"I'll take a dozen plain glazed . . . those two crullers on top . . . you know what, just empty the case."
Last season: Bounced back impressively from their 2005 disaster, thumping Georgia on their way to a 9-3 regular-season record; lost to Penn State 20-10 in the Outback Bowl.
Hate index, 1 being Cary Elwes in “Hot Shots,” 10 being Cary Elwes in just about everything else he’s ever been in: 9.5. Even the most hot-blooded SEC fans may have other teams they have a soft spot for -- I also root for UAB, for instance, and some Florida fans root for South Carolina just because of Spurrier -- but it’s safe to say that NOBODY has a soft spot for the Vols. The only people who like Tennessee are Tennessee fans.
Associated hottie: Deana Carter was an ADPi at UT. So there’s that. (Wow, I know a piece of country-music trivia now! Don’t worry, it was just an accident.)
What excites me: Lost in the what-the-hell-just-happened second-guessing over the Dawgs’ blowout loss to UT last year was the fact that they actually had a 24-7 lead on the Vols at one point, and Joe Tereshinski, bless his poor maligned Polish soul, was moving the team along pretty authoritatively before the wheels came off in the second half. The Vols ended up finishing a so-so 54th in the nation in pass-efficiency defense, and that situation may not improve much with only one returning starter (Jonathan Hefney) in the secondary. The Vols get two of four starters back on the defensive line, but other than Xavier Mitchell, none of them have given any sleepless nights to any QBs as mobile as Matt Stafford. There are also a number of issues on offense, including an experienced but underachieving O-line that could be as big a question mark as Georgia’s and a depleted receiving corps whose most prolific returning starter is TE Chris Brown. The running game, meanwhile, stands to lose some valuable depth due to the “indefinite” suspension of tailback LaMarcus Coker for possession of the sticky icky icky. Ordinarily, given Phil Fulmer’s notoriously slack concept of “player discipline,” I’d expect Coker to be held out for the first half of the Cal game and then dropped right back into the lineup, but it turns out this is actually the second time Coker has run afoul of various and sundry substance-abuse rules. So who knows.
What scares me: Two or three years ago, I would’ve been licking my chops at the fact that the Vols are bringing back so few experienced WRs -- but that was before the passing game’s crappy route-running, QB brain flatulence, and general Keystone Koppery was turned around almost overnight by the return of David Cutcliffe. WRs Lucas Taylor and Austin Rogers won’t be Peerless Price right away, but Cutcliffe’s presence alone prevents me from being able to picture them thimbledicking around the way the (far more experienced) receiving corps did during the Vols’ 2005 disaster. On the other side of the ball, the defense should be propped up by a strong linebacking corps led by the extremely frightening Jerod Mayo. For the first few games, at least, that unit may have to pick up the slack for a rebuilt front four, but if those four guys can get their shit together by the time the Georgia game rolls around, Mayo and the linebackers could be freed up to do some real damage.
Player who needs to step up: QB Matt Stafford. Last year’s big win at Auburn aside, he really hasn’t had to be The Guy in front of a truly huge and hostile crowd in a big game, and Tennessee will confront him with the biggest, loudest, and orange-est (yech) home audience he’s ever faced. Repeat after me, Matt: No matter how good a look I get, I will not throw within 10 yards of Jonathan Hefney. Got that? Good. Now go out there and shut those traffic-cone-looking bastards up just like Greene and Shockley did.
What I think will happen: I may be setting myself up for a Vladimir-Klitschko-sized karmic beatdown for saying this, but I look at this year’s UT squad as being the SEC equivalent of Atlas Shrugged: I hear all kinds of people telling me how great they are -- they were picked to finish second in the SEC East by regional sportswriters and got 16 votes to win the division -- but in the end I gotta say I just don’t see what the big deal is. Ayn Rand can’t create characters any deeper than a kiddie pool, and Tennessee isn’t going to be able to defend the pass; how severely you interpret Tennessee’s vulnerability on the lines kind of depends on how much benefit of the doubt you give them, and based on the last few years, I’m not motivated to give them all that much. Both lines are rebuilding, and biases notwithstanding, I don’t know that I can call either one that much better than Georgia’s.
