Monday, August 11, 2008

Cheese Puff Previews #5: Tennessee

This series of near-substanceless, air-injected preview puffery should in no way be mistaken for actual preseason football nutrition. Nonetheless, the hope is that you will find the series unaccountably tasty and even habit-forming, and as such it is unofficially sponsored by:

It's not week-for-week the way I'd draw it up, but one of the good things about Auburn's 2008 schedule is that after a fairly rigorous three-week stretch of wildcard Southern Miss, rugged Mississippi St., and the annual toughest-game-on-the-schedule against LSU, the Tigers will be able to take a bit of a breather in Week 5 as they play host to ...

Tennessee? Tennessee? %$#@! Seriously, for the love of ... seriously. %$#@. No Ainge, I know, but Arian Foster might be the best back not named "Knowshon" in the league, the o-line is monstrous, the defensive front seven might be a little softer but the secondary is frightening. They're still the Vols. LSU, Tennessee, back-to-back. I know it's the SEC, but come on, who ...

Wait, what? Tennessee's playing who the week before? Florida? Oh.

Well. That's ... that's OK then. I guess.

Last year: Tennessee opened the Phil Fulmer pressure valve a little wider with a 10-win season, one that that included an SEC East title via tiebreaker, a more-than-respectable performance against the national champs in Atlanta, and a bowl victory over Wisconsin. Powering the Vols' run? Luck. Yep, pure, unfiltered, undiluted luck, the 35-14 drubbing of Georgia obviously excepted. (Of course, lucky or unlucky they don't award trips to Atlanta for style points.)

Meanwhile, behind a frightfully green-but-improving offensive line, Auburn rebounded from early upset losses to South Florida and Mississippi St. to upset top-five Florida on the road, take eventual national champion LSU to the wire, and stretch their school-record Iron Bowl winning streak to six on their way to a satisfying 9-4 final record.

Notable previous meeting: In 1989, in what was almost inarguably the sport's biggest rivalry at the time, Auburn and Tennessee met for a climactic clash that would decide the national championship.

Auburn had powered their way into the national title discussion with an undefeated regular season and would continue to build momentum with a five-point win over defending national champion Louisiana Tech. Before a national TV audience on CBS (still a novelty for the sport at the time), the Volunteers took an early lead, although Auburn responded to draw within a single possession early in the second half.

Unfortunately for the Lady Tigers, All-American Vickie Orr struggled with foul trouble throughout the game and picked up her third just as Auburn began to gain their second-half momentum. Despite the efforts of All-American Ruthie Bolton and freshman sensation Carolyn "C.J." Jones, the Volunteers would pull away for the 76-60 win and Pat Summitt's second women's basketball national title.

Damn them.

Actual (football) series history: The inter-divisional rotation hasn't brought the two teams together since Auburn swept two match-ups against the Vols in their division-winning seasons in 2004, giving the Tigers a three-game streak in the series after their 2003 win. Before that victory, though, the Tigers hadn't beaten Tennessee in six tries since 1988 (including a 26-26 tie in 1990).

All-time, Auburn leads the series 25-21-1.

Causes for Alarm

1. This is the sort of thing that would usually fall under the "alleged analysis" section of these things, but the Tennessee offensive line scares me worse than heights, needles, snakes, and Lou Holtz combined. It would be one thing if all they had going for them was the two allowed sacks on 301 pass attempts in SEC play. It would be another if the only other positive was that the Vols' 4.2 yards-per-carry mark was their highest since 2004. But it's something else when they return four of the five starters--fourth in the country according to Steele in terms of returning 2007 OL starts--that made those accomplishments possible. Yikes.

Second-team All-American senior left guard and certified nightmare fuel Anthony Parker.

Yes, Auburn should have a defensive line capable of inspiring a certain amount of terror itself. I'd feel better about their chances at wetting the pants at the Reggie Cobb Oil Change if Marks, Coleman, Carter, etc. weren't facing--yeah, I'm going to come right out and say it--the best o-line in the SEC.

