Seventeen years ago, forty-three year old Phillip Fulmer led the Vols onto the field in his first full season as head coach. In the very first game of the 1993 season, Tennessee played an overmatched opponent and came away with a 50-0 victory. You didn't know how much to take from it based on the quality of the opponent, but it was certainly a good start.
The opponent that night and the coach last night bring us full circle: Fulmer's first win of his first full season came against Louisiana Tech, and seventeen years later the Bulldogs gave us forty-two year old Derek Dooley. Dooley's first game saw the Vols face an overmatched opponent and come away with a 50-0 victory. You don't know how much to take from it based on the quality of the opponent, but it was certainly a good start.
There's no promise, of course, that Dooley will continue down Fulmer's path and eventually lead us to championships. But more than just the score reminded me of our old friend last night. The problem is, our current perception is not reality. How good or bad this Tennessee team may actually be is blurred by an FCS opponent. For now, we see ourselves in a mirror darkly, an unfinished picture of what we could be. But in six days, we're going to see Oregon face to face, and ourselves much more clearly.
Connecting the dots between then and now, here are a few questions about what's smoke, what's mirror, and what's real with this Tennessee team...
Do we have a real downfield passing game?
I thought Matt Simms did what we wanted him to do: no mistakes (and really, no throws that were even close to being intercepted), efficient game management, move the chains. However, if you take away the long touchdown pass to Denarius Moore, Simms went 13 of 23 for only 139 yards. We tried to go downfield a couple of other times (and were perhaps a little hesitant after Moore got a facefull of the end zone wall on the first drive), and if Simms and Luke Stocker were just a hair more on the same page, the numbers look better.
But those numbers and that overall performance carried a strong, strong Rick Clausen vibe: smart guy, few mistakes, but unable to stretch the field. Teams that weren't coached by Les Miles figured out that you didn't want to blitz Rick, because he always stayed calm and found the open man. But if you just sat back in coverage, he wasn't good enough and his arm wasn't strong enough to beat you straight up. Simms clearly has a stronger arm than Rick, but last night he faced little to no pressure; I think he got touched twice. This raises all sorts of other questions: how good is our offensive line, really? What will Simms do when a team that's capable of bringing actual pressure does so in six days? Last night - and this is not at all an insult, just an observation - it looked like Simms was playing in slow motion in the pocket. Doesn't he look all relaxed in that picture up there?
He had the freedom to take his time back there, which may have also contributed to the frequent radar lock-on I think most of us noticed from him last night. The kid didn't need to check down; Kevin Cooper caught two passes, both of which looked like they were designed for him, and I'm not sure any other back even got a look. Simms had good tone and was firing to his primary target all night. Against Oregon, he'll almost certainly have to go through his progression more often than not. Is he capable of doing that?
The general lack of downfield passing (before we even factor in the injury to Gerald Jones) also leads us to the question that goes with every point: were we hiding anything from Oregon, or is this really who we are? For instance:
Is vanilla back in style?
How many plays did we run out of a basic I-package (two backs, two receivers, one tight end)? The Vols didn't go to a three-wide set unless down and distance required it, and then went heavy with an additional tight end inside the red zone more often than not. I know we're still working on perfecting the shotgun exchange, but here I'm really curious to see if we'll change it up and throw a bunch of different looks at Oregon.
Personnel becomes an issue here again, with Gerald Jones potentially out and only Zach Rogers (who played a bunch but caught only one pass for seven yards) and freshmen to replace him next to Denarius Moore. If, in fact, we don't have a reliable downfield passing game, are we capable of lining up in the I and running at teams with any real success?
(Sidenote: downfield blocking from receivers last night gets an A++)
Tauren Poole, David Oku, and Rajion Neal all looked good last night, and all averaged more than 6.5 yards per carry. There was also real balance with the first team: Simms attempted 24 passes, and Poole, Oku, and Denarius Moore had 24 rushing attempts. It looked basic, but against last night's opponent it was spectacular. It's not that you expect a lot of gimmicky stuff with Jim Chaney's offense, I'm just curious to see if we've got something else up our sleeve for Oregon, or if we're going to live and die with the running game out of the I.
Is the defense capable of being great?
Chris Walker is versatile: he's standing up, he's down in his stance, he's backing off like a linebacker. I like this very much, and I think Justin Wilcox does too. Another nice surprise on the line: Victor Thomas, former offensive lineman, played a lot at tackle, and showed up nicely. We're about to get a much better idea of what we've really got at defensive tackle.
I thought LaMarcus Thompson played one of the best individual games for a linebacker I've seen in a long time, and it's going to be hard to keep Austin Johnson off the field. And in the secondary, the young guys survived their first week with no busted coverage. This defense may not be great everywhere right now, but it certainly feels solid at all points other than one starting defensive tackle.
The vanilla question comes back here: we saw some of the Wilcox defense last night, but he was famous at Boise for scheming directly for the opponent. Oregon knows this too. What's he going to dial up for the Ducks, and how aggressive he'll choose to be with our inexperienced secondary, I'm very curious to see (which is like the tenth time I've used that phrase). Do we have the talent to do more than bend-but-don't-break against a team that scored 72 points on an FBS opponent?
Is Chad Cunningham kicking it short on purpose?
The Vols kicked off nine times last night, and Cunningham never got it closer than the five yard line. More often than not, the kick was landing around the ten. But even when UT Martin didn't drop it, the Vols were exceptional in kick coverage, allowing UTM to advance the ball beyond the 30 just twice. The Skyhawks' average starting field position was their own 21 yard line, so that's a nice job by Cunningham all around.
Dooley praised the Vols' kick coverage on The Derek Dooley Show (which you can watch online for free at UT's official site), while also commenting that there was work to be done for the field goal unit, so he's not just blindly throwing praise around. Again, maybe it was UT Martin and we were just that much better in the kicking game as well...but maybe we're going for higher trajectory with more hangtime this year, putting our oft-maligned coverage unit in better position to make the play. If we keep teams at their own 21 all year, I can certainly live with Cunningham not kicking the ball into the end zone.
The questions will get more specific as we move towards an opponent that will challenge us in every way...but perhaps the Vols still have some tricks up their sleeve. Either way, what little we know about the Vols right now will be illuminated in six days, and for better and for worse, we'll see what we've really got.