Wednesday, October 7

That boy ain't right: The Tennessee preview.

Lane Kiffin, Jonathan Crompton: Sounds like a round of "Death is Not an Option" to me.

Hometown: Knoxville, Tennessee.

Last season: Ranked 18th in both polls in the preseason, the Vols went right out and shit the bed with an overtime loss to a bad UCLA team, and after getting well against an even worse UAB team, went through a 2-6 slump in which they scored only 12.5 points per game, fired their coach, and managed to lose to Wyoming. In their Homecoming game. Saved face at the end of the season with multiple-score victories over Vandy and Kentucky but still finished 5-7 (3-5 SEC) and bowl-less.

Hate index: Eight, down from forty-one last year. The fact that I'm dating a Tennessee grad may have something to do with this. Also her parents are very nice. (Come Saturday, of course, they're all dead to me.)

Associated hottie: Model Charity Hodges graduated from South Florida but began her college education at UT, so that counts. And of the first 100 results you get when you do a Google image search for her name, 87 involve her wearing (or, alternately, doing her best not to wear) a bikini of some sort. I believe this is what's called knowing one's strengths and capitalizing on them.

What excites me: Well, the first entry in this category is a no-brainer -- Tennessee QB Jonathan Crompton currently "boasts" (if that's the right word) the 91st-ranked QB rating in all of Division I-A, worse than every QB we've faced so far except for Arizona State's Danny Sullivan. And that's if you include Crompton's five-TD performance against hapless Western Kentucky, a game even diehard Tennessee fans would agree has about as much relevance to the rest of their season as the invasion of Grenada did to the Cold War. Crompton did have a non-terrible game against Auburn (259 yards, 2 TDs, no picks), but more than two-thirds of those yards and both TDs came in the fourth quarter, by which point Auburn had gone up 23-6 and was in protect-the-lead mode. In the first three quarters, Crompton was only 7-of-22 for 78 yards (and, naturally, a fumble). Here's another fun factoid: Of the season-long receptions for each of Tennessee's top 12 receivers, all but two of them came either against WKU or in the fourth-quarter comeback attempt against Auburn. Outside of those five quarters, Crompton has completed all of seven passes longer than 20 yards all season.

And while the defense has clearly been the Vols' strongest unit so far this season, it hasn't been infallible. Tennessee allowed Ohio (that's the Bobcats, not the Buckeyes) to pass for 319 yards on them two weeks ago, and it was Ohio's backup QB under center. And it wasn't like those stats were padded by the Bobcats having to go all pass-wacky late in the game to make up a huge deficit: Ohio never trailed by more than a single score until the Vols scored a touchdown with two and a half minutes left in the third quarter. A week later, Auburn's Chris Todd went an efficient 19-of-32 for 218 yards and a TD with no picks. Led by safety Eric Berry, the Vol secondary has been just as good at defending the deep ball as the Vol offense has been bad at throwing it -- only six completions for 20 yards or longer allowed all season -- but opponents appear to be finding success with short-to-medium-range passes. That may be one of the reasons that the Vols have only picked off three passes all season long.

From four interceptions against UCLA last year to 0 this year? Yeesh.

Last but not least, the Vols are one of the few teams in the country that have been as bad at covering kickoffs as the Dawgs have been -- 28.6 yards allowed per return, including one returned for a TD by Ohio. They've also given us a run for our money in terms of injuries -- starting middle linebacker Nick Reveiz, one of the defense's top field generals, tore his ACL against Ohio and is out for the season; leading rusher Montario Hardesty has been running on a shaky knee ever since tearing his ACL last year against Ole Miss, and had to have it drained a week ago; and Hardesty is running behind an O-line that's spent most of the season dealing with nagging injuries of their own.

What worries me: As much as we'd all like to believe that Georgia's offense has been leaps and bounds better than that of the Vols, the truth is we're really just different sides of the same coin. Tennessee can run the ball just fine but can't pass to save their lives; Georgia has performed pretty well in the passing game with Joe Cox but is currently a dud in the rushing department, currently 105th in the nation with only 98.8 rushing yards per game. But for Richard Samuel breaking off that 80-yarder against Arkansas, we'd be in the bottom 10. The rushing attack is even more of a question mark this week, as we appear to have gained a promising runner in Washaun Ealey (33 yards on 8 carries against LSU, easily besting any other RB who played in that game) but have lost Caleb King for at least one week with a fractured jaw. Regardless, Tennessee's run defense, ranked fourth in the SEC, will make life difficult for either one of them, particularly if our offensive line doesn't make substantial improvements in their run-blocking.