2. I'm convinced somewhere between 60 to 70 percent of the Vols' success in football is attributable to--in the words of a study published by leading researchers in a major medical journal--the "the uncontrollable disruption of even routine mental thought processes, a reflexive impairment the layman might even refer to as temporary brain damage" caused by repeated exposure to Rocky Top over a three-to-four hour period. The study suggested that the occasional, random exposure to Rocky Top during a childhood spent in a Tennessee-centric environment could eventually create a tolerance for the song sufficient to render its immediate effects minimal (though long-term exposure was shown to have its own adverse side effects), but with no such protection Auburn's players and coaches can expect to struggle with the presence of the Pride of the Southland Band in Jordan-Hare.

On the positive side, the study suggested that if Earth ever comes under attack from the sound-vulnerable species of Martians depicted in the film Mars Attacks!*, bombarding the aliens with Rocky Top may prove as equally effective a countermeasure as Slim Whitman's "Indian Love Call."

Causes for Confidence

1. There are two good recognized nicknames out there (that I'm aware of, anyway) for SEC offenses: the "Cock and Fire" and, forgive the homerism, the "Spread Eagle." Both have the names of fierce and school-affiliated birds involved. Both have active verbs (two in C&F's's case). Both have certain pleasant sixth-grade-level sexual double-entendres, which I for one certainly appreciate. And both are clever.

At the moment, the term "Clawfense" is, like the baby bird fiddling with its wings and perched at the edge of the nest, trying to soar into the broader SEC consciousness as shorthand for new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson's mysterious offense.

Frankly, the "Clawfense" already has a strike against it when its players greet it not so much with the obligatory OMG SO GREAT WE'RE GOING TO SCORE A MILLION POINTS but with "uh, a lot of this is going over my head" statements borrowed from the opening of the Bill Callahan era in Lincoln. But it also suffers when it gets nicknamed the "Clawfense," more a Bad Joke than actual nickname.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. even though As any of my longtime readers (or readers of any length of time, come to think of it) could tell you, I am a lifelong appreciator of bad jokes. And as bad jokes go, it's not bad. I'd probably be awful proud of it if it was my bad-joke baby.

But as a nickname? To my ear it just sounds a tiny bit like a streeeeeeeeeetch. Plus, a claw is less intimidating than an entire bird. Plus plus (and speaking of birds) it sounds like the offense built around this guy:

and you don't want your offense to sound like that.

2. Britton Colquitt's a hell of a punter (or possibly, from the sound of it, a law firm), but Auburn doesn't have to care, as his suspension will end the following week against Northern Illinois. Mmmmm, field position.

(I will say this for Fulmer: I'm not sure every coach in this conference would suspend one of his team's best weapons for the back-to-back games against Florida and Auburn and let him come back only when it's time to steamroll a MAC tomato can.)

Actual alleged analysis: Honestly: what the hell do we make of Tennessee?

There are grumblings from certain hunter's orange-colored corners that with an avalanche of hype burying the division's top two teams, the defending East champs deserve to have at least a slushball or two of respect tossed their way. And on paper, there's little question they have a point. The offense is Ainge-less, yes, but Ainge-less isn't so bad when the line is this good, the entire receiving corps returns, and Arian Foster is ready to take 30 handoffs a game when you are, sir. All Jonathan Crompton has to do is not screw it up, and combining his relative experience (junior, one start) with his recruiting evaluations (PS #3) suggests he may be capable of doing much more than not screwing it up.

Defensively, the front seven loses four starters, but two of the returners are mountainous senior tackle Demonte Bolden and tackling-machine linebacker Rico McCoy, and the line gets the "despite the losses, this unit should be tougher up front" treatment from Steele. The secondary, meanwhile, might be in the "best in the country" discussion. There's not a ton to dislike on this side of the ball, either.

But as always, it's the play that's the thing, and the 2007 Vols--who had just as many on-paper reasons for optimism as this year's version, if not more--just didn't play very well if you look anywhere besides the scoreboard. Again, their Pythagorean was awful. They were outgained by 32.7 yards a game, the third-worst mark in the league. They finished plus-7 in turnovers. Whatever their record said, this team underachieved on a down-to-down basis and will have to dramatically improve just to tread water in the win-loss column this year.

