First, an honorable mention to Jonathan Crompton's play over the last two months. Crompton's transformation is a great story, and his numbers for the 2009 season (with 2,565 yards) do give him the 9th best passing total in UT football history. However, four of the eight seasons above Crompton's belong to the two other feature quarterbacks of this decade...and they carry less of Crompton's baggage.
So the conversation about the quarterback of the decade at Tennessee centers on two names: Casey Clausen and Erik Ainge.
It is because of Crompton, in 2008 and the first month of 2009, that Clausen and Ainge have received greater appreciation from the fan base. The string of quarterbacks that came before these two - Andy Kelly, Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning, Tee Martin - were so revered for both talent and championships, the expectations placed on Clausen and Ainge were borderline insane. In the midst of both of their UT careers, you felt like you had to defend them for performances that have become much more appreciated in hindsight. Clausen and Ainge - second and third on UT's career passing chart - were more than just good.
We breakdown each of their UT careers in an effort to answer the question...
The Iceman came from California, and was thrown into a four man quarterback competition to replace Tee Martin in 2000. Joey Matthews had been in the program and was the favorite, and a shoulder injury in fall camp would put Clausen further behind. AJ Suggs wrestled the starting job away from Matthews in the first game of the season, but by October the Vols were 2-3 in an admitted rebuilding year.
After taking a handful of snaps against Louisiana-Monroe and Georgia, Clausen was named the starter in the off week before the Alabama game, as Fulmer elected to go with his budding talent and play for the future. His first start came against Alabama in Knoxville, where Clausen directed the Vols to their sixth straight win in the series, 20-10.
But Clausen assumed command of the team the following week in Columbia, against a 7-1 South Carolina team that was winless the season before. Down 14-10 in the fourth quarter, Clausen led a 16 play, 68 yard drive for the win, a march that included a 3rd and 14 completion to Donte' Stallworth.
The Vols rolled through their final six games with the freshman Clausen at the helm, winning them all while dropping 63 points on Arkansas and 59 on Kentucky. Though the Vols were derailed in the Cotton Bowl by Kansas State, the Vols' future was bright, and so was Clausen's - he was freshman all-SEC and freshman all-American.
At the helm in 2001, Clausen passed for 2,969 yards and the Vols went 11-2. He helped Kelley Washington get the school record with 256 receiving yards against LSU, extended the Vols' winning streak over Alabama to seven, gutted out a win at Notre Dame and outdueled Jared Lorenzen in a 38-35 win over Kentucky. But Clausen was at his best when it mattered most: first, guiding the Vols to their first victory in The Swamp in thirty years, a 34-32 victory over Rex Grossman and the #2 Gators that put the Vols in position to play for it all. Then, after falling to LSU in the SEC Championship Game, Clausen played the best game of his career against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl: 26 of 34, 393 yards, 3 passing TDs, 2 rushing TDs, 0 INTs.
The Vols were preseason #3 in 2002, and Clausen was expected to carry Tennessee back to the promised land. Instead, Clausen was at the center of the moment it all went wrong: in the final five minutes of the first half against Florida, the Vols turned the ball over three times, including three consecutive fumbled snaps in the downpour, and Florida built a stunning 24-0 lead.
Clausen bounced back to lead the Vols to a six overtime win over Arkansas, but was injured in the extra sessions and forced to miss the Georgia game, an 18-13 loss. When Kelley Washington's UT career ended with a neck injury in that game, Clausen was without his best weapon at wide receiver, and both Alabama and #1 Miami took advantage. Clausen missed three starts in 2002 due to injury, and the Vols went a disappointing 8-5.
But back for his senior season, Clausen helped atone: he earned the pleasure of directing The Pride of the Southland at The Swamp twice, leading the Vols to victory 24-10 in Gainesville. Though the Vols lost to Auburn and Georgia, the latter featuring more crucial turnovers that Clausen had a hand in, The Iceman returned to form in a five overtime epic at Alabama. Clausen led an 80 yard touchdown drive in the final minutes to tie it, then connected on a 4th and 19 conversion in overtime to extend the game, which the Vols eventually won 51-43.
Clausen finished with 2,968 yards in his senior season, along with a 27-9 TD/INT ratio. For his career, Clausen went 34-10 as a starter, the most wins by a UT quarterback that's not named Peyton Manning. What's more, Clausen was an incredible 14-1 on the road, including two wins in Gainesville and two wins in Tuscaloosa, his only loss coming at Auburn in 2003. Clausen is second in every major passing category in the UT record books, trailing only Manning.
On the heels of Clausen's graduation came two highly touted freshmen: Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge, who were given the inside shot at the starting job early in fall camp over upperclassmen CJ Leak and Rick Clausen. Growing pains were expected, even when the Vols opened with a 42-17 win over UNLV.
