Donnie Walsh there is hope for the future now.
Orlando Magic – Dwight Howard. Watch him. Enjoy him. They don’t have enough to win it all but they’ll win quite a few games.
Philadelphia 76ers – This should be a fun team to watch. Brand, AI2, and Miller are a great foundation with Thaddeus Young and Louis Williams bringing the energy.
Toronto Raptors – Possibly the most perfect team conceivable for Mike D’Antoni or Don Nelson and of course neither is the coach. If you can, watch the Raptors.
Washington Wizards – Would be an exciting team if they could stay healthy. Should pay whatever Phoenix’s training staff wants to come to the Capital.
Playoff Teams in the East:
1. Boston Celtics
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
3. Detroit Pistons
4. Philadelphia 76ers
5. Orlando Magic
6. Miami Heat
7. Toronto Raptors
8. Atlanta Hawks (Hey, this is the Southeastern Sports Blog).
Darkhorse: Charlotte Bobcats (see note on the Atlanta Hawks @ 8).
Playoff Teams in the West:
1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. New Orleans Hornets
3. San Antonio Spurs
4. Utah Jazz
5. Phoenix Suns
6. Dallas Mavericks
7. Houston Rockets (no way they beat the Hornets in a 7 game series. @#$%!)
8. Golden State Warriors
Darkhorse: I don’t think they technically qualified but the Portland Trailblazers are the most likely to mess up my list of playoff teams.
Will's Playoff Picks
1. Boston - There's no other logical choice in the East. They'll miss James Posey, who hit the biggest shots in the Finals. But all the people who question the desire and intensity necessary to repeat keep forgetting that Kevin Garnett plays for this team. Age is not a factor with the Celtics yet.
2. Cleveland - LeBron plays out the string with a roster of guys that just aren't good enough. How Ben Wallace is still a starter is baffling. Still, LBJ is an absolute beast. Can't wait to see what he does with some real talent around him next year.
3. Orlando - If the East is Boston and then a crowded field of four or five teams who could all finish 2-6, and you can't have LeBron, you want the team with Dwight Howard. Orlando is actually probably fewer pieces away from a title run than Cleveland, even though they still wouldn't take them in a seven game series right now. The conference finals by way of avoiding Boston in the playoffs until then is a good goal for them this year.
4. Detroit - Promised changes never materialized, but this is still a team that has played in the conference finals five years in a row. A starting lineup of Billups, Hamilton, Tayshaun, McDyess and Sheed is still impressive, but none of them are getting younger. Jason Maxiell, Rodney Stuckey and Amir Johnson don't have that problem, but the East is getting better and they may not make it back to the Finals' doorstep this year.
5. Philadelphia - Finally, some good division competition for the C's (please excuse the use of the word "finally" after only one year of success). These guys will be fun to watch, and have put Elton Brand in a position to get the recognition he deserves. Not a team I want to see in the playoffs.
6. Toronto - Finally, some good division competition for the C's, part two. How do teams deal with Bosh and O'Neal on the floor at the same time? If Jose Calderon and Anthony "don't call me Candace" Parker continue to improve, this team could beat out Philly as the second best in the Atlantic.
7. Washington - If the window hasn't closed already, it's definitely on its way. Arenas can't be counted on full-time, though I guess the rest of these guys are used to competing without him at this point. You look at a potential lineup of Arenas, DeShawn Stevenson, Caron Butler and Antwan Jamison, and you still like what you see...but given that it hasn't materialized yet, I'm not sure it ever will.
8. Miami - I agree that they could rise even higher than this, but for now we're keeping expectations hovering around just making the playoffs. D-Wade can be the most valuable player in the league, if he's healthy. The rookies have to grow up fast, and Erik Spoelstra will be an interesting adjustment...but there's too much talent here for me to put them outside the playoffs.
1. LA Lakers - While there's a part of me that could envision this team imploding some - I read the other day that Kobe's played over 1000 career games and his best "Jordanesque" moments are probably behind him now, but I'm also sure that his ego isn't ready to adjust to that reality - the Lakers still have more than anyone else in the West, even if it's by a slim margin.
2. Utah - Might be this group's last chance together, and you never know how that's going to play in...but Utah was a surprising 5th in the NBA in scoring last season to go with the always solid defense they play, and it's hard to deal with Williams and Boozer. The West is probably going to be just as crowded, which means we're really throwing darts here, but Utah could be the best Finals darkhorse in the league.
3. San Antonio - SI's got the Spurs as World Champions, and really there's only that poor performance against the Lakers to keep me from really buying into it. The names and faces are the same, and we're a couple years away from me feeling safe doubting them.
4. New Orleans - I love this team. I can't rationalize picking them over a San Antonio team that beat them and I don't think Posey is the critical difference there...but maybe with more favorable playoff matchups this year, or with that year of experience under their belt...Chris Paul is a revolution, the rest of this team plays incredibly well together, and while I dislike Byron Scott personally, the dude can coach. If the Hornets won it all I wouldn't be surprised.
5. Phoenix - One more time? Grant Hill doesn't get enough credit for still producing after everything that's happened in his career, and it's a shame that Steve Nash may go his whole career without a ring. And I hate to say this...but I'm going to miss watching Shaq and just having him in the league, and you don't know it yet, but so are you. Kobe couldn't do without me.
6. Houston - Good grief...you forget how loaded the West is, because here I'm like "Houston can't be this far down, can they?" I just don't like the entire dynamic here to put them any higher - they're talking about trying to win a title but not getting out of the first round is their thing. And maybe it worked for Sheed in Detroit a few years ago, but adding the likes of Ron Artest to an already unstable mix doesn't inspire me. Good team. But they're playing golf in May again this year.
7. Dallas - Here's where I think the bottom falls out in the West. I liked Avery Johnson, but then again I'm not playing for them. I don't like all these pieces together, and I think it's an early demise again. Jason Kidd isn't going to win any playoff series for them.
8. LA Clippers - Apparently, we both have a need to be different and not put Portland in the playoffs. Now, I did earlier run down LAC when talking about Eric Gordon...but IF the Baron Davis/Marcus Camby shotgun wedding works, then the Clippers are a playoff team.
