Sooner than later, we've got to win one of these.
The Vols haven't won a big game since 2007, haven't beaten a ranked foe - which Auburn wasn't, but should've been and definitely is now - since Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl that season. And that's using a looser definition of "big game" than we're used to 'round these parts, because you'd have to go back to October of that year to find a win that this program could truly pound its chest over. In the two years between Georgia's last visit to Knoxville and their trip to Neyland Stadium at the end of this week, it feels in many ways like everything has changed. The last time Tennessee secured a win they could really feel good about feels like it was a million years ago.
The optimists among us will tell you that we're right there. We were right there against UCLA and couldn't finish drives, we were right there last night and missed two kicks. The realists know we're probably not as close as we'd like to think. And we all know that most of the good we acccomplish is in spite of ourselves in the passing game.
But sooner than later, we have to stop being close and playing hard and being excited about this or that aspect. Sooner than later, we have to win one of these games.
A few thoughts on why we didn't last night and where it goes from here:
Nick Stephens' only window of opportunity is in the bye week, and it's still not a very big window
You can hate it, you can question it, and you can dream of a day when things are different, but at this point you might as well embrace it: Jonathan Crompton isn't going anywhere. And this is who we are as an offense.
In the immediate postgame last night, Kiffin told Vol Network listeners that he was displeased with Crompton's start (7 of 22) and encouraged by his finish (13 of 21 in the 4th quarter). He can go back and watch the film, but he's going to find the same Jon Crompton that's always been there, only a little more hidden behind a month's worth of drops from his wide receivers. Note to Gerald Jones: no more complaints about not getting the ball thrown your way until you catch more of the ones that are. The fact that he still finished with 7 catches for 75 yards probably makes that point irrelevant.
The only way you're going to see Nick Stephens is if Crompton plays even worse this week. Because as it stands, Tennessee is still competitve in spite of their quarterback, and their quarterback will make a throw every once in a while that gives Kiffin just enough to think about. Just enough to dream.
If Crompton tanks again against Georgia - especially if he tanks in such a way that the game isn't competitive, unlike the losses to UCLA and Auburn, and really even Florida - I think Kiffin could give Stephens the keys during the off week and let him get two solid weeks with the ones. Throwing Nick Stephens to the wolves in Tuscaloosa is no more frightening than sending Crompton under center in Gainesville, and we "celebrated" a moral victory for a week over that one.
If the Vols fall hard against Georgia, the QB change comes at a time to reignite some spark in a 2-4 football team. And if Crompton actually finds a way not to hurt us just once, and the rest of the team takes advantage of a vulnerable Georgia squad, then Kiffin gets to keep riding his man under center towards the finish line. Crompton is Kiffin's guy, and that point has been made repeatedly and unwaveringly. Which is why Crompton going the rest of the way is still the most likely scenario
Is it equal parts insanity and depression that the best we can hope for is that our quarterback gets out of his own way and just doesn't hurt us? yes. And I'm telling you, embrace the madness, because the madness is here to stay.
Hey look, something positive about the offense:
Tennessee's makeshift offensive line? Not bad.
Montario "I don't care if everyone misses their block on the screen pass, I'm taking it to the house anyway" Hardesty has reached the point where he's going to look good regardless. But a group missing Josh McNeil and Vlad Richard and starting - not just playing, but starting - a guy at right tackle with no game experience at the position until last week? Against an SEC defense?
Really, not bad. Not too bad at all.
Maybe the future at this position group isn't as bleak as we thought.
Unless it's in Atlanta, Tennessee and Auburn won't play again until 2013. I hope Gus Malzahn is somewhere else when that happens.
Gus Malzahn is to Tony Franklin as Peyton Manning is to Jonathan Crompton. The Auburn offense died under Franklin and took Tommy Tuberville out with it, but Malzahn took most of the same pieces and resurrected it, and now every Saturday is like Easter.
Tennessee's defense played the kind of game I thought it would take to win last night: make an Auburn offense that's simply going to get their yards kick field goals instead of score touchdowns. But it wasn't just that they got their yards, all 459 of them.
It was how: there was no making this offense one-dimensional (235 passing, 224 rushing). For all of their different formations and looks, there were no mistakes: one fumble that Auburn recovered, and I don't know if this is Chris Todd or Malzahn or both, but how many passes did he throw that were even close to being picked off?
And with balance like that and because of their different formations and looks, it's impossible to know what's coming next. When Auburn had 3rd and 8 or more, they used the screen plays that have eaten our aggression alive all season. And when they had 3rd and anything less, there was no telling.
You tip your cap to an offensive performance like that. And you hope you never see it again.
Just because Eric Berry only has one interception doesn't mean he's in a slump
Tennessee's strong safety had 11 solo tackles last night. He was the first resort on some hits and the last on others, he added Ben Tate to his attempted murder rap sheet, and hangs out with equipment managers, Renaldo Woolridge and the UT Dance Team in his spare time. In case you weren't in the stadium and missed the latest video addition to Berry's Heisman campaign, the most important thing to take away from it is that Woolridge has apparently been hitting the weights to improve his image. Get to the hole, Renaldo.
Berry leads the Vols in tackles and is a factor at the line of scrimmage, in a hybrid/LB role in a nickel package, or in his old familiar territory at safety. Neither Chris Todd nor Gus Malzahn were dumb enough to put it anywhere near him.
Tennessee is hurting themselves in little ways and helping themselves in few ways
The Vols have been one of the least penalized teams in college football all season, and only had four flags thrown on them last night. But an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was crucial at one point, and a snap infraction penalty came as a result of Brandon Warren lining up wrong and the center, I'm assuming, trying to get the play off in order to avoid what would've been our first delay of game penalty on the year.
Daniel Lincoln shanked his first field goal badly and had an extra point blocked, four points that equaled the final margin. It would've been a very different game had Lincoln made that FG, though obviously that's not the first or only reason we lost. Worse yet was Tennessee's kick coverage, which was ripped by Branon James once, beat for a touchdown by Ohio, and was routinely frustrating last night, especially on Auburn's final kick return. Eddie Gran has been sensational in recruiting and coaching RBs. We need some of that magic to spread out to cover special teams.
Bob Kesling said last night that the Vols have now forced 15 fumbles on the year and only recovered 6. Teams aren't throwing at Eric Berry and thus aren't throwing many interceptions. Ohio and Auburn combined for 88 pass attempts, and while the Vols generally got some pressure and did hold teams to field goals, that's 88 pass attempts with no sacks and no interceptions.
With our passing game struggles, Tennessee has lost the luxury to be good to the opposition in any other way. The little things become huge things with Crompton involved. And the defense, in turn, must be asked to go from merely holding a great offense at bay to turning them over.
Big things or small things, Crompton or Stephens, home or away...sooner than later the Vols need to put it all together, stop being close, and get a win. We're an understanding lot in a coach's first year, no one was expecting miracles and we're all excited about the process for the most part. But every now and then, we need our faith to be made sight. It's been two full years since the Vols really enjoyed that.
Two years later, we could really use another dose.