Tennessee 63, WKU 7: yes, there are things to learn from this game

Much of the chatter in the wake of Tennessee's impressive 63-7 throttling of the Hilltoppers echos that of John Adams: it was only Western Kentucky.

There's good reason for that reminder, really. Yeah, the team rushed for 380 yards on its way to 657 total yards and the No. 1 rated offense in the nation after the first week. Yeah, the defense barely even needed a secondary for most of the game and ranked third in the nation in overall defense after the first week. And yeah, Jonathan Crompton went 21 of 28 and threw for more touchdowns in three quarters than he did all of last season.

But it was Western Kentucky, the nation's newest FBS member and surely one of the nation's youngest to boot. (ESPN's report that 57 of WKU's scholarship players are true freshman is inaccurate; 57 are true freshmen, redshirt freshmen, or sophomores (original source here). Still, the point stands: they were new and young.)

So yeah, don't get carried away with yesterday's success because it was Western Kentucky.

But look a little closer and you'll realize that there were a lot of positives to take away from the game, too. Not just despite the fact that the opponent was a pushover, but precisely because it was.

Like it or not, Tennessee over the years had developed a reputation for playing up and down to its competition. I called this the Spotlight Effect way back in 2005:

It’s not exactly a closely-guarded secret that the Tennessee Volunteers are acutely affected by others’ impressions of them. As a general rule, great expectations lead to great disappointments (either an outright loss or an unimpressive win) and double-digit spreads motivate them to prove everyone wrong.

. . . .

As one . . . example, the 1997 team was led by Peyton Manning and staffed with NFL talent, but they underachieved (a bit). The next year, there were essentially no expectations for the entire season. After all, Peyton was gone, and Tee Martin had never started a game. When Jamal Lewis was hurt early in the season, all hopes went down the drain. But by the end of the season, the team was undefeated and ranked number 1 in the country. Even then, though, their opponent — a one-loss Florida State Seminole team — was favored to win the BCS National Championship game. Heck, after they won, the commentators chalked the Vol win up to the fact that FSU had to play with a third-string quarterback.

The next year, with essentially the same team returning (plus Jamal Lewis), the expectations were again sky high, and the team underachieved yet again.

This kind of thing happened not only from season to season, but within seasons as well. One week, we'd upset Florida in the Swamp or Miami in South Florida, and soon thereafter we'd tank against an LSU or Clemson team we should have beaten.

We had become accustomed to close games against inferior competition (Northern Illinois in 2008, UAB in 2005, etc.) and a lack of blowouts against patsies. You have to go back to 2000 to find a game in which the Vols scored over 60 points. There were two that year, but it seems so long ago that you almost can't even remember what it was like and you completely forget that Tennessee actually did blow out Louisiana-Lafayette as recently as 2007. Maybe I just need more ginkgo, but I have almost no recollection of that.

No, we'd developed a personality of playing down to our competition, and the only thing that made this tolerable was that we did just fine when teams were evenly matched and sometimes even played up to the competition. I don't really know what it was that caused the team to be like that. Lack of motivation, conservative play-calling, and non-competitive practices that resulted in backups not really being ready for garbage time are all candidates, but whatever the case, it was who we were.

But at least three in-game events from yesterday suggest that that is not who we are now. Up 28-0 with only a little over a minute left in the half, Lane Kiffin called three timeouts so that WKU would have to give Tennessee another opportunity to score. In year's past, we almost certainly would have been content to let the clock expire.

Then, on the first drive of the second half, with the team facing fourth and four at midfield, Kiffin had the offense go for the first down. It wasn't exactly four-down territory; a punt would have likely been downed inside the 20 and called a success in the field position game in earlier years. But Kiffin went for it, and let his team and its fans know that he believes a good defense is a good reason for the offense to take more chances.

Third, when Bryce Brown ripped off a 34-yarder in the third quarter on his way to 104 net yards, Kiffin pulled him because he ran out of bounds instead of fighting for extra yards. Forget for a minute that Brown likely wouldn't even be at Tennessee if the Kiffin Chimera hadn't arrived, and forget for a second that had he been on campus, he likely would have been resigned to learning his pass protections until after a loss to Florida. No, Kiffin got him here, put him in a position to succeed, and then scolded him for running out of bounds. I mean, who yanks the No. 1 recruit in the nation who's been eating chunks of yards in a backup role to punish him for a minor oversight that has absolutely no impact on the outcome of the game?

Lane Kiffin, that's who. Because it's not about the opponent or the circumstances. It's about Tennessee. It's about the details. It's about starting early, performing well, and finishing late, and it doesn't matter who's on the other side of the field. Kiffin is going to do what he does, and his guys are going to follow. Bryce Brown, by the way, returned to the game two plays after getting chewed out, and he did not go out of bounds willingly again.

So yeah, it was Western Kentucky, and fans should not expect such efficiency and success against other teams on Tennessee's schedule.

But we did learn a lot about our coach and our football team, things we could only have learned against an inferior opponent. This team will not be content with modest success. It will not lean on conservative conventional wisdom, but will instead accurately identify and actually utilize its strengths. It will actively seek opportunities to be more aggressive, and it will not let success devolve into a neglect of the details and let you run out of bounds just because the game's in the bag.

These are all things that we now only because we had the game well in hand on Saturday. It appears that the team can handle the test of success without relapsing into poor habits. How it handles true adversity won't be answered until the next couple of weeks, but suddenly, I'm optimistic again.

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