Alright, let's take this home with the MVP conversation and our Finals picks. I think you've got a small but obvious group of guys who are in the mix for MVP this season - LeBron, DWade, Kobe (just the way the league wants it), plus whoever has the best year between Chris Paul and Deron Williams...and we'll throw Dwight Howard in the mix just because he's unique and qualifies if Orlando is as good as I think they'll be. I think if Kevin Garnett was going to win it, he would've done so last year, and now people fully realize that Boston has the best team, but not the best player.
The NBA moreso than any league brings into question the "What do you mean most valuable" conversation...because taken literally, LeBron should win this award every year he's in Cleveland. Take LBJ off the Cavs, and you've got a lottery team. Now that Beasley and Marion are in Miami, and the whole supporting cast of characters are still playing in Staples, Bron-Bron will easily be the most valuable to his team.
I do think Chris Paul should've won it last year, but the charm may have worn off some in 2008-09, and if so Paul won't be able to hold his own in that LeBron/Kobe/Wade group. Wade has a chance to be the most dynamic of the three (see the Olympics), and he's working with a lower bar coming back from injury on the team predicted to do the worst of the three.
Still, if Cleveland struggles and Miami hovers around the eight seed, and the Lakers sport the best record in the West - all of which I expect to happen - then I have no doubts that it'll be Kobe who once again wins the award. We can't get enough of the Jordan comparisons, and LeBron frankly doesn't need a huge contract year to make him the most valuable free agent in professional sports history, he's already there right now, so there won't be any extra urgency on that front. They should just give it to him with a hug and kiss from the Cleveland faithful right now...but I think Kobe's going to bring it home again in the end.
Jeff: My take on the MVP issue is also literal. If the NBA hit the reset button on the league, kept all their franchises, and put all the current players in a pool to re-draft who would be the first player taken? The answer couldn’t be more obvious. The only player would I think would legitimately be involved in the conversation other than Lebron is Dwight Howard and even so, Lebron would be taken 100 out of 100 times. So Lebron is the Most Valuable Player. If we redefine MVP as Best Individual Player or Most Important Player to His Team the discussion picks up a few more names. In reality the NBA’s MVP award is actually a combination of BIP and MIPTHT.
You are right that Kobe will be in the discussion. Whatever. I think the Lakers are going to have legitimate problems figuring out how to play Bynum and Gasol at the same time (or at least that is what I’m telling myself). Hopefully that difficulty will produce some unexpected losses, cause Kobe to show his true colors more often, and take a bit of shine off his candidacy. If not, it’ll be hard to unseat him as MVP; as in political elections it is hard to unseat an incumbent (see: Steve Nash).
The fundamental rules of the universe dictate that Lebron must always be in this conversation. He is the MVP-in-reality, BIP, and in the running for MIPTHT. Of course, this should make him a lock but the awarding of the NBA’s MVP award is historically off the reservation (see: Shaq’s ONE - !!! - MVP Award).
Chris Paul’s biggest advantage over Deron Williams might just be the attention he gained last year nationally. I wouldn’t say Williams is as good as Paul but I might not argue against that point either. Either way, as good as Deron Williams is I don’t see how he can compete in terms of exposure playing in Utah. So go with Paul over Williams.
You mentioned Howard and I agree he should be in the conversation. However, I think he’s still a year’s worth of exposure away from being a real competitor for the MVP. I suppose he could have a monster year and make a run at it but in my opinion it would have to be a historical-level run. It’s also possible that Amare takes Dwight’s place as the big-man MVP candidate. I say that because Shaq has promised to make Amare great and Shaq has a history of making the next best player on his team look like the best. I’d say Dwight’s the frontrunner for this slot and Amare a dark horse but don’t count him out.
I also want to add in Dwayne Wade. This pick is purely on the basis of his performance in the Olympics. The pick also stands on an incredibly shaky foundation, namely that Wade can hold up for 82 games. But this is a new season and everything is rosy in the glow of high expectations so I’m going to believe. I’ve been calling for a monster year for D-Wade, thus not only is he in my field of potential candidates I’m going to go with him as my pick for MVP this year. I’m expecting big numbers and lots of highlight plays. Don’t let me down Mr. Wade.
In regards to the finals, I don’t know how anyone can pick anyone other than the Lakers and Celtics as the season begins. The bottom line is that they look the best on paper and that’s all that counts before the first tip off takes place. My heart longs for a New Orleans coup in the West but I can’t honestly say that is what I anticipate at this point. I also see a lot I like in the East - particularly in Philly, Detroit, and Toronto but – again - nothing that would trump the Celtics’ combination of talent/passion/camaraderie.
In the interest of full disclosure let me confess that I think the Lakers are the Celtics’ equals (if not superiors) on paper. They have an incredibly talented first four, a roster that all of a sudden became the deepest in the league (let me say one more sardonic thank you to Memphis), and one of the greatest coaches in sports history. However, my worldview compels me to believe that ultimately evil will be defeated by good. There are few things in sports that I am completely assured of but one of those things is that Kobe Bryan is evil to the core. Thus I re-board the Celtics bandwagon for one more trip.
Will: Glad the Celtics can be considered the "good" portion of that equation once again.
I still just think there's nothing that logically says it won't be Boston in the East; you can say that LeBron took them to seven games and now they've added Mo Williams, but based on what I saw in The Finals from a team finally playing on all cylinders, Boston was clearly the best team in the league and that hasn't changed in the offseason. In fact, if I may be so bold, I would be surprised to see another team take them to seven games before they get to the Finals, if they stay healthy.
Out West we're still throwing darts, but I agree that by default you have to go with the Lakers. San Antonio can't be counted out yet and we both like New Orleans, but if there's anybody trustworthy to manage that roster in LA, it's the clean shaven Phil Jackson. If Kobe is over the hill, he's still got enough for one more Finals run in him, at least.
That said, Boston was clearly better than LA in the Finals last year no matter how it looked on paper to most of the experts going in; I think it was Mike Wilbon who called it a six game sweep, because Boston had spurts where they were just on another level and all there together. James Posey will be missed, and the Lakers do have Bynum in the conversation...and as a result, I'll give it seven games instead of six this time. But still, Boston is the team to beat, and there's no reason they can't and shouldn't repeat as World Champions. It feels strange to make such a bold optimistic statement about my own team, only to realize that this one's also factually correct.
