The Tennessee Volunteers 2006 season recap: California

Pre-game

Last year about this time, I had just finished exhuming The Season of Which We Do Not Speak. I spent the better part of two weeks poking and prodding and pricking the corpse of the Volunteers’ miserable 2005 season in an attempt to understand who'd killed us, when, where, with what, and how. Was it Randy Sanders on the sideline with the clipboard? Phillip Fulmer in the locker room with a dry erase marker? Perhaps Erik Ainge in the LSU end zone with the jitters?

Well, what we learned was that it wasn't any one person or thing, it was a host of things, one of which led to a catastrophic tipping over of the whole blasted program, scattering helmets and pride all over the end zone, as if some eBayer had blown up his bobble head collection. In any event, the exercise provided much-needed context for the then-upcoming 2006 season. Today, we start looking back at the 2006 season in anticipation of 2007.

The 2005 season was no exception to the rule that tragedy always spawns some sort of change. Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders had fallen on his sword after the 16-15 home loss to Steve Spurrier, and coach Fulmer shook up the rest of the coaching staff the last weekend in November, firing offensive line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens and receivers coach Pat Washington. The next day, Tennessee went ahead to the past and announced that it had re-hired David Cutcliffe as its offensive coordinator.

So was everything right again in the world? Maybe, maybe not. Could one man really cure an entire team’s lack of focus? Could he adequately challenge our out-dated, conventional-wisdom coaching philosophies? Could he re-animate Erik Ainge?

Nobody really knew whether Cutcliffe would be able to re-distribute the weight of enough little things to tip the cauldron over in the other direction. Fortunately, Cutcliffe wasn’t the only change agent at work. There was also the bitter after-taste of a toxic cocktail of embarrassment, humiliation, and disappointment. Wait. Scratch that. It was more than an after taste. It was like having the fish burps from an entire bottle of Omega 3s. You know, mildly surprising for the first few minutes, barely tolerable for the next several hours, and downright disturbing the next morning. The Vol Nation endured eight long months of that.

The 2005 season had ended on the sourest of notes. A home loss to Vanderbilt was the end of the world as we knew it, complete with players behaving badly and coaches packing up and leaving town. Fortunately, in this game there’s always a new ball sitting on a new tee with the score on the board and the standings in the paper all reading zeroes. Volunteers everywhere had been eyeing that ball in anticipation of the moment when they could finally, finally release their pent-up aggression and start making things right again.

Enter the poor, unsuspecting California Golden Bears. Bless their hearts, they had absolutely no idea what football in Knoxville would be like on September 2, 2006. I mean, come on, they don’t even have car flags out west. In game-week articles, it was clear that they "might couldn’t unnerstayan wot they’s hearin" and starting quarterback Nate Longshore apparently thought he was prepared for the trip because Neyland Stadium "was loud on the video game." Hey, Nate. Your remote control doesn’t work here:

(Try to hit play on both of these at the same time for the best effect.)

Sure, Cal had Heisman contender Marshawn Lynch. And a defense that may or may not stink. And a No. 9 ranking to boot.

And yes, we were only ranked No. 23, and boy did we have concerns: nothing but questions at wide receiver, defensive line, and linebackers, and mere blind fantastical hope regarding quarterback play, the offensive line, and kick and punt returns.

But here's the thing: we also had disappointment, distemper, and David Cutcliffe on our side. On this particular day, the opponent would not have mattered.

The game

This marquee match up on opening day really captured the interest of the entire nation. Everyone from ESPN to SI.com to College Football News was in on the action, but no one did it better than CBS SportsLine’s Clay Travis, who was making the game the first stop of his Dixieland Delight College Football Tour:

. . . . Even though we are only about a 100 miles outside of Nashville, the Vanderbilt game is nowhere to be found on the radio dial. "Unbelievable," says my wife, a current Vanderbilt grad student and a Michigan graduate. We do, however, manage to find approximately 15 radio stations discussing the UT-Cal game which will start in about 6 hours.

That was just a faint whiff of a reminder of the obsession Clay had earlier witnessed during his first visit to UT's campus and Neyland Stadium:

First, you really can't describe the size of the crowd. I could say it was a sea of orange, but that's a total understatement. Even saying it was an ocean of orange doesn't say it just right. The feeling is more or less like a mass exodus of people from their cars, houses, apartments, or wherever they came from, entering Neyland Stadium as if they were drawn to it magnetically.

The noise level brings a new definition of deafening. When Cal took the field, it was as if anyone dressed in white and blue had committed the most heinous crime ever to be committed on the face of the Earth. The boos echoed past the stadium and down the Smoky Mountains, telling everyone from Knoxville to North Carolina that there were unwelcome visitors in their house. When Tennessee took the field, it was as if everyone in that stadium had found out they won the lottery...at the same time. People were screaming, jumping up and down, hugging others beside them, almost in awe of these collegiate men of orange taking the field.