We seem to have gone from "three yards and a cloud of dust" to "one yard and a chorus of boos."

And as much progress as we made against LSU on a couple of our most nagging deficiencies -- we managed not to have a negative turnover margin for the first time all season and nearly doubled our season sack total -- we're still among the most penalized teams in the country (tied for fifth-most, actually, with almost ten flags per game). Last week we had no penalties in the first half and also didn't score any points; in the second half we scored 13 points but also incurred seven penalties (and not just the bogus excessive-celebration penalties, either -- an inexplicable illegal formation on a kickoff, false starts by offensive linemen who have been around the block enough times to know better). Does this mean that the only way for us to play well is to perform with such intensity that we commit dumb mental errors like those? I would hope that our coaching staff is able to do their jobs with a little more finesse than that, but who knows.

Then there are our special teams, which, outside of the punting and field-goal kicking, have been pretty disastrous. We're 97th in the country in punt-return yardage allowed and even worse on kickoff returns; the degree to which our coverage lapses have hurt us over the past season and a half is absolutely staggering. Tennessee has been relatively mediocre in the KO-return department -- David Oku and Nu'Keese Richardson are averaging right around 21 yards per return, not enough to crack the top 100 nationally -- but then LSU wasn't supposed to be any good there, either. (To give you an idea of how bad they were, Trindon Holliday returned kickoffs for 40 and 49 yards last week and the Tigers are still only ranked 93d in the nation in that category.) It really sucks when we only have a few seconds to enjoy each Georgia score before we have to start thinking, "Oh, shit, now we've got to kick off again." If this keeps up, maybe we should just run an on-side kick every time; I mean, if we're going to let opponents start drives in our own territory, we should at least give ourselves a fighting chance at getting the ball back.

Coach Searels isn't happy with his offensive line's performance. You wouldn't like Coach Searels when he's unhappy.

Player who needs to have a big game: Going to pull kind of a cop-out here and say "the entire offensive line." The O-line has done an admirable job of keeping Joe Cox's jersey clean -- he's only been sacked once in the past three weeks -- but beyond that it's been kind of a train wreck, particularly for a unit that was supposed to have been one of the best in the nation after soldiering through an injury-plagued 2008. Over the past three weeks, we have as many offensive false-start penalties as we do runs of 10 yards or more, and that's just unacceptable. We saw last week that there are some games even Cox and A.J. Green can't win all by themselves, and against a top-20 defense the line is going to have to step up in a big way (and cut down on the dumb mental mistakes) to give our RBs a fighting chance.

What does it all mean? Let's get one thing out of the way: On paper, at least, Tennessee is not a great team, nor are they a team that's even demonstrated any notable improvement compared to last year. Just like the 2008 squad, they've beaten a glorified I-AA team handily, beaten a MAC team by a lot less than they should have, and lost to UCLA, Florida, and Auburn in games where they were never completely out of it but never looked all that great, either. They don't really have a signature win yet, unless you think wringing 63 points out of a Jonathan-Crompton-led offense is such a miraculous feat that you don't even care it came against Western Kentucky. If we can beat Arkansas and South Carolina and nearly manage to knock off LSU, we should be able to beat the Vols.

But it's obvious that we haven't improved any over last season, either (which has to qualify as the understatement of the year). The passing game is holding its own, the defense is probably a little better, but our special teams are worse on the whole, and the running game evidently disappeared along with Knowshon Moreno. We're in a very uneasy state of limbo right now where we can conceivably beat just about every team remaining on our schedule but conceivably lose to just about all of them, too; for a team that's played five BCS-conference opponents, three of them now ranked in the AP poll, and managed to go 3-2 against them, that's a weird place to be.

There is a place for teams that are neither good nor bad.

There were enough positives to take from the second half of the LSU game that I really wanted to believe we were headed in the right direction despite the loss -- we proved we could manage not to turn the ball over three times per game, for example, and we pressured the QB to a degree I hadn't seen in a long time. Both of those improvements, I think, will serve us well in Knoxville this weekend. But penalties are still hurting us -- even those not of the completely-arbitrarily-dished-out-by-tight-ass-referees variety -- and just as I couldn't see how a team that could be counted on for three turnovers every game was destined for anything great, I can't see how a team unable to cobble together a triple-digit rushing average is destined for greatness, either. It would be melodramatic to say we're a team on the brink right now, but at 3-2 for the first time in Richt's tenure (seriously) and coming off an intensely demoralizing last-minute loss, we're certainly vulnerable; it's not a good sign when the season's not even half-over and you're already facing a "must-win" game, but here we are.