As always, if you agree or disagree with our picks, or want to add to the conversation with your playoff picks, MVP thoughts and Finals prediction, feel free to do so in the comments. The season tips off tomorrow (Tuesday) night in blockbuster fashion, with LeBron and the Cavs in Boston for the Banner 17 raising as the quest for Banner 18 begins at 8:00 PM (EST), followed by Greg Oden's regular season debut with Portland taking on Kobe and the Lakers at 10:30, with both games on TNT. Enjoy.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Denial, meet Anger.
We've had a good run, Denial. These last few months have been great. I know you've been interested in me for a long time, you've wanted this relationship to work for probably the last several years. And after I saw you again on Labor Day, I couldn't resist.
And the truth is, you're probably better for me than Anger. I'm probably a better person when I'm around you instead.
But see, I hadn't seen Anger since I was young. She's a part of my childhood. And last night...well, I'm ashamed to say it, but she's just more attractive than you. Dressed in red and singing those songs...I can't resist anymore, Denial. I'm sure you'll find somebody else. I know some guys up in Columbus who are interested. But me...I've gotta go where my heart leads me. And right now, my heart is full of Anger. She burns in me with a crimson flame.
I hope we can still be friends.
I've got a word to describe what happened in Neyland Stadium last night:
In the last two seasons, the Vols have been beaten 59-20 and 30-6 by Florida. And now, we've been on the receiving end of a 41-17 thrashing in Tuscaloosa, and a 29-9 slow death in Knoxville from our biggest rivals.
And it's nothing new. The Vols have no running game despite every ounce of the same talent that was on the field last season. They miss more field goals than they make, pick the worst possible times for penalties...
And when they finally, finally made something good happen by leveling Javier Arenas on a punt return...it didn't matter.
First and goal at the five? Field goal. Blocked punt that gives you the ball at the Bama 32? Nothing. First and 10 at the 14 on a drive that could've given you life in the locker room? More nothing.
It's the same sad song and dance we've seen against UCLA, it's the reason the Vols were dead at the half against the Gators, it's the reason the Vols couldn't get one - ONE - first down to beat an Auburn team that looks just as lifeless, and it's the reason that Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer simply did what they do and ended us, nice and slow.
I hate watching them celebrate in our building. I hate hearing their song. I hate seeing that many of them in our student section and where our season ticket holders should be.
And I hate this:
"It was like a home game out there for us." - Alabama OL Andre Smith
I love Phillip Fulmer.
But this has to change.
Because there's no more room for Denial. You'd have to be certifiable to think that this team is good. And you have to imagine reasons that it will get better in 2009.
Getting most of the pieces back from an inept - because that's the best word to describe it - offense really doesn't mean much. And the Vols are wasting a once-in-a-generation talent like Eric Berry.
Fulmer has a losing record against the head coaches of Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, and the ghost of Steve Spurrier.
Spurrier's Gamecocks, Vanderbilt and Kentucky are left on the SEC slate. Fulmer is 43-2 against those teams. But at this point, will it really matter if he goes 46-2 against them, and then the Vols beat Random Average Team in Random Average Bowl?
And what's worse...even if the Vols lose to Carolina/Kentucky/Vandy, a significant percentage just doesn't care anymore. We've been saying all year that you can't be this frustrated for too long, because eventually you pull the plug. Basketball season is three weeks away. And we'll gladly give our money to Bruce Pearl. Apathy is at the doorstep and knocking for many.
As for me...what I saw in there last night was unacceptable. Credit the Vols for playing hard. Credit Alabama for doing what it had to do. Credit lots of things for Tennessee simply not having enough talent to be in the same sentence as the SEC's elite right now.
But regardless of any factors, what we've seen is unacceptable. I'm furious. And the entire Tennessee Football program has to do what it has to do to make this right.
Friday, October 24, 2008
And now, some motivation for your weekend:
That was last year. In Neyland Stadium it'll sound even worse.
But Rocky Top would sound even better.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
- A Running Game
The performance the Vols got from the running game against Georgia was totally unacceptable, and will lead to a similar outcome this week. I still believe that Tennessee has the talent in the backfield and the experience up front to put a dent in Alabama's defense, especially playing without Cody in the middle. But they're running out of opportunities to prove me right. This part also includes whatever combination of Foster, Hardesty and Creer is most conducive to success - Fulmer seems to suggest that they're going to play in that order on the first three drives again this week, and then we'll go from there. If the Vols can't run, we're going nowhere.
- Who makes the big play?
Gerald Jones is slowed. And no matter how outmazing Eric Berry may be, you can't pencil in a pick six every week and his offensive potential is just that. So who will provide the offensive spark when Tennessee needs it? Will it be Denarius Moore on a deep ball again? Will one of the backs break a big run? Will Brandon Warren finally be a factor? When the Vols have beaten Alabama under Phillip Fulmer, there's always been one big play: Joey Kent, Jay Graham, Peerless Price, Travis Stephens, Casey Clausen, Parys Haralson...the Vols need a name to join that list, especially in an offense that struggles on a team that needs something good to happen, against an opponent that's never played from behind. It's going to take a big play. Who's it gonna be?
- The trenches: Alabama's o-line vs. Tennessee's d-line
The most important matchup of the game. Alabama's offensive line is the real deal. If Tennessee's d-line would like to be in that conversation, they have to get some push against the Tide. Ayers, Bolden, Williams, Brown and the reserves - all of whom have improved and played well this season - must slow down/shut down Alabama's multiple rushing options, put pressure on John Parker Wilson, and thus make JPW beat you. If the Tide can find room and time behind the line, the same way they did last year in Tuscaloosa, and the same way Georgia did two weeks ago, then it's going to be a long day for the Vols.
