Many will say that quarterback Erik Ainge lost the SEC Championship for the Tennessee Volunteers in 2007. Maybe. Maybe he lost it with 9:54 left to play in the game when he threw an interception to LSU cornerback Jonathan Zenon, who ran it back 18 yards for a touchdown and the seven point lead that would win the game. Maybe Ainge lost it with 4:10 left to play, when the team was threatening to send the game into overtime, by tossing another interception to Darry Beckwith, giving LSU possession and the opportunity to run out the clock.
But maybe the defense lost this game when it couldn't wrestle away the opportunity Ainge had given the Tigers, when it couldn't stop their backup quarterback from converting a third down or its running back from turning a second down into a new set of four that would finally allow them to run out the clock to win the game.
Or maybe it was kicker Daniel Lincoln, who missed both of his field goal attempts earlier in the game. Or Lucas Taylor, the team's leading receiver, who had only two catches for 25 yards. Or running back Arian Foster, who netted only 55 yards on 21 carries.
Or . . . maybe it was a team effort.
Yes, it was in fact a team effort, and that is entirely fitting, because it was most certainly a team effort that got Tennessee to the SEC Championship Game in the first place.
Ainge in Orange finished the season 300 of 476 for 3,157 yards and 29 touchdowns. He completed 63 percent of his passes and had a 134.64 efficiency rating. He finished 20th in the nation in passing and passing yards per game despite having a star-less receiving corps running routes.
And what about that band of no-name receivers? No Tennessee fan was over-excited in the preseason to hear that Lucas Taylor, Austin Rogers, and Josh Briscoe would be getting the majority of the snaps while the highly-touted heraldeds were standing on the sidelines, but the blue-collars combined for 1,643 yards and 14 touchdowns. Taylor alone had 1,000 yards on the season. And don't forget tight end Chris Brown, who sacrificed his stat sheet for the team mid-season by willingly demoting into a blocking fullback to kickstart the struggling running game. And the VHTs? They kept at it and kept at it, earning their way into the rotation and onto the highlight reels when a dynamic play was absolutely necessary.
How about Arian Foster? He merely ran the ball 229 times for 1,162 yards (a 5.1 per carry average) and twelve touchdowns. He played the lead in the team's return to its traditional power-running roots. Foster will be back for a curtain call next year and should easily break the school record for most career yards.
Daniel Lincoln? The guy hit 21 of 28 field goals, several of them game-winners. He missed only one extra point attempt all season, and he was named a second-team All-American. Consider the role of freshman-to-senior placekicker for Tennessee filled. Thanks for coming. See you in 2011.
And the defense? Oh, the defense. A terrible liability early in the season and a sometimes strong but too often inconsistent asset in the middle of the season, the unit got better and better each and every week, and on Championship Saturday, they reminded us all what a John Chavis defense unravaged by injuries looks like. Quarterback pressure, sacks, interceptions, fumble recoveries, absolutely knocking the living snot out of opponents. Bend, okay. Break, no. Freshman Eric Berry made first team Freshman All-America and the Sporting News' SEC Defensive Freshman of the Year. Jerod Mayo may not yet have an "All-American" next to his name, but what Vol fan does not already consider him so?
This Tennessee Volunteer team withstood the humiliation of three embarrassing losses, re-molded intense fan criticism into motivation, and edged not only the Vanderbilt Commodores and the Kentucky Wildcats, but also the South Carolina Gamecocks, the Georgia Bulldogs, and the Florida Gators to win the toughest division of the toughest conference in the nation.
Most said they'd been lucky, but they proved otherwise on Saturday. Ainge drew first blood, going up 7-0 right out of the gate. The much-maligned defense held high-powered LSU -- who's on its way to a national championship game -- to two made field goals, one missed field goal, a punt, and a failed fourth down conversion in the first half despite the fact that the Tigers had the ball for two-thirds of that time. The second half was mostly more of the same for the defense after a 76-yard touchdown drive: LSU fumbled once, threw an interception, and punted three times. Even though Ainge threw two ruinous interceptions of his own with the game on the line, he was driving the team down the field on consecutive drives, seemingly destined to send the game into overtime.
And at that moment, the most surprising thing happened. No, it wasn't that we lost; it's that we Vol fans were surprised that we lost. A team vilified and under-appreciated the majority of the season was fourteen yards from stealing the SEC Championship from a monster of a national title contender, and we were stunned when it didn't happen. After all of the fans' gnashing of teeth earlier this season, after all of the bad-mouthing and pessimism about the coaching staff and its ability to do its job, we suddenly found ourselves in a unified and collective state of mind that we had almost forgotten. We were believing in our team.
The most peculiar thing is that the way the game ended had surprisingly little impact on this mindset. There is always next year is a familiar December refrain, but this particular next year indeed holds great promise.
It's good to be believers again.