And as many positives as the Vols' have, there are reasons to think that if there is improvement, it's not going to be dramatic. Crompton will still have a learning curve, one made all the more steep for Cutcliffe's departure and the Clawfense's apparent intricacies. The wideouts are experienced but--Gerald Jones potentially aside--don't seem the sort to keep opposing DC's awake at night. And even with the staggering late-season improvement shown by the secondary, this is still a defense with several major losses from a unit that gave up 59 to Florida, 41 to the Tide, 45 to Cal. My hunch is that 2008 Tennessee proves to be a slightly better football team than 2007 Tennessee, with the giant caveat of a slightly--or even significantly--worse record.

A loss at J-Hare could--maybe even should--be part of that, um, worse-ness. I like Auburn in the trenches, where our d-line should be able to battle even the Vols' o-line to something approaching a draw and our o-line should have an edge. Frankly, unless the Clawson hire turns out to be a coup, I like the game-planning track record of Tubby and his staff better than I do Fulmer and his. The Vols have also been wretched on the road of late--they've lost their last three away games against ranked teams by a combined 70 points, and that's not even taking the beatdown in Tuscaloosa into consideration.

In the end, though, I come back to the same complaint with the schedule I opened this post with. Don't get me wrong: Auburn fans don't have the slightest bit of whining wriggle room when the Vols are going to arrive on the Plains a week after hosting the Gators. But let's theorize, regardless, that the Tigers emerge battered and bruised from the LSU game (is there any other way to emerge from an Auburn-LSU game?) but with what will surely look like a season-defining victory in hand. Meanwhile, let's say Tennessee gets Tebowned for a second straight year, this time in Knoxville. This scenario would send Auburn into their date with the Vols as an unequivocal home favorite, one ranked in the top-10, in the SEC West driver's seat, and busy soaking up the congratulations and title-talk on all sides. The Vols, meanwhile, would be wounded and angry, while still as talented as ever and likely badly underrated.

If you have been an Auburn fan for any length of time, you recognize this as the sort of scenario that has always been Tubby's biggest Achilles heel. It's also, unfortunately, the same scenario Fulmer has used to save his career on more than one occasion and has perpetually thrived in. It terrifies me.

Obviously, the scenario could just as easily be reversed, with Auburn falling at home to LSU and Tennessee springing the upset over Florida. Or both teams could win and set up a massive clash of undefeateds. Or they could both lose and set up the Raycom Game of the Week. Whatever happens, the point is this: I firmly believe Auburn's too good to go 0-2 over these two weeks. But even if that's a valley too deep to expect Auburn to slip into, 2-0 is likewise a mighty tall hill to climb. The Tigers can get there, no question, but they'd better bring some extra oxygen and the best crampons they can find, because both LSU and the Vols are going to make sure it's treacherous footing every step of the way.

*I haven't met enough other people who enjoyed (or even remember) this movie to really make this reference worthwhile, I know, but screw it--the image of the UT band marching down the streets of Vegas with Martian heads exploding left and right is too appropriate to pass up. Plus, the film's a totally underrated entry in the Burton oeuvre and deserves the attention. So there you go.


J.M. said...

I grew up a Vols fan. My dad went to UT. But I went to Auburn. I've always been conflicted when these two teams play.

I don't get why "Down the Field" isn't the more beloved fight song (it's usually played as an afterthought to "Rocky Top.") It still causes my heart to swell with pride for the orange and white when I hear it. "Rocky Top" is a fine song. But I think most fans of the Vols like it most because it pisses off the other fans so much.

As usual, a damn fine preview. I think the both Crompton and the new Clawfense could prove too much of a liability for the Vols this year. Crompton's not looking to hot right now -- forced throws and interceptions abound.

The Pigskin Pathos said...

Good preview. I was able to attend the last 3 UT-AU games. Good times all around.

And I remember Mars Attacks. A classic for sure.