But in what might be the most impressive freshman quarterback performance in the long history of Tennessee football, Ainge went 16 of 24 for 192 yards and 3 TDs against the Florida Gators, and led touchdown drives of 80, 80, and 96 yards. On the final touchdown drive, Ainge converted 3rd and 9, 4th and 6, and 3rd and 8. And when James Wilhoit missed the tying extra point, Ainge moved the Vols 28 yards with two completions to grant Wilhoit redemption in the game's final seconds.
After the forgettable performance that every freshman QB has - 4 interceptions against the eventual undefeated Auburn juggernaut - Ainge immediately bounced back to lead the Vols to a shocking 19-14 upset at #3 Georgia. The Vols were 7-1 when Ainge was the victim of a terrible coaching decision, as a hail Mary attempt at the end of the first half against Notre Dame led to a shoulder injury that ended Ainge's freshman season, and cost the Vols the game. Still, Ainge was the quarterback most responsible for Tennessee's 2004 Eastern Division Championship.
As a sophomore, Ainge immediately found himself in a controversial situation, battling for the starting job against Rick Clausen, who played well after Ainge's injury the season before. Ainge was bothered by the situation and it showed from the beginning: a 5 of 14 performance against UAB in the opener led to a loss at Florida, in which the offense scored only 7 points. Then came the kicker: a 7 for 19, 2 turnover stint at LSU, including a horrendous spinning pick six that sent Ainge face-first into the goalpost, and ended his time as the starter, especially when Clausen led the Vols to a comeback win.
When Clausen couldn't lead the Vols to victory over Georgia or Alabama, Ainge again got the keys, and again totaled the car: 9 of 21 against South Carolina in a one point loss, and 13 of 32 with 2 INTs at Notre Dame in a blowout. Ainge would be benched again, returning only when Clausen was injured, just in time to lead the Vols to a win at Kentucky and finish a 5-6 nightmare.
Randy Sanders was out, David Cutcliffe was in, and everything changed.
Nothing heals wounds like an 11 for 18, 291 yard, 4 TD performance against the team Lee Corso picked to win the National Championship in the season opener. When the Vols obliterated Cal out of nowhere, confidence was fully restored in Ainge's ability. Cutcliffe preaches perfection, and Ainge came close a couple of times, including 24 of 29 against Air Force and 23 of 27 against Memphis. In a crucial three game stretch against Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, Ainge went a combined 74 of 113 for 824 yards, all three Vol victories.
It was in Columbia where Ainge was the victim of a second terrible coaching decision: a quarterback draw in the fourth quarter produced the dreaded high ankle sprain, and Ainge couldn't perform against LSU or Arkansas, again turning a 7-1 start into a lesser finish.
In his senior season, Ainge continued to master Cutcliffe's offense, playing behind an offensive line that allowed only four sacks all season. Ainge finished the year with a 31/10 TD/INT ratio, set the school record with 7 TD passes in a four overtime win at Kentucky, and led the Vols to the SEC Eastern Division Championship, the second he should be credited with - a feat no other Vol QB has ever accomplished. And though Ainge's career ended with a sour taste in everyone's mouth, after firing two fourth quarter interceptions in the 2007 SEC Championship Game, he rebounded with 365 yards against Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl, and his 3,522 yards are the second most for a Tennessee quarterback in a single season, trailing only, of course, Peyton Manning. Where Clausen is second in every major passing statistic in Tennessee football history, Ainge is third.
- 2000: 7 starts (6-1), 1,473 yards, 15 TDs, 64.2% completion
- 2001: 13 starts (11-2), 2,969 yards, 22 TDs, 64.1% completion
- 2002: 11 starts (7-4), 2,297 yards, 11 TDs, 62.6% completion
- 2003: 13 starts (10-3), 2,968 yards, 27 TDs, 56.6% completion
- Career: 34-10 as starter, 9,707 yards, 75 TDs, 61.0% completion
- 2004: 7 starts (6-1), 1,452 yards, 17 TDs, 55.1% completion
- 2005: 5 starts (2-3), 737 yards, 5 TDs, 45.5% completion
- 2006: 11 starts (9-2), 2,989 yards, 19 TDs, 67.0% completion
- 2007: 14 starts (10-4), 3,522 yards, 31 TDs, 62.9% completion
- Career: 27-10 as starter, 8,700 yards, 72 TDs, 60.6% completion
Clausen has better career numbers, but Ainge has the two best individual seasons statistically, from 2006 & 2007. Ainge was drafted higher and also won two Eastern Division titles to Clausen's one. Ainge went 3-0 against Georgia, while Clausen went 0-2 (missing most of the other two meetings)...but Clausen is the only Vol quarterback of the modern era to beat Florida twice. Both played with great wide receivers, as we'll get to.
Can you go wrong with either choice? The most general assumption is that if you use wins and/or career numbers, it's Clausen, barely. If you go with talent and single season numbers, Ainge has the slight advantage. And regardless...both were great.
Who gets your vote?