Avoiding the Croom: Mississippi State

Pre-game

You’d think that kickin' the Dawgs and climbing back into the driver’s seat in the race to represent the East in the SEC Championship would be enough to diminish, at least for a little while, dissension among Vol fans. But you’d be wrong, as evidenced by this masterpiece from Corn from a Jar:

For a few moments last Saturday, I felt that Fulmer had quite possibly done enough against Georgia to save his job. After all, Tennessee completely dominated the Dawgs, right? Reclaimed Neyland from a team accustomed to beating us in our house... shown a renewed commitment to the run and the ability to stop the run... those things were what we were looking for, weren't they?

But luckily, I listened to the call-in shows after the game. I say "luckily" because the enlightenment coming over the airwaves was, um, enlightening. Why did we almost nearly, but not really but kind of let Georgia back into the game? Why didn't we score 50 points? Why didn't they let Crompton throw about 20 passes? It's simple, Fulmer needs to go, and now.

I mean, look at the numbers from the UGa game: we held Georgia to two first downs in the first half, but they ended the game with 14. That's seven times as many as they had in the first half. We punted twice in the first half, and four times in the second. That's an increase of 160%! I think, I'm not really good at math. But think of this, in the last two quarters of football, we've been outscored 14-7. There's a clear erosion of the program that started at about 5:15 pm last Saturday, and we can't stand for it.

The most danging piece of evidence I have against Fulmer, though, is this picture. Just look at it. What is he doing? Going for a fist bump when obviously the assistant is leading with a high-five? Can't he get on the same page as the coaches on his staff? And is he wearing a championship ring? How dare he, when he hasn't won one of those in ten, er, nine... what is it, eight years! The audacity!

I mean, he's got to go, right? Otherwise, all of us who doubted Fulmer a month ago, especially me, would have to admit we were wrong, and that he does in fact still know what he's doing, and that he does still have a few tricks up his sleeve. And we can't have that, can we?

To be fair, the Vols did have a history of following up huge wins with hugely disappointing losses, and while Tennessee fans normally wouldn’t worry too much about Mississippi State, Sylvester Croom had these Bulldogs straining at the leash for a chance to knock off Tennessee. Not only was it a potential letdown game for Fulmer’s team, Mississippi State actually had the numerical advantage in rushing offense, rushing defense, punting, and intangibles, and, even more surprising, Erik Ainge and the Tennessee passing game against the Bulldog pass defense appeared to be a push. Huh? Croom even went so far as to issue a pre-game challenge to Tennessee, saying they’d better put nine in the box to stop MSU’s powerful running game.

The game

One would be wise not to argue too strenuously with Sly Croom:

Full screen version.

Mississippi State’s Anthony Dixon rushed for 108 yards, and the team put up 135 total rushing yards on the same John Chavis defense that held Georgia’s backs to 69. Fortunately, Tennessee’s Arian Foster had an even better day, gaining 139 yards himself on 21 carries for a 6.6 per carry average. Montario Hardesty added 78 yards on 16 carries for a 4.9 yard average, and receiver Lucas Taylor had a great day as well, gaining a full 72% of Tennessee’s passing yards, including a really nice 51-yard touchdown.

So although the game was back and forth and touch and go and to and fro for awhile, Tennessee gradually put the game out of reach in the second half thanks largely to three Daniel Lincoln field goals. There would be no upset for the Vols on this day, and they would win 33-21.

Post-game

Overall, the victory over the Mississippi State Bulldogs – who finished the season 8-5 with wins over Alabama, Kentucky, and Auburn – was a solid performance for Tennessee. The Vols were still in the driver’s seat in the SEC East, and the odds for winning an actual SEC Championship improved an hour later when No. 1 LSU showed some vulnerability by losing to Kentucky. As a matter of fact, the opportunity coming into view on the horizon was looming a great deal larger than expected. When the initial BCS rankings were released, Tennessee was only 21st, but we still had games against Steve Spurrier, who was ranked an astounding 6th, and Kentucky, who was ranked an even more astounding 7th. Make it to the SEC CG and we'd likely play LSU, who were ranked 4th.

Just how high could Tennessee climb if it beat the 6th, 7th, and 4th best teams in the nation? A heady question considering we'd started the season 2-2.

But you know, that hypnotic wavy image on the horizon has a way of making you miss the pothole right in front of you.

Alabama up next.

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