The roller coaster pulls into the station: LSU and the SEC Championship Game

Reviewing the 2007 season. Because those who don't learn from the past are doomed to have a new coach next year.

Pre-game

So Tennessee had been fiddlin' on the roof all season. A time or two or three, they succumbed to gravity and took a bumpy ride down the shingles, over the brink, and onto the unforgiving ground below. Each time, however, they shook off the dust and re-ascended the ladder.

On December 1, 2007, they stood again at the apex, stance wide, fiddle nestled firmly between chin and shoulder. The Georgia Bulldogs? Spectators. Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators? Resting comfortably, thank you. Steve Spurrier? Hmm. Probably golfing.

Tennessee's opponent offered them an opportunity for revenge for trampling the rose between Casey Clausen’s teeth in 2001. Had the Vols beaten LSU for the SEC title that year, they would have gone on to Pasadena and the national championship game.

Yeah, this year's LSU was favored by a touchdown or so, and yeah, the statistical advantage was frightening, but the Tigers had been flirting with disaster all season themselves, losing to Kentucky and to Arkansas the prior week in overtime. That last loss was particularly disheartening for LSU, as it effectively dashed any rational hope of appearing in the national championship game.

The Tigers' footing on the roof was questionable for other reasons as well. Quarterback Matt Flynn was doubtful for the game. All-American Glenn Dorsey was hobbled. And coach Les Miles? Reportedly done and gone to Michigan. Reportedly.

On the other hand, Knoxville columnists were questioning whether the 2007 Volunteers were the worst team to ever represent the East in the SEC Championship. Harsh, yeah, but the argument wasn’t without merit. Georgia was ranked fourth in the country. Florida had beaten us 59-20. We gave up 500 yards to Steve Spurrier, beat Vanderbilt on their missed field goal, and barely scraped past Kentucky in an epic four overtime battle.

But we were here. The others were not. We’d survived. The others had not. And we’d seized the opportunities others had squandered.

The game

The first play of the game probably won it for them, and it didn’t even happen on the field:

Still, the Vols were ready and made a game of it:

Full screen version.

Erik Ainge drew first blood, going up 7-0 right out of the gate with a great 11-yard pass to Chris Brown. The biggest surprise of the evening, though, was that the much-maligned defense held high-powered LSU to two made field goals, one missed field goal, a punt, and a failed fourth down conversion in the first half. All this despite the fact that the Tigers had the ball for roughly two-thirds of that time.

The third quarter was mostly more of the same. After a 76-yard touchdown drive, LSU fumbled once, threw an interception, and punted three times, and before the third quarter came to a close, Ainge hit Josh Briscoe for another touchdown and a 14-13 lead.

Alas, the fourth quarter was all LSU. Vol fans had been lamenting the lack of a deep threat all season, generally chalking it up to a corresponding lack of speed in the receiving corps. We later learned that it was really because Ainge had a bum throwing shoulder for most of the season. Whatever the case, Tennessee fans just knew Ainge wasn’t going to throw deep.

Unfortunately, LSU defensive back Jonathan Zenon knew it, too:

That was with just under ten minutes to play. With 4:10 left to play and the Vols threatening to tie the game, Ainge threw another interception and gave LSU possession and the opportunity to run out the clock.

Post-game

Most blamed Ainge for the loss, including Demonte’ Bolden, who committed an abominable indiscretion by airing his immediate and personal post-game grievances to a reporter with a microphone and a deadline and earned himself a rare public Fisking on RTT. But there was plenty of blame to go around. The defense couldn’t wrestle away the opportunity Ainge had given the Tigers when it couldn’t stop LSU’s backup QB from converting a third down or its running back from turning a second down into a new set of four. Daniel Lincoln missed both of his field goal attempts earlier in the game. Lucas Taylor, the team’s leading receiver, had only two catches for 25 yards, and Arian Foster got only 55 yards on 21 carries.

The truth is that the loss was a team effort, and that was particularly apt because the success that the Tennessee program enjoyed in 2007 was a season long team effort that had Vol fans believing again in their team.

Depending on what would happen in the bowl game, Tennessee would finish the season 10-4 or 9-5, a moderate success considering that no one had picked them in the preseason to even play for the SEC Championship. Plus, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that LSU would run away with the crown regardless of who represented the East. We’d played them to within a touchdown of the championship, and although it didn’t feel particularly satisfying that night, it would look differently in the morning.

After all, the final week of the season witnessed one last major aftershock of a Saturday. Missouri and West Virginia, Nos. 1 and 2 respectively, both lost. Georgia and Kansas, Nos. 4 and 5 respectively, didn’t play in their conference championship games because they didn’t win their divisions. Virginia Tech had been No. 6, but they’d lost by 41 points to No. 7 LSU earlier in the season. That left Ohio State (No. 3) and LSU to play for the national championship.

The Tennessee Volunteers had just lost by a total of eight points to the last two national champions. We're not there, but we're not that far behind.

Wisky and the bowl game up next.

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