After a season-plus of college football blogging, I think I've decided what I really wanted to be was a sportswriter all along. Numerous friends of mine from college, however, are livin' the dream, one of them being my friend Darren. Only problem is, his job is covering Tennessee sports for a paper in Chattanooga. Kind of like an O. Henry story, isn't it? Like someone offered you a freelance photography job for Playboy, only the assignment was "Girls of Jenny Craig."
But anyway, Darren and I go way back, and we've shared plenty of memories -- tequila shots at 9 a.m. the day of the 2000 Georgia-Georgia Tech game; an all-night drive down to New Orleans for the '03 Sugar Bowl; that time in Miami with the trio of KLM flight attendants and the kilo of . . . well, anyway, we've had some good times, and we still keep in touch. As a matter of fact, my fantasy football team, the Sex Panthers, faces off this very weekend against Darren's team, whose name is unprintable here. Originally I had an idea to e-mail him and do sort of a "roundtable" concerning that pivotal matchup between two one-loss teams, but then I remembered nobody gives a good crap about our fantasy football league. But hey! Since Darren eats, sleeps and shits Tennessee football these days -- he even wrote a whole freakin' book about it, which we'll be getting to later -- why not shift the focus of that roundtable to . . . this weekend's Georgia-Tennessee game? As the guys in the Guinness TV ads would say, brilliant!
So I sent Darren a handful of questions regarding Tennessee and Saturday's game, and he answered 'em. Since his favorite "South Park" character is Timmy, I put a little Timmy icon next to his answers, just for poops and grins. My questions are marked with a little Butters icon, since Butters is the character I most resemble. And now, away we go:
1. Feed, if you will, the baser desires of Bulldog Nation, who like to drink the schadenfreude of other teams like Cartman liked to drink Scott Tenorman's tears on "South Park": What was it like in Knoxville last year as the Vols stumbled to a 5-6 record and lost to Vanderbilt for the first time since Reagan's first term?
And the first time in Neyland Stadium since Gerald Ford's, um, only term. It was fascinating to watch Tennessee fans slowly come to grips with reality. You have to understand, the expectations of Tennessee fans exploded when the Vols went 45-5 with two SEC championships and a national title during a remarkable stretch from 1995-99. UT fans suddenly expected to treat every opponent like Georgia Tech did to Cumberland all those years ago. You'd even hear some complaining that the national title wasn't even good enough because Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner's infamous fumble in 1998 gave the Vols a win and they beat Florida State in the title game when Chris Weinke was hurt. Compare that to Georgia, whose fans still celebrate the 1980 title.
The sports talk shows in town -- and there are a bunch of them -- couldn't keep enough phone lines open last year. Some fans wanted Fulmer gone. After the loss to South Carolina, fans berated the family of offensive coordinator Randy Sanders and brought them to tears. Sanders resigned the next day. But like a 12-step program, Tennessee fans eventually reached acceptance. After the Vandy loss, there was absolute silence. No cursing at the players or throwing things on the field. It was like leaving a funeral. Everyone just filed out and you heard fans quietly mumble, "Vandy. We lost to freaking Vandy."
Yeeeesssss! Yeeeessss! Oh, the tears of unfathomable sadness!
***Shameless book plug alert! Shameless book plug alert!***
A full detail of Tennessee's 5-6 debacle can be found in Orange Crushed, a book I wrote on the 2005 season. It's been given props by Tony Barnhart and several newspapers. Check it out.
***End of shameless plug. We go back now to our regularly scheduled e-mail exchange.***
2. Obviously things are a lot better for Big Orange Nation this year, and there are a lot of people who attribute that to David Cutcliffe's influence. Has Fulmer at least sent Ole Miss a basket of mini-muffins for firing Cutcliffe in the first place? And is it just Cutcliffe, or is something else involved in Tennessee's resurgence?
Fulmer should send Ole Miss a basket of new T-shirts, because I hear Coach O likes to rip his off. I heard several different stories regarding the dismissal of Cutcliffe. Some say he was fired because of lackluster recruiting -- which is a very valid point -- and others say he refused to make coaching changes. I believe it was a combination of the two, because I know Cutcliffe and he's a very stubborn person.