The most important stat in any football game, and the one to give Vol fans the greatest sign of hope: Tennessee's secondary leads the nation in interceptions and have plenty of athletes to make something happen. Alabama has some talent at WR, but it's nothing the Vols haven't seen already this season. Conversely, Tennessee is yet to recover a fumble this season - the only team in FBS with that distinction here in late October - so it's more of a push situation at this point. Nick Stephens has gotten away with some bad/forced decisions but is yet to throw an interception, and Vol backs haven't fumbled in the last several games too. Something's gotta give in the turnover battle, and it needs to turn the Vols' way. The defense must give the offense opportunities, and the offense can't be any better to Alabama than we've already been with a sputtering scheme and an inexperienced quarterback combined with two high ankle sprains. Play for and make the breaks and when one comes our way score.
- Sixty minutes of that old Phillip Fulmer magic
And you're welcome to come back here and make a sarcastic comment about what Fulmer's magic is if we lose. But we've been waiting all year for that back-against-the-wall, out-of-nowhere performance that the Vols have turned in numerous times before under Fulmer. That combined with his success against Alabama, which currently stands at 10-4-1, a number you really won't hear anything positive about again if the Vols fall, because it'll be replaced with the more relevant 1-4 against Nick Saban. If the Vols have a special game in them, this is the last chance to see it. The stage won't be any bigger all season, nor will there be a better chance to keep the direction of this program going forward and build towards something substantial in 2009. All Vols, including Mike Hamilton, aren't so much looking for a magic number like 8-4, but moreso evidence for hope that things will get better. The Vols provided a hint of that last week against Mississippi State. No better chance to do it again than this week. If Fulmer's got anything left, now is the time.
The most relevant question: how many points will it take to win? Is this a game the Vols can win 13-10? Or will the offense need to get in the 20s? While I'd love to see this defense put all the clamps down in another 6-3 showdown, I think Alabama is too good and the Vol defense isn't quite what it was in 2005, despite the similarities. So I think you're going to need to see something with a 2 in front of it on the scoreboard if the Vols are gonna win.
If that's going to happen, starting with these things would be good. Find a running game. Find a big play. Don't let Alabama's offensive line dictate the pace of the game to your defense. Win the turnover battle. And give your all for Tennessee today, so that one more time under Phillip Fulmer, the Vols come off the deck and hit the opposition in the mouth.
And there's no one - absolutely no one - we'd rather deck than the Crimson Tide. If we can't be champions...there's nothing better I can think of than making sure those lying, cheating, need to be put in their place like only Tennessee can Bammers watch their dreams die at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Monday, October 20, 2008
Emphasis on might.
Before we dive headfirst into our annual lovefest with the Alabama Crimson Tide, let's point out the good that took place against Mississippi State. The Vols put the clamps on the Bulldogs to the tune of 189 total yards, intercepted three passes for an NCAA-leading 14 through seven games, and took two of them to the house on consecutive drives, something I'm not sure I've ever seen Tennessee do before. Some of that is attributed to a stronger pass rush than we've seen in awhile, with five sacks on the evening.
Nick Stephens continues to do his job, while Lennon Creer ran the ball 12 consecutive times on the final scoring drive, finishing with 17 for 68, which is a nod both to his productivity and the coaching staff for continuing to feed him. Fulmer said the rotation with Foster/Hardesty/Creer will continue, which I have fewer problems with as long as the best back is getting the important carries late.
Denarius Moore has 7 catches for 195 yards this season, because apparently they don't like to use him for anything under 40 yards. His adjustment on the pictured catch up there was an incredibly savvy play for a young guy who doesn't see much playing time.
And the offensive line showed a renewed energy, even when Anthony Parker left the field. They'll need to amp that up this week, but it was an improvement.
And look...Eric Berry now goes in that super elite group with Chuck Webb, Carl Pickens, Dale Carter, Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning, Leonard Little, Al Wilson, Peerless Price, Jamal Lewis, and John Henderson: guys who are both insanely talented and incredible playmakers, and all on their own level on both counts. That's the group you tell your grandchildren about, and EB belongs in it just a year and a half into his college career. The boys at Rocky Top Talk - who were the first I know of to unleash the "Clawfense" moniker - have started calling him Crunch Berry, which means we're one photoshop away from his 2009 Heisman campaign. And that's not a joke. Because Eric Berry would destroy Charles Woodson.
It felt good in there Saturday night. The first half was a telling sign of how bad things have gotten, when you're up 6-3 at halftime on Mississippi State and you're okay with that. The second half was a reminder of how good things could be when Tennessee is playing well.
The Vols did enough to find a spark in the 2008 season. This week, we'll find out if that light is enough to carry us out of the tunnel, or if Alabama's train is going to run us over anyway.
Because we also have to talk about the bad news from Saturday night: Tennessee still only managed 275 yards of offense and 20 points from that side of the ball. Gerald Jones and Anthony Parker, otherwise known as your best offensive playmaker and your best offensive lineman, are both questionable with high ankle sprains, and both will probably be slowed even if they play. Nick Stephens is still the quarterback, which means he'll once again have a chance to manage, but remember this is the kid's fourth start and he's not Erik Ainge by a longshot.
Brandon Warren continues to be a tease, not because he's not talented, but because they run him on the field about once every two drives for one play.
And it disturbs me that we can't find someone to kick the ball deeper than the 10 yard line.
And all of our flaws become magnified against a team like Alabama, who's interesting in their own right. Crimson Daddy at Third Saturday made a solid statement today when he said that Alabama is the best team in the country in the first half, and might be outside the Top 40 in the second. But despite their bipolar tendencies, this Alabama team is tough, physical, and clearly knows how to win. They'll bring a #2 ranking and control of their own crystal football destiny into Knoxville. They're a touchdown favorite at the open and methinks you'll see that grow.
We'll talk more about this during the week, but a couple of observations to start:
One, come to the game.
I'm not going to lecture anyone for not showing up against Mississippi State. I am absolutely going to show my disgust at any Vol fan who has tickets for this one and doesn't come.
You don't need to go any further than "it's Alabama". It's added bonus that they're #2 and undefeated, making this the last nationally relevant game the Vols will play this season. Ignore the bad vibes from that last sentence and get to the game.
Because if you don't...they will.
