Emotions around Rocky Top are burning brightly after the Tennessee Volunteers drilled the Memphis Tigers 56-28 in Neyland Stadium (in a game that was nowhere near as close as the score would indicate). After rolling up a 49-7 lead with 12 minutes left in the third quarter, the Vols began pulling starters for injury insurance and for backup experience, giving Memphis nearly a full half of 'garbage time' scores. (And were it not for a pass interference call on what was otherwise a failed 3rd down attempt by Memphis in the first half, that score could very well have been 49-0.)
Over the last few weeks, we've seen the Vols put together a string of very nice games, starting in the fourth quarter against the Auburn Tigers when Jonathan Crompton and the wide receivers finally got on the same page. Since that point, the passing game has been very effective, and even put the Vols in position to try to beat the Alabama Crimson Tide on their own turf. Against the Georgia Bulldogs, Crompton earned the national player of the week award in a game that may ultimately prove to be the final nail in Willie Martinez's Athenian coffin. Against both the South Carolina Gamecocks and Memphis Tigers, Crompton threw zero interceptions and a flurry of early touchdown strikes to put the game out of reach.
But despite all the (very valid) reasons for exuberance on The Hill, Tennessee would be very wise to learn a lesson from the beginning of the season - that maintaining improvement is as difficult as gaining improvement.
In week one of the 2009 season, the big question surrounding the Vols was whether the offense would be competent. After the Emo-riffically bitter memories of the 2008 season, fans (and, most likely, teammates) were not certain that the players on offense would be able to meet their recruiting expectations and reliably move the ball down the field. Lane Kiffin was also seen as a new variable - with little head coaching experience under his belt (and none of it at the college level), there was always the risk that he was in over his head.
And then came the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers:
So yeah, even though Western Kentucky was the newest member of 1-A football and had 57 team members who were true freshmen, redshirt freshmen, or sophomores, we were just a little bit giddy about this whole 'scoring points' thing. Sure, we recognized the qualifiers involved, but feeling good is a powerful drug. It was enough to have the fans perhaps a little too confident going into the UCLA Bruins game in week 2.
The problem was that we couldn't know how bad Western Kentucky really was. How bad are they this year? Well, so far, they're undefeated. In Rocky Top Talk's computer ranking methodology, they're the worst team in the NCAA by a hideously long margin, scoring a -195.3 after 10 weeks of action. (For reference, Florida leads with a +148.9 and the highest numbers seen by our computers are in the +150s. The second worst team is Eastern Michigan at -160.7.) Western Kentucky's best metric is currently their total offense, which is still a full standard deviation below the NCAA average.
And that's exactly where Western Kentucky can teach us a lesson today.
In the Western Kentucky game, the Volunteers pulled out to a 35-0 lead in the third quarter before beginning to pull out the defensive starters. Very shortly after that, Western Kentucky put together their first and only scoring drive of the game. Incidentally, this was the same trend exhibited in the Memphis game - once starters began resting, the defense began giving up ground and points. Likewise on the offense, as starters came off the field, efficiency dipped. (It was somewhat hard to see in the Western Kentucky game because their defense was so bad and so tired, that they were no longer able to contain basic clock-killing off-tackle runs.)
And the gains game in the same manner: plays designed to get the ball around the edge of the offensive line. Western Kentucky achieved this through option plays on the left end of the offensive line; Memphis achieved it through wide receiver screens and cutback runs. In both cases, the defensive edges ceded ground with the backups in place.
And looking forward, the Mississipipi Rebels present a similar challenge to the Vols that UCLA did - a team with some particular talent on the defensive line and an ability to create turnovers. But offensively, the Rebels have one thing the Bruins didn't - an offensive threat on the edge in the form of Dexter McCluster.
Here is where we have to remember that Memphis is not as good of a team as we'd like to hope they were. In our computers, they rank #111 out of 120 1-A teams - in the same company as Florida Atlantic and North Texas. The qualifier is very valid here. Additionally, Ole Miss is a team with more potential than they have shown on the season, with some very good talent in the right places that just hasn't come together as it should. And where UCLA ranks #45 in our computers, Ole Miss is #31 - just three spots behind the Volunteers themselves.
Yes, Ole Miss is a team that Tennessee should beat, all things going towards expectations. But this is a road game against a team that still needs another win for bowl eligibility (only one win against 1-AA competition can count toward the 6 wins mandatory for bowl appearances) and still hopes to salvage what has been a very disappointing season, based on the media's reflexively unrealistic expectations. With a win against Tennessee, Ole Miss still has a shot at #2 in the West, which can be the difference between the Liberty Bowl and the Cotton Bowl.
We took UCLA for granted early in the season; we should not do the same with Ole Miss. And even if the fans do (as we are prone to doing), the team better not.