I got together with hooper of the great Vols blog Rocky Top Talk for a little Q&A action. Here's what he has to say about the situation in Knoxville and Saturday night's game. My questions are in italics.
My answers to hooper's questions are here.
1. There's lots of talk right now about this being Phil Fulmer's last season in Knoxville, and now we're hearing rumors that he's definitely gone at the end of the year. I would imagine that Phil evokes mixed emotions from Volunteers fans, considering that he has a great legacy but has simply not performed to expectations at times over the past few years. How do you feel about Phil, and do you think there's anything the Dean of SEC Coaches can do to save his job at this point?
I really like the guy. He's a good man who genuinely cares about the players and their entire lives, not just the football part. His career at UT has been tremendous, including the only noncontroversial national championship (in '51, UT lost their bowl game but the national champion was declared beforehand). The players who have come through the program really love the guy, and even wrote a huge letter of support for him after the 2007 Florida dishumiliarrassment. He fits the culture of East Tennessee and he's really a very good coach. That said, the performance of the team has been on a downward trend from the monoliths of the '90s. (You remember last year's game in Knoxville? UT made it all the way to Atlanta with games like those.) So yes, the emotions are mixed. He's still very well respected, but the fans have had their pride hurt. The team has lost a lot of rivalry games, suffered through 2005 (The Season of Which We Do Not Speak, or TSOWWDNS for short), haven't won an SEC championship in 10 years, and look to be outclassed by at least 4 teams in the conference. The blind rage is beginning to win out in a lot of hearts, which is making things very ugly in Knoxville right now.
The equation is much simpler than that, though. Fulmer's future will ultimately be decided by pressure from the boosters. The boosters have a lot of interest in Knoxville's economy, which takes a hit when the football team performs poorly. If the boosters don't see Fulmer as the guy to bring the gameday dollars back to acceptable levels, he's gone. Watch the game attendances in the last two home games and you'll know everything you need to know.
As far as saving his job, there's one way for that to happen: prove that he has the program on the right track to get back to the top. Honestly, nobody really cares who is leading the team if it's winning championships. If we knew that Fulmer would get the team to win in Atlanta next year, the discussion would go away (mostly). But, for him to prove that the program is headed back up, he has a lot of convincing to do. The first step is undoubtedly to beat the Gamecocks, and to win in a huge way. Then, win out. The problem is that the final 3 games are against Wyoming, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. It'll be extremely difficult - if not impossible - to convince people that the program is recovering with those opponents. Vols fans aren't interested in those victories; it's the Tide, Gators and Bulldogs they want to beat, and it's too late for that. At best, his odds are very slim.
Easier question: what's been right this year? The answer is: basically nothing. Early on, the running game was getting 6 yards/carry, but is now getting less than 3 yards/carry. Our starting RB (Foster) has an astounding tendency to get tackled from behind by defensive ends (while approaching the LOS) and to fumble in either red zone. Our two proven RBs (Hardesty and Creer) get minimal snaps. Perhaps the best RB talent (Poole) has only seen action in cleanup time against UAB. (Why is that? Hint: Foster's the senior, Hardesty's the junior, Creer's the sophomore and Poole's the freshman. It's the UT way.)
Then there's the QB situation. We were all hyped up about the Mountain Cannon, Jonathan Crompton. In pinch duty in 2006, he turned in some thrilling performances that had many people wishing for him to start in 2007. In 2008, he had somehow regressed into a wickedly powerful arm with no accuracy, an inability to read defenses, and a bad tendency to lock onto only 1 receiver. Things are much better with Stephens (who has not thrown an INT in 4 games, including Georgia and Alabama), but he never got 1st-string practice time over the summer so he is still catching up. Nick Stephens has an absolutely gorgeous pass, though; his release is very quick and he has great speed on the ball. (Yeah, Crompton's the junior and Stephens is the sophomore. UT way, remember.)
Then there is the offensive line. We returned all five starters from the line that allowed only 4 sacks all last season. (NCAA all-time record! Woo!) Then we learned that most of the credit really went to Ainge, who held the ball for approximately 3.2 microseconds on each play before throwing it into the stands if the receiver wasn't open. For some reason, the line hasn't been able to open up the running lanes like you'd expect. However, their pass protection is getting much better. So woo for that.
Finally, there are the receivers (WRs, TEs, etc...). We have (maybe) Gerald Jones, who is the most electric receiver. He also plays QB on occasion in the "G-Gun" package, and has a tendency to drop passes. He's injured, but is currently expected to play. We also have Briscoe, Taylor and Rogers, who are all vets. The group of them are catching passes at a brisk 50% rate. Then we have the tight ends. Cottam was injured for most of the season and is only now getting playing time. Stocker does well, but he's better at run blocking. Gerald Warren was a 1st-team Freshman AA at Florida State, but can't get on the field for more than a few plays a game. Our most reliable receivers are the running backs, but UT very rarely throws screens, so they don't get used as much as you'd think. It's not a bad group, but they haven't been very special either.
Can UT turn it around? Sure! First, they need to stop it with the stoooopid penalties!!1!11! Seriously, an illegal formation immediately after a timeout? An offensive player lining up in the neutral zone? Penalties have been a huge problem; if they fix that, I will expect a UT win. If not, it'll be an ugly game.
Tennessee is good on defense. The running game is holding opponents to about 3.5 yards/carry on average, which is astounding when you consider that they tend to be on the field for 35-40 minutes a game. (Thanks, offense. Another 1-2-3-punt would be awesome.) They have been getting terrific quarterback pressure lately, which has been a factor in the number of interceptions that the secondary has tallied. Expect lots of QB pressure and a stifled run game - especially early, when the defense is fresh. But if the offense can't sustain drives, expect the defense to wear out and for your offense to open up wide in the second half.
Here's the weakness in the Tennessee defense: passes over the middle. For some reason, Chavis has been very slow to adjust when teams pass in the linebacker zone about 5-10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The other thing to watch for is the alignment of the cornerbacks before the snap. If they're so far off the line of scrimmage you can barely see them on the TV screen, you're seeing Chavis's "Mustang Package", which guarantees open receivers on the short routes. If you don't mind dink-n-dunk football, you can beat that defense all day long. UCLA did it for an entire half with only one pass.
If Ayers had come into Tennessee with his head on straight, you'd be hearing 1st-round draft talk about him right now. As it is, his late blooming and the downturn of the team is keeping him from getting media recognition outside Knoxville. Fortunately for UT, the defensive end skillset that succeeds in the NFL is the same as the set that succeeds in the SEC. He'll be a monster over the next four games and (ohpleaseohpleaseohpleaseohplease) a bowl game. I expect at least 1 sack and 2 tackles-for-loss from him on Saturday.
The other thing is to sustain drives on possession. If the defense can get some rest, it is nearly impenetrable. You almost have to assume that Berry will get 7 points in the game, so the offense may only need to give the D a breather to win the game. Scoring would be a bonus, but they at least need to quit going 3-and-out all the time.