That giant swath of empty seats in the Neyland Stadium upper deck last week? It's solid red next week if you don't come. Mississippi State didn't travel. Alabama will. There's already going to be a ton of them in there in the first place. You come and be loud. We need the hostile environment, because this team clearly feeds off it. Tennessee needs the best crowd of the season on Saturday night, no exaggeration, and no reason for you not to be a part of it. Get to the game.
Second...this is the last domino to fall for Fulmer's modern perception.
If the Vols lose to Vanderbilt again or Kentucky for the first time in 24 years, it'll suck and it'll be more gloom and doom.
But it won't hurt as much as losing to Alabama for two straight years for the first time ever under Phillip Fulmer.
It's been sixteen years - 1991-1992 - since Alabama won two straight against the Vols. Since that time, Tennessee is 10-4-1 against the Tide. What everyone has forgotten is what Phillip Fulmer did to the Alabama rivalry, including every Alabama fan who says "I hope Fulmer stays forever!"
Maybe you're too young to know this, but you think losing to Florida five straight times was bad?
Trying losing seven straight to Alabama, then watching them drive the length of the field to tie you, then losing again the next year. Those nine years from 1986-1994 were so, so much worse than what Florida was doing. And the Vols fans older than me would love to enlighten you about the misery of this rivalry in the 1970s.
When Florida beat Tennessee five straight, only the first one was close and the Gators were ranked in the top five every time. They were simply better than us and they showed it.
Against Alabama, it didn't matter how bad they were or how good we were. They just always found a way. And more often than not, it involved the scalpel instead of the hatchet: slow, painful, unexpected yet familiar heartbreak. They always found a way to beat us.
When Alabama ended seven years of their own misery against the Vols in Knoxville in 2002, I remember sitting on row one in the student section in the end zone, and looking across the field at that mass of crimson, those shakers and hearing "Hey Vols!"...and it was like a bad dream from my childhood that I'd repressed from 1995-2001.
That's the only time in the last six tries the Tide have won in Neyland Stadium. Alabama got fortunate in 2005 and got mean in 2007 in Tuscaloosa. As a result, the balance of this rivalry is up for grabs on Saturday night.
The series in Knoxville is deadlocked at 20-20-1. Ties are made to be broken.
If Alabama wins...they'll have suddenly taken three of four from the Vols, two straight, 2-0 for Saban...and we'll be right back there. Right back to the late 80s and early 90s, where Alabama is better than you, and you have to deal with those insufferable Bammers, and life is just worse. Make no mistake, we've spent 16 years keeping it at bay. The Tide may have pulled even in this rivalry since 2002, but they're not ahead. Not yet. If you thought last year was bad, you have no idea what it's like when they've got something on you and there's nothing you can say in return. 16 years of freedom isn't long enough. I want to stay free from the Crimson oppressors for the rest of my life, because my childhood experiences were bad enough. Adult Will won't know how to deal with it.
But if Tennessee wins...then 2008 has its high note. The Vols pull even for the year, maintain the current even nature of this rivalry, make some national noise, and can start thinking about maybe slipping into a bowl game outside the state lines. Phillip Fulmer's job will be safer. And the direction of this program keeps going forward.
And oh, the joy of ruining their season.
The Vols found some light on Saturday night. A strong Alabama train is coming towards Knoxville. Is there enough light left to escape this tunnel, or will our one true rival keep us in darkness?
This is the Third Saturday in October. And there's no better week on earth.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Will: Alright, so right away I'm in need of the opinion of someone who's capable of being more objective than me...because for me, last season had everything. The most competitive playoff race in professional sports history in the Western Conference, where all eight teams won 50 or more games. The most interesting MVP race in recent memory, featuring two of the best to ever play the game in their prime (and the guy who should've won it down in New Orleans). An insane trade deadline. And some classic playoff moments, from the opening Spurs/Suns game, to the Pierce/LeBron Game 7 duel, to the ultimate Celtics/Lakers Finals payoff. And as a Celtics fan, winning Banner 17 with the new big three means I'm reluctant to even start talking about a new season because I'm still enjoying the last one.
Factor in the Olympic gold medal, and it's been an incredibly good year for professional basketball. It seems like an in credibly healthy moment for the league, and with good timing to overshadow the dark clouds of Tim Donaghy and the Sonics. So having said all that, what do you think about the overall health of the league, and what are you looking forward to this season?
Jeff: Whoa. Not given to hyperbole are we? "The most competitive playoff race in professional sports history in the Western Conference…" – that, my friend, is a big statement. In all honesty though I really don't disagree with anything you've written. I'm as excited about professional basketball today as I have been at any point in my life (yes, that includes the heyday of Michael, Magic, and Larry).
I spent the preseason last year telling everyone who would listen that the league had reached a talent level on par with the early 90s. It is no secret that the league hemorrhaged fans just after Jordan, the middle class just unable to connect with Iversonian players. However, I think the league would have been able to maintain much of the profile built by Jordan even with the generational gap if the talent level would have remained high. Alas, just as Iverson's generation became the face of the NBA the talent level dropped precipitously (remember the year when Kenyon Martin, Mike Miller, and Stromile Swift were the first three picks?). The combination of gangstas and mediocrity became a poisonous cocktail for the NBA.
The good news is that now not only is the talent back but the players themselves seem to be cut from the same material as the luminaries of the early 90's. It is now safe to like the NBA's biggest stars again.
This was clearest during this year's Olympic Games. The players carried themselves with class and played with passion. If you don't think that can win fans you didn't see me cheering for Kobe Bryant even though I mortally oppose everything that he is. You can be cynical – and perhaps correct – and say that it is merely marketing awareness that is behind the change in how players approach the fanbase. Whatever the reason, it is great for the league, great for basketball as a sport, and great for me as a fan.
So to answer what I'm looking forward to I'm going to cop out and just say the NBA being back on. I love basketball, professional basketball, the way fat kids love candy – there are simply too many elements to pick just one as the thing to look forward to. I can, however, give a few quick-hits on what I am intrigued by:
- The further exploits of Lebron James and Dwight Howard. I will argue to the death that these two young men represent the pinnacle of physical basketball ability and maybe even the potential of the human body. There has simply never been a physical specimen comparable to Lebron. Add in his skill level and if you aren't watching him you are intentionally missing athletic history. Dwight Howard is perhaps comparable to a young Shaq but only in the in the way Windows 98 is comparable to Windows XP – and that is no insult to Shaq. He and Shaq are in the same genre but the execution with Dwight is simply more advanced at comparable stages.