Eventually the wonderfully agonizing period of anticipation was over and it was, finally, Football Time in Tennessee. Robert Ayers set the tone on the kickoff:

Tennessee's first play from scrimmage – a 41-yard pass from Ainge to Robert Meachem -- sent a message as well, and when Ainge threw a touchdown pass on the second series, to a tight end of all things, Vol fans threw caution to the wind and went straight to just plain optimistic. We had a bit of a reality check two series’ later, when Ainge threw an interception, but on the very next drive Ainge found Meachem on a short out route, and Meachem spun away from the tackler, and I use that term loosely, and sprinted forty yards or so to the end zone. The rout was on:

Larger version of the drive chart here.

As the drive chart clearly shows, Volunteer players and fans indulged with abandon in offensive gluttony:

Tennessee players and fans have been starving for offense, not just since the end of last season, but since the end of the season before that. Tonight, the all-you-can-eat buffet opened, and the Vols went on an all-out binge. They gorged themselves so much that after three quarters, all they could do is waddle to the sofa, fall into the cushions, and unbutton their britches. They remained in that position for the rest of the game, but they had already been satisfied.

Indeed, it was just like old times on good old Rocky Top:

. . . Neyland stadium was raucous.  Receivers were catching the ball and converting missed tackles into touchdowns.  The defense was stifling highly-touted running backs. Erik Ainge, the face of the miserable 2005 season, . . . on Saturday night against ninth-ranked California[, was] the face of resurgence.

. . . .

Tennessee's defense throttled the supposedly potent Cal offense, and the humbled Tennessee offense raced over, around, and through the Cal defense time after time after time.  After time.  And one more time after that.

. . . .

Either the [Cal] players or the fans were running their mouths before the game, yelling, "Pac-10, Pac-10, Pac-10."  By the end of the game, they'd been treated to two rounds of "S-E-C, S-E-C, S-E-C," multiple refrains of "Overrated," and one emphatic, "Na, na, na, na . . . na, na, na, na . . . hey, hey, hey . . . goodbye."

Post-game

In the post-game glow, Ainge in Orange was recognized as the National Player of the Week for his 11 of 18, four touchdown performance.  His pass efficiency rating of 259.1 was second only to LSU's JaMarcus Russell, who hit 259.7.  Linebacker Jerod Mayo got his share of the spoils, too, in the form of nods for both the SEC defensive player of the week and the Walter Camp national defensive player of the week. As for the team, the convincing victory propelled them from No. 23 to No. 11.

On a side note, with the exception of one Cal fan who characterized Cutcliffe’s and graduate assistant Rick Clausen’s in-game deciphering of Cal’s defensive backfield signals as "cheating," the Cal fans were fantastic. For example, Austin Bear called out his whiny cohort and was extraordinarily complimentary of his visit to Knoxville:

Thanks for all your hospitality, Knoxville. Everyone was very gracious (As I expected. You see, my mom is from TN). I've always wanted to see a game there  and it lived-up to the hype. Loudest place I've ever seen a college football game. I'm glad I made the trip.  What a great experience.

Another Cal fan, Go Bears, posted the following over at Yard Barker:

My trip to Knoxville, TN for this past weekend's showdown of two ranked teams was one of the most enjoyable, yet frustrating experiences of my life. My experience however, was one of overall enjoyment. Don't get me wrong, I hated watching my team and school go down in a flame of embarrassment, but there is something to be said about Neyland Stadium and its 106,009 occupants. There is something to be said for the tradition of SEC football and southern hospitality, because it all exists in abundance in Knoxville. Although pummeled on the field, the home fans were more than gracious for our journeying all across America to see the game, and even before the game were offering drinks and hospitality all around. I like to talk smack with the best of them, but I really enjoyed having a congenial talk with local Tennessee fans, commenting about the nuances of the game and the southern experience. I wish good luck to the Vols and their fans this year, but that will end when we get our revenge next year in Berkeley, when UT gets a whiff of the west coast air.

Well, we’ll see about that last part.

The 2006 Cal game confirmed what I thought we’d learned from the final inquest of The Season of Which We Do Not Speak.

What [we] saw Saturday against a good Cal team was the Vols' re-attention to detail under the guidance of coaches Fulmer and Cutcliffe.  They did all of the little things better than last year and it showed in the game.  They practiced at game speed without green jerseys.  They minimized penalties and other errors.  They limited their receiver rotation, and their QB made good decisions.  They re-focused on the little things, and it paid off . . . .

But would the attention to detail continue, and would they continue to reap its rewards? What would happen when we played a team whose experience in SEC stadia was not limited to playing EA Sports’ NCAA Football?

And what would happen if we suffered a couple of key injuries? Air Force, up next.

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