Fulmer is extremely fortunate to have Cutcliffe on staff. Remember, Charlie Weis hired Cutcliffe to coach quarterbacks after Ole Miss fired him. But Cutcliffe had some heart issues and had to step down. After a season away from football, Cutcliffe actively searched for vacant head coaching positions without much luck, so he decided to return to Tennessee.
Tennessee's resurgence has a lot to do with Cutcliffe because he's so detail-oriented and the Vols were so undisciplined last year. You can see the extra effort at practice and you also notice it at games. You see receivers blocking downfield and actually running the right routes, which never used to happen, and Ainge isn't making as many of those mindboggling decisions, although I think we're all waiting for the day he throws a no-look pass between his legs. Cutcliffe is playing a huge role, but I think the lack of a silly, ill-fated quarterback rotation is probably the No. 1 key. Fulmer's ridiculous rotation last year -- you sit if you make a mistake -- just sent Ainge into the tank. The kid was a mess.
Sure, just put that anywhere.
3. Since humiliating Cal in the opener, the Vols have been played way too close by Air Force, lost to Florida, and then annihilated two C-USA scrubs, so it's still kind of hard to get a handle on just how good Tennessee is. Was the Cal win an accurate representation or more an out-of-this-world performance by a motivated team playing over their heads?
Probably somewhere in the middle. After hearing about how much they sucked for nine months, the Vols were incredibly motivated against Cal. Following the game, they celebrated like they had won the national championship. But they truly are much improved in the passing game and possess a lot of speed on defense. They're much better than last year and the blowout of Cal looks better and better each week because the Golden Bears are rolling. At least, so I hear. I don't keep up with the Pac-10 for the same reason I don't keep up with the Big Sky Conference. Aside from USC, it's a step down.
4. Based on what you've seen of the Georgia offense so far, are there ANY weaknesses in UT's defense that the Dawgs will be in a position to exploit? I'm assuming that we're not just going to hand it off to Kregg Lumpkin 70 times, no matter how tempting that may seem at the moment.
Yeah, Georgia should run the Air Force triple-option flexbone offense your high-school football team probably used. Tennessee had absolutely no answer for that. Tennessee's defenders were chasing the wrong guy on those option plays so often it was getting comical.
They are pretty speedy for a bunch of honkies.
But that's obviously not realistic. I think Georgia can exploit the interior of Tennessee's defensive line, which makes Lumpkin invaluable. Without Justin Harrell, the Vols just aren't the same up front. It's pretty obvious to those who follow the team and even Fulmer will admit it. The Vols are also thin in the secondary, but I don't think Georgia has the weapons at receiver to spread Tennessee out and sling the ball around. Seriously, what's up with Georgia's receivers the last couple of years? You would think Richt would be able to bring in top-flight guys with David Greene, D.J. Shockley and now Matthew Stafford on board.
[Honestly? I have no fucking clue. -Ed.]
5. In the '90s it seemed like Tennessee just kind of stopped caring about Georgia as a rival -- understandable when you consider we went nine years without beating them. Now Georgia's beaten Tennessee five out of the last six years, and it's turned into a game that Dawg fans expect to win. How has the rivalry changed from a Tennessee perspective?
It's funny to tell the UGA kids what it was like in our day and watch their eyes light up. "Back in our day, Tennessee beat Georgia nine straight times. They killed Georgia every year!" And these kids now look at you like you have three heads. Makes me feel old. I'd say Tennessee fans hate Georgia as much as Florida now. I think it's because Atlanta is a big alumni spot for both schools and the Vols have to hear about it a lot more. Plus, Tennessee can't go on a recruiting shopping spree through Georgia anymore like the old days. Remember when Tennessee got Jamal Lewis, Deon Grant and Cosey Coleman out of Georgia? But hey, at least Georgia kept Jasper Sanks at home.
6. Now that you've published a book, do you have sportswriter groupies following you from bookstore to bookstore throwing panties and hotel keys at you, like Tony Barnhart does?
Tony Barnhart is great, isn't he? Unfortuately for me, the "sportswriter groupies" I'm familiar with are drunken 60-year-old men who want to discuss Tennessee's running game for two hours. I should have learned how to play the guitar.
Fine. Just as long as you don't become this guy.
That was fun -- fo' really, go buy Darren's book, or I will consider it a personal affront. Darren, thanks for participating, and your fantasy team is going to get destroyed on Sunday. Peace.