It's not only must-win with respect to our season, it's must-win in the sense that we don't want to hand Lane Kiffin a victory in his very first game against us. I'm still not convinced Kiffykins is a great coach, but I do have to give him credit for being at least a little better than I thought he'd be; the Vols' refusal to collapse against Florida (and, really, against Auburn as well, if you think about it) should attest to that. Still, there's no reason our ninth-year coach should be giving this first-year coach a victory, particularly at a time when it might give the punditocracy a green light to write a bunch of articles about how Tennessee might be pulling back ahead of Georgia in the SEC East and Mark Richt might be over the hill. Mark Richt losing for the first time to Les Miles, while dispiriting, isn't the end of the world; Mark Richt losing for the first time to Lane Kiffin, on the other hand, would be a very, very bad omen, whether Kiffin turns out to be an idiot or not.

So how do we win? It's tempting to think that we can just sit back and let Jonathan Crompton lose this game for the Vols. Certainly, he's no more likely to win it for them than our running game is going to win it for us. But Kiffin and the offensive coaching staff have done a fairly good job of managing risk with their QB -- he's rarely been asked to throw any deep balls, and he's been rewarded with both a slightly higher completion percentage and a better TD/INT ratio than he had through the first four games (against, as I've pointed out, an essentially similar schedule) before getting injured last season. From my inexpert observation, it seems like we've done a slightly better job the past couple weeks of not leaving receivers alone within a 10-yard radius like we did so often against South Carolina and Arkansas, but we're still not doing a consistent enough job that I'm completely confident in our ability to keep the Vol offense from moving the chains when they need to. It's probably too much to expect Willie Martinez to just completely shift defensive schemes this week, but if ever there was a time to scrap our soft zone and go to man coverage in the secondary, it's now; if we can't depend on man-to-man to keep Jonathan Crompton from completing passes, we might as well pull out of D-IA and try to get arena football started as an NCAA-sanctioned sport.

But since there's already an arena team bearing the Georgia name, I suggest we stick with the stopping-Crompton thing.

The X-factor for Tennessee is the running game, which so far has been led by Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown. They're both averaging five yards per carry right now, which is worrisome, but those statistics have been inflated by Western Kentucky and Ohio; outside of those two games, neither Hardesty nor Brown have a 100-yard rushing day, and their best per-carry average has been Hardesty's 4.8 against Florida. I think Hardesty will be a chain-mover but not a game-changer, particularly if we stack the box as much as we should given the weakness of Tennessee's passing attack. (Of course, the very fact that I wrote that means Hardesty will go off for 150 yards on Saturday, so be prepared.)

As for our offensive scheme . . . well, with Joe Cox having thrown so many nice medium-to-long passes lately and Tennessee having only picked off three passes all year long, it's tempting to tell Joe Cox to just open it up, launch it deep to A.J. Green as often as possible, and hope for good things to happen. But Tennessee's ace in the hole for this game is the fact that they know they don't have to worry about much of a rushing game from us. Put it this way: If you're Monte Kiffin and your big conundrum is whether to worry about A.J. Green or Richard Samuel, which one do you pick? Yeah, I know, Washaun Ealey provided a much-needed spark midway through the LSU game, but according to David Hale, at least, Ealey's still a good ways behind Samuel and Caleb King on the pass-blocking curve. So it probably didn't take Kiffin more than a few minutes of LSU-UGA film-watching to realize that Samuel on the field = pass, Ealey on the field = run. Unless we Ealey can pick up pass-blocking in a hurry, or Samuel can break out of his slump, Tennessee's front seven is going to be keying in on us all day.

That prompts me to suggest that our offense play as conservative a game as Tennessee is likely to do. If Ealey is still struggling to pick up the blocking schemes, we need to figure out ways to let Cox get rid of the ball more quickly, but we could have worse problems; Tennessee's pass-efficiency defense has been good because they've kept yards-per-attempt fairly low, but they've allowed a not-inconsiderable completion percentage of 57.9, so if the short/medium ball is all they're going to give us then we might as well take it. Keep the Vols guessing with a mix of short passes to Moore, Wooten, and the tight ends, then throw in a long bomb to A.J. every once in a while.