- We have this year the rare season which sees two number-1-overall picks make their debut at the same time. I'm a sucker for potential and adding Greg Oden to the Derrick Rose/Michael Beasley/OJ Majo rookie class offers almost more than I can take.
- Finally, welcome to the return of parity. As was previously noted, the West is so evenly matched and loaded with talent that the addition of Shaq and Jason Kidd actually hurt their respective team's chances. The East is no longer the ugly secret of the NBA (although the league should still change their playoff format to get the best teams in, regardless of conference). The defending champs probably have one more elite run in them, the Pistons continue to find ways to stay young and thus extend their window, the Sixers have Elton Brand now, the Raptors continue to grow, and the Heat added Michael Beasley to a roster which welcomes a newly healthy Dwayne Wade back after he put on a show against the world's best talent. I'm not afraid of run-on sentences because it takes a lot of commas to express how radically the East has improved in a very short time.
I have questions I’m more interested in seeing you answer (Example: can the Celtics' old legs survive another year of Doc Rivers' rotations?) but I'm going to start off on a less personal subject: tell me about the rookies. Specifically, who will be the ROY and who from the lottery will be the biggest bust?
WILL: Dodging that personal jab at the C’s – well, not completely dodging it, because I’ll say that despite all the NBA Finals love he got last season, Rivers will be the first one to get blamed if the Celtics don’t make it back there this season – I’ll also say that I’m officially on the Michael Beasley bandwagon. I think the kid is a production machine and you haven’t seen anything in preseason yet to dispute it, his body and his role are more NBA-friendly than what Kevin Durant saw last season, and as I’m sure we’ll get to, even though they only won 15 games last year, a healthy Miami team should be a competitive Miami team. I think Beasley has a shot to both make the AM SportsCenter highlights on a regular basis, and actually be a good player too.
When dealing with the rookies, I tend to swing back to my collegiate emotions with nothing else to go on, which instantly makes me against guys I didn’t like in March, like the Lopez thugs (the sort of guys I’d enjoy if they were on the Celtics, but since they’re not I can’t help but hate them). In talking about busts, I was thinking about OJ Mayo because I’m just not sure he’s in the same class as Rose and Beasley (and because it’s not very professional to type “Rose, because he went to Memphis and I hate those guys”)…but then Mayo hit six threes the other night, so we’ll back off.
But what about Eric Gordon? Doesn’t he seem to be the perfect scenario for disaster? He comes out of one of the more tumultuous college situations in recent memory at Indiana. He plays for the Clippers, which would be bad enough, but they unintentionally reshuffled their deck this offseason, and while they might be good…they’re the Clippers, so I’m still gonna lean towards not-so-much. And Gordon is the fabled “combo guard”…and in a league where the word combo is best used today to describe 6’10” guys who can shoot the three, I’m not sure a 6’3” guy who won’t run point on a team with Baron Davis is gonna find his role real well. He seems to be the highest pick I’m least sure about…not counting guys from Italy that I haven’t seen.
What about you – who do you like and dislike among the rookies? And do you agree about Miami being potentially dangerous in the East, or do you see someone else rising from the ashes?
Jeff: Your Beasley comments are spot on in terms of what he could (and most likely will do) on the court. I do have reservations about how mentally ready he is to live in South Beach. If you are hooking fellow players up with weed at the NBA Rookie Transition meetings what will you get into when you live in Vegas South? When the character concerns were raised before the draft I thought they were unfounded. After the stuff with Chalmers and Diogo I'm not so sure. However, just as his potential for self-destruction in Miami is limitless, so is his opportunity for success on the court. This really could be the perfect storm of intrigue around a young player. He could absolutely go either way just as easily. If he was woken up by the meeting incident and dedicates himself to ball he might not only win the ROY but also make an All-Star debut as a rookie. At this point I would label him my pick for ROY as well but I have to acknowledge that he could possibly end up being Michael Ray Richardson 2.0. I'd add Russell Westbrook in as a dark horse. He earned his ticket into the NBA surpassing expectations and I think he'll have all kinds of opportunity alongside Kevin Durant.
Your commentary on Gordon does indeed read like 10 minutes before basketball apocalypse. Still, I'm going to hold out hope for Gordon. As you mentioned, he played in one of the most challenging college basketball environments in recent memory and played well when healthy, even developing as a player. No, the Clippers didn't do enough to replace Brand and no, I wouldn't want Baron Davis mentoring my young combo guard. Even so I just don't want to jettison hope for Gordon yet.
My pick for bust remains Kevin Love. I have serious reservations about his ability to compete athletically in the NBA and I do not understand how he fits in Minnesota with Al Jefferson. I have no doubt he'll be a serviceable NBA rotation player for years (12 points, 7 rebounds, and enough beautiful chest passes to give Bill Walton a coronary) but he was the 5th pick in the draft. If that is what you want why not trade back and get a Lopez brother at a cheaper price?
Also, as I mentioned, how do you play him with Jefferson? They both need to be PF and neither has given any reason to believe they can be productive playing up as a C. Love is just entirely out of place on that team. The rest of their rotation is built on athleticism (see: Randy Foye, Corey Brewer, Rodney Carney, Rashad McCants); Love stands out like a sore thumb. Maybe they think he'll be the rebounding-passing initiator but playing him with your best player
compromises your interior defense. I don't know, maybe I'm reading the situation all wrong. Or maybe (and this might be more likely) Kevin McHale has fully embraced the T-Wolves as a Triple-A feeder program for the Celtics and is grooming Love to eventually play in Boston.
