Before being blown out last season in The Swamp 59-20, the Tennessee Volunteers had, in order, traveled to the West Coast, where they lost in a nationally televised game to a team from the Pac-10 (Cal, 45-31), and dominated, in less-than-impressive fashion, a team from Conference USA (Southern Miss, 39-19).
Following the beating they took at Florida, many Vol fans expressed their concern for the team’s fortune in as many media outlets as they could find. There were the obligatory calls for the job, if not the head, of Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer.
Tennessee went on to finish the regular season 9-3 overall, and 6-2 in the SEC, which was good enough to send them to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. The Volunteers lost a heartbreaker to LSU, 21-14, before knocking off Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl.
All in all, it was a good season. There were dozens of FBS coaches who would have loved to win 10 games.
Fast-forward to last Saturday’s blowout loss to Florida in Knoxville. The Volunteers have, in order, traveled to the West Coast, where they lost in a nationally televised game to a team from the Pac-10 (UCLA, 27-24), and dominated, in less-than-impressive fashion, a team from Conference USA (UAB, 35-3).
The similarities don’t end there. The 2007 Volunteers committed six turnovers through three games. They have committed seven in 2008. Both offenses, while they moved the ball successfully, failed to score on numerous occasions. Brandon James returned a punt for a touchdown in 2007, and repeated that feat again Saturday.
Against Cal last season, the defense fell down the stairs, allowing the Bears to score two big second half touchdowns. The returned almost that same group this season. UCLA scored two big second half touchdowns this year.
At Florida last season, the offense suffered one critical momentum killer after another. Last Saturday in Knoxville, two first half fumbles and an interception wiped what probably would have been 14 points off the board.
The similarities end there.
The offense, against both UCLA and UAB, suffered the same problem, inconsistency. At times during both games, quarterback Jonathan Crompton looked confused. He made bad decisions. He made bad throws. However, during the final drive at UCLA, he got the team in field goal range with less than 30 seconds on the clock. That should count for something.
Fulmer and new offensive coordinator, Dave Clawson, contend that the offense is getting better. And, both keep using the word consistency.
The good news is Tennessee can do much better. Hypothetically speaking, they could have been in the game against Florida if not for the aforementioned punt return and the two turnovers in the red zone. Maybe even won the darn thing. Crompton has nowhere to go but up.
The ground game is solid, if not better than last year, and that can be attributed to an offensive line that returns all five starters. That unit only allowed four sacks in 2007.
The defense is more experienced, and it remains to be seen if they aren’t actually deeper than last year. Eric Berry is asserting himself as the best defensive back in the SEC. If the defense just learns to tackle, they will be very successful.
Tennessee’s success begins and ends with Crompton. He has nowhere to go but up, and if he can get a firmer grasp on the offense, the Volunteers might be able to challenge Georgia and Florida for the SEC Eastern Division crown.
One huge difference between 2007 and 2008 is where Tennessee goes from here. Last year, they followed the Florida loss with a home game against Arkansas State, and most of their key SEC games were in Neyland Stadium. This year, they follow Florida with a trip to Auburn, with away games down the road against Georgia, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Tennessee was 2-4 away from home in 2007.
With his back to the wall, Fulmer has always managed to fight his way out, and it’s safe to say that’s where he is right now.