Which, hopefully, will be of the "that's awesome" rather than the "desperate" variety.

It would be nice if we could build up an early lead on the Vols, since their offense clearly isn't built for big come-from-behind heroics, but between UT's defense and my expectation that both offenses will be playing it close to the vest, particularly in the early going, I don't think we'll be that fortunate. If we don't score on the first couple drives, the key is to not panic, just depend on Drew Butler to keep pinning them deep with punts and wait for the field-position battle to work in our favor (until, of course, we score and let the Vols return the ensuing kickoff to midfield). This looks to be another low-scoring, conservatively played game, and let's recall that the last one of those we were in, we didn't score a single point before halftime and still managed to almost pull it out in the end. Obviously I hope we'd be able to score a couple times in the first half this weekend, but I'm just saying there's no need to panic if we don't get on the board right away.

Last year we dominated the Vols far more than the 26-14 final score suggested, thanks mainly to a punishing running game that ground them down in the second half. Obviously we don't have that kind of luxury in the backfield this time around, so the final score will be closer and we'll be spending a greater percentage of the game biting our nails. I think the score will be low enough at halftime that neither team will be very far ahead of the other, and while Georgia may be able to put a score or two on the board in the second half to look like they're pulling away, either a late turnover or long Hardesty run will keep the Vols in it. We're the more talented team here, we should win, but a victory by any more than a single score (for either team) would be a huge surprise.

I like Kiffykins when he looks like this. Let's try and keep him that way.

What all this means, of course, is that whoever wins, the final score is going to be something like 48-31. Hope you've got plenty of booze and/or nitroglycerine tabs at the ready. Whatever the final score ends up being, though, let's just win this one, please. Otherwise I'll have to join Kiffin Victims Anonymous, and the shame of having to stand up at that very first meeting and introduce myself might just be enough to kill me.

If you're trash-talking: You'd think that "Ha-ha, you're starting Jonathan Crompton as your quarterback on purpose" would be enough, but the thing is, Crompton has come closer to winning an SEC championship ring than Casey Clausen ever did. Crompton went in for one play against LSU in the 2007 SEC championship game, which the Vols lost by only a touchdown after leading for most of the game; Clausen quarterbacked Tennessee through the entire championship game in '01 and the Vols lost by 11.

Tennessee has more losing seasons (2) in the last decade than SEC championships (0), and their program has sunk so low that they play "Rocky Top" just for getting first downs. Against Western Kentucky. (Don't deny it, Vol fans. I watched that whole game; I saw what you did.)

WOOOO YEAH! Suck it, Hilltoppers!

I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment wearing nothing but a Georgia flag wrapped about my nether regions if: Georgia wins by double digits. We've got three wins this season, and somehow all of them feel like we got really lucky; even the 11-point victory over Arkansas involved us having to come back from a 21-10 deficit in the first quarter. It's time for us to start at least acting like we want to be dominant.

By the way, before anyone asks, yes, Holly and I have made our respective wagers on this game. If Tennessee wins, I think I have to let her dress Jenna up in some horrid pink sparkly costume for Halloween; if Georgia wins, Holly has to . . . well, you'll get to see that one if/when it happens. But it's worth a bare-assed flag run, so I'd still feel like I came out the winner.


dave clark said...

"This looks to be another low-scoring, conservatively played game, and let's recall that the last one of those we were in, we didn't score a single point before halftime and still managed to pull it out in the end."


If only it were so, Doug.

Astronaut Mike Dexter said...

Ewps. Corrected. I assure you that that was a product of careless editing and not of my talent for denial, though my talent for denial is clearly robust.

Holly said...

Pink? SPARKLY?? Talk about "dead to me". If Tennessee wins I get to dress Jenna as a big ol' orange pumpkin, and you will love it.

Universal Remonster said...

Nice write-up Doug (also, props for the Dr. Saturday stuff too...)

I'm really crossing my fingers that the defense has a big day and plays with a huge chip on their shoulder. I don't know who said what at halftime during last week's game, but that D-line looked completely different afterwards.

Astronaut Mike Dexter said...

My apologies. I thought the pumpkin was going to be pink and sparkly.

Holly said...

Now THERE's a thought...