In the east I see 7 clear cut playoff teams: Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Orlando, Toronto, and Miami. Then you are left with Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington competing for the final spot. Those final three have serious issues – Chicago: chemistry, Atlanta: being Atlanta + the loss of Childress, Washington: injuries (again!) – and I don't know which will rise. To answer your specific question, yes, I think Miami can rise in the east. D Wade was the guy who I couldn't take my eyes off of in the Olympics. Not only was his play startling after watching him play crippled last season but also because he seems to be more polished and motivated than ever. If he plays like he did in China you could probably stick him on a good D-league team and they'd make a run. We've already covered Beasley. Miami, however, is another team that confuses me and that's why I list them toward the bottom of the playoff teams. 3 of their best 4 players should be playing PF. Marion is a good SF, no doubt, but he's truly special when he can use his quickness to create match up problems as a PF. So not only do you have he, Beasley, and Haslem needing to play the 4 spot but if you play Marion at the three you are only getting 85% percent out of your second best player. I also don't know who plays in the back court with Wade. Chalmers? Wright? I have no idea. It probably doesn't matter because I have a feeling Wade is going Supernova this year but if I were Riley I'd be calling Chicago to see if Haslem (and possibly Wright or Chalmers) would get Heinrich.
To finish up this section let me switch conferences: last year Dallas and Phoenix did what fans wish their teams would do: pull off gutsy moves at the deadline to make a run at a title. Obviously, it worked out poorly for both squads. Neither team made radical changes in the off season, apparently thinking more time to gel will fix the problem. So which (or both, or neither) bounces back this year?
Will: Dallas hasn't gotten over Game 3 of the 2006 NBA Finals yet. What the Heat started on that night, Golden State finished off in 2007, and that desperation move for Kidd couldn't resurrect it. I think the worst thing for Kidd's career at this point was to put him on an Olympic team with Chris Paul and Deron Williams - glad he got the gold, but he's 35 and it's showing. I like Nowitzki but I don't think he's a guy who wins you a title without someone better around him than anyone currently on the Dallas roster. And I guess it shows the difference between fan and player perception, since I keep reading about how many Dallas players threatened to quit if Avery Johnson was retained as coach. The West is too tough; I think Dallas is a borderline playoff team.
Phoenix, on the other hand, can't get past San Antonio, which may not be a problem for either of them as they continue to age. Part of me just thinks that as Shaq knows in full that his career is winding to its close, he's got one more strong run in him. Part of me wonders what percentage of the Suns' massive regular season success was the product of Mike D'Antoni. But given the choice between the two, I think Phoenix has one more run in them, while the window in Dallas is closed (if only temporarily, because what Mark Cuban wants eventually I think he'll get).
Agree/disagree? Leave your picks for rookie of the year, lottery busts, and teams rising and falling in both conferences in the comments. We'll be back with more later on the MVP race, as well as our picks for the playoffs and the NBA Finals.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
I remember thinking about how it was going to be the best weekend I'd had in a long time. I remember taking advantage of a day off to be in Knoxville with old friends. I remember that first hint of Autumn.
I remember how much I enjoyed that first Saturday, with no Tennessee on the schedule to overly influence me. I remember trying not to enjoy it when Virginia Tech lost. I remember being pissed that Mississippi State lost to Louisiana Tech, because how dare they taint the name of the SEC.
I remember watching the Tide roll over Clemson, with that faint internal smile that said maybe, just maybe, this would be the year that Alabama would hold up their end of the bargain and bring the Third Saturday back to national prominence.
I remember gameday. I remember that Chick-Fil-A was giving away free strips, and how nice it was to be five minutes from one instead of an hour and a state away like I am now in Virginia. I remember my friend there at lunch asking me what we'd do if Jonathan Crompton got hurt, and me saying something about how that would be the worst possible thing that could happen, and if that if he did we'd probably go exclusively to the G-Gun because Nick Stephens wasn't ready.
I remember hearing Arian Foster interviewed on the radio - in English, not pterodactyl - and how he playfully ducked a question about how this year, this team, might be special.
I remember thinking that it should be special, because it's the 10th Anniversary of that which was most special. I remember how great it felt after those long summer months and all those words I'd typed - words that described the Vols with promised accuracy, like "underrated" and "dangerous" and "capable" - that finally, finally, my favorite three months of the year were here.
I remember saying "football season will make anything better".
I remember my friend's new apartment, pizza and Mountain Dew. I remember his gigantic television and crystal clear HD. I remember those familiar strains of ESPN's college football telecast, and that inward thankfulness that it was finally here.
I remember being excited about seeing the Clawfense.
And I remember seeing those orange pants.
And we should've known.
I remember feeling genuinely sorry for Kevin Craft. I remember thinking at halftime that we'd just put them away. I remember having a quiet admiration for Craft for pulling it together in the second half.
I remember trying to remember the last time we ran the football.
Then I remember saying "why don't we run?"
Then I remember shouting it.
I remember using the phrase "They're hanging around..." at least a dozen times.
Then I remember the assumption that our defense would stop them, and the cold reality when they didn't. I remember the moment I first thought we would lose.
Then I remember how swiftly that was taken away with a couple completions and a trip to overtime. I distinctly remember saying "If there's one thing we do well at Tennessee, it's win in overtime."
Then I remember saying "Alright, let's just score a touchdown so we can all go home" after UCLA's possession.
Then I remember making an assumption about Daniel Lincoln.
And I remember the moment that kick sailed wide, and everything came unraveled.
It's still unraveling.
How do I remember it all so distinctly?
Because it was only seven weeks ago.
Seven weeks - less than fifty days - a number that, on the other end of the calendar when we say "there's 49 days 'til it's FOOTBALL TIME in TENNESSEE!", we know it's getting close.
And now we know it's gone.
I so look forward to college football season, like many of you who're reading this. Just the promise of it gets us through the summer. I even missed missing it this year while I was preoccupied with the Celtics.
And the reality for Vol fans now is, we probably spent more time breaking down and looking forward to the season than the Vols did being relevant in it.
The season's not over, because there are six games left to be played. Which means it's only halfway done, less than if you assume a bowl game.
But as for the existence we've known as Vol fans for the last two decades...2008 is over.
And that entire existence might be too.
Think, for a moment, about what we take for granted.
Like starting the year in the preseason AP Top 25. The Vols have done that for twenty consecutive seasons.
Or sooner than that, playing in January. We've been disappointed to go to the Outback Bowl in each of the last two years. Now we'll probably be starting our new year watching somebody else's team.
Are you depressed yet?