Looking back, I may be misunderestimating the Vols’ D somewhat -- the talent is there even if the experience isn’t, and John Chavis’s defenses have been the one consistent thing Tennessee has had to lean on while the offenses were going flatline during the Cutcliffe-less years. So I have to concede a possibility that the Tennessee front four will dramatically exceed expectations and school Georgia’s rebuilt offensive line early and often. Even then, though, I’m reminded of 2003, when Georgia came to Knoxville with an O-line that made this year’s look like the ’83 Redskins’; the running game didn’t accomplish much until the game was already well in hand, granted, but that rickety line still gave David Greene enough time to tear the Tennessee secondary several new ones.
Stafford certainly has the tools to do the same this time around. As I said above, this game rides in large part on his ability to put 104-thousand-something screaming Big Orange fans out of his head and just make plays, but Richt and Bobo have developed a pretty good track record of teaching their QBs to do that even when they’re first-year starters (D.J. Shockley) or redshirt freshmen playing in their first-ever road game (that would be Greenie again). The road team has won the last four games in this series, and Georgia has taken the last three at Neyland; if Georgia’s offense lives up to its potential, I would expect to see that trend continue, to the tune of a six- or seven-point victory.
If you’re trash-talking: Take the number of SEC Championship Game appearances Tennessee has made this century. Now take that number and add to it the number of titles, SEC and national, they’ve won. Now take that number and add their total bowl victories during that span. If you’re counting on the fingers of one hand, guess what -- you still have enough fingers left over to shoot Tennessee’s home fans the bird as you walk out of Neyland Stadium.
Oh, and Phil Fulmer is a perfect sphere. Nyehhhh.
A Vol fan responds: That would be Joel from Rocky Top Talk, who holds forth thusly:
Here it is roughly 30 days until kickoff, and the only thing I really know about our team this year is that we have serious questions at wide receiver and defensive back. And the only thing I really know with any degree of certainty about Georgia is that Matt Stafford can lift a keg over his head. Well, that and that spooning thing, which really only serves to make me more uncertain about him than anything.
So I might not know yet what our respective teams will look like this season, but I do know this: Hearts are gonna roll.
2001: Heartbreak, Tennessee. One of the most exciting games in Tennessee football history turns into one of the most exciting games in Georgia football history. Volunteer Travis Stephens catches a screen pass and takes it to the barn for the go-ahead touchdown with 44 seconds left. Georgia's freshman QB David Greene does him one better, marching Georgia to the end zone and Tennessee to a gruesome death by hobnail boot.
2002: Heartbreak, Tennessee. With Casey "I Could Have Beaten Them With One Arm" Clausen on the sideline, Tennessee starts C.J. Leak, who falters, and then substitutes James Banks, who does okay, but not well enough to win. The move results in C.J.'s younger brother, Chris Leak, breaking ties with Tennessee and signing with Florida, publicly trashing Tennessee's coaching staff in the process. The move helps to foul up the QB position at Tennessee for years.
2003: Heartbreak, Tennessee. Casey Clausen -- with two arms -- fumbles this close the goal line and a 14-13 halftime lead, turning the ball over to Georgia's Sean Jones, who runs it back for a TD and a 20-7 lead instead. How heartbreak looks in Orange and White:
2004: Heartbreak, Georgia. Tennessee freshman QB Erik Ainge, coming off a four-interception performance against Auburn the week before, leads a 12.5-point underdog to Athens to take on a confident Georgia team coming off a 45-16 rout of defending SEC champ LSU, and brings home the victory.
2005: Heartbreak, Tennessee. Chapter Five in The Season of Which We Do Not Speak features a penalty-plagued field position nightmare and a scary, season-ending injury to beloved Vol Jason Allen to boot.
2006: Heartbreak, Georgia. Antonio Wardlow's blocked punt and recovery for a touchdown opens the floodgates for the Vols and spurs them on to a 51-33 victory in Athens. How heartbreak looks in Red and Black:
Which brings us to this year. Frankly, I don't yet know enough about our team, much less yours, to even venture a guess about how this year's game might unfold. But based on recent history, somebody's throwing a toaster. Or dropping one into the bathtub.
I think we know which "somebody" he's talking about. Sadly, I cannot dispute this assessment.
Up next: Georgia attempts to exact revenge upon Vanderbilt for humiliating them in 2006. Here’s some inspiration for Richt and the gang, free of charge.