I love playing EA Sports' NCAA Football video game series, where the Vols have been on the short list of "six star programs" in their dynasty mode - a list that included only eight other teams in this year's game. Right now, I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who agrees with that ranking.
See, here's the thing: we can all admit now that things have changed.
The Vols were playing at one level from 1989-2001. They were dominant. We were proud. We were the team you tore your goalposts down for when you beat us...except you probably didn't beat us. The Vols won four SEC Championships in that span, won the division again in 2001 and were a heartbeat away from the big prize, and of course, captured the 1998 National Championship.
Since 2001 - and this is an argument someone else can make somewhere else - either the Vols have regressed, or the talent around them got better, or (most probably) both.
From 2002-2007, the Vols weren't dominant. Some goalposts did get torn down against us. But they were still very good. Two division titles, plenty of big wins.
And each of the three times in the last six years that the ship looked lost, Fulmer saved her.
After the injury-filled debacle of 2002, Fulmer went to Gainesville and made us believe again the following September.
After the tragedy of "We're the best 5-6 team in the country!" in 2005, Randy Sanders was no more and Fulmer and the Vols obliterated Cal, and instantly, all was forgiven and we were in attack mode again.
And when last year looked dead, the Vols responded by winning every game they had to have down the stretch to become an unlikely SEC East Champion.
But this time, there's nothing left to save us.
And what's worse - what's left to believe that it will be saved?
Things are bad right now. What makes us believe that next year will automatically be better?
Because I also remember, more than anything, that every-offeseason belief that the Vols would be among the best teams in the country/conference when the year started. Because with greater consistency than just about any other college football program in the last twenty years, we have been.
Everyone under 30 doesn't know how to deal with this, and that includes me. Because Tennessee is an elite football program that wins. And what we've seen on the field this year...that's not Tennessee Football.
But it is.
The last two years have already killed that thing in me that says "We'll beat everybody but Florida", because that's how I was trained and that's what I lived and enjoyed, for the most part, for the last 20 years. Before it's out, this year might kill the assumption that the Vols will beat South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
Whether Fulmer is the head coach here or not in 2009...what do we have to stand on that says it's all going to be okay?
There was this brief moment of doubt a few years earlier, in the aforementioned Cal game. I remember how strange it felt that day, because you just didn't know. And the Vols did everything right away to ease your pain, and in 2.5 quarters we went from not knowing to "Screw Florida, we're going all the way!"
Then there was David Cutcliffe to ease the distance between the two, that long lost season and the fragile promise of the next one. This year there won't be.
And what if Fulmer does go, on his terms or otherwise? If a new coach comes in here, do we just accept a rough start (like Saban last year) because that's what new coaches deserve? And if so, isn't it tragic that 8-4 will become okay?
The mantra of this blog since its beginning has been "The SEC is good enough to beat everybody any week, and Tennessee is good enough to beat anybody every week."
Is that true anymore?
If the Vols were in a class by themselves from 1989-2001, and four or five SEC teams were all bunched in there together from 2002-2007, are the Vols even in that grouping anymore? I like to make the joke about Georgia not belonging at the adult table...but have the Vols worn out their welcome?
We're spoiled in Knoxville and we take everything for granted.
But now everything we take for granted could be getting ready to change.
It starts now, with this team. Is this a 3-9 team? Because the relevant bowl question is no longer "where?", but "if". With the dream of a championship lost in just seven weeks and more external pressure on the program than ever before, does this team have the desire and the will to keep playing?
And even if they do, are they actually good enough to beat anybody that's left?
Because he's the most stinging comparison: say what you want, but the 2005 Vol team still had some talent.
They were better at shooting themselves in the foot than any UT team I know of. And they too struggled on offense. But they had some talent.
The 2008 Vol offense is much worse than the '05 group, with the only potential future bright spot in Nick Stephens' right arm. We keep hearing about talent that's still here...but is it?
And talented or no...does this team have what it takes to finish the season?
And if they don't...what happens next year? Because there's no guarantee that the Vols will bounce back with a 10-2 season that we'd all probably take at this point.
2005 made me angry. 2008 makes me worried. Really, genuinely, watershed worried.
When does Tennessee stop being Tennessee?
The identity of the program hangs precariously in the balance. This season is lost. As for the future of the program...while some of that will lay in the hands of the head coach, present or future, it ultimately falls to all of them - players, coaches, administration. And fans, for what they can do - staying loyal and faithful to the program, for better or for worse. Because the "for worse" part might become a more present reality. Anyone who says they're cheering for us to lose is a waste of orange. And anyone who openly does so when we play Alabama should be shot on sight.
Tennessee can still lay an important foundation right now, while everything seems lost in the moment and potentially for the future. Don't quit. Get better. Give yourself a chance next season to be Tennessee, no matter who the coach is. Keep hope alive.
We've lived a charmed life for 20 years. If it's over...God, we'll miss it. And maybe one day it'll come back.
But Tennessee people need to understand that nothing is guaranteed. Much of what we take for granted has been earned on the football field for the last two decades.
Remember the Syracuse program that's sent Donovan McNabb, Marvin Harrison and Dwight Freeney to the Pro Bowl and played in early BCS bowls?
Today they're the worst program among BCS conferences in my opinion, and it took less than a decade to get there. Nothing is guaranteed, it's earned.
I don't know where Tennessee Football is going from here. If there is still enough talent in Knoxville to compete with the Florida, Georgia, LSU, Auburn, and yes, Alabamas of the SEC, the Vols need to lay the foundation for that talent to compete again next year. Fulmer needs to do what's best for his team while it's still his team, whatever he believes that to be. And the administration needs to do likewise.
And again, we as fans need to stay true to the orange.
We might disagree about Fulmer. We might not all spend our hard earned dollars on Tennessee vs. Mississippi State on pay per view. And we'll all question that which needs to be questioned.
But the Vols have been very good to us. Now's the time to return the favor.
The future is not set; there is no fate but what we make. The Vols will either go further in the hole or keep playing and lay a solid foundation for what's to come, whatever that will be. And it's the responsibility of everyone involved with the program to do what they can to make it something good.
Because no matter what...it's always great to be a Tennessee Vol.