I’m a Tennessee Fan — Where’s My Paper Bag?

The Bagheads

During the Alabama-Tennessee game last night, ESPN’s cameras found two UT fans with paper bags on their heads. Sports editor John Adams, writing in this morning’s Knoxville News-Sentinel, offers some guesses as to the identity of the two bag-heads:

Influential boosters who have seen enough of the Phillip Fulmer Era atUT; members of the UT defense who had seen enough of the UT offense; ora couple of guys who couldn’t wait for Halloween.

You want to know how bad things have gotten on The Hill? How about this graf provided by Mr. Adams?

UT just went 0-3 against its three biggest rivals – Florida, Georgiaand Alabama – by an 85-29 count. In the last two years, the Vols are1-5 against those teams; the average margin of defeat has been 23.8points.

My years of being a Vol fan tell me that a coach who owns that record will not be coach long. Add to that the rushing numbers in those three games this year — 96 against Florida, 36 against Alabama, and 1 yard rushing against Georgia — and you see the complete collapse of Tennessee football. “Pound the rock” used to be the mantra at UT; now it’s “throw a brick and pray.”

It would be easier if Phil Fulmer were an arrogant jerk, or had a temper problem. But he’s not, and he doesn’t. He’s a great guy, a family man, a caring person, and bleeds Orange. Those qualities, plus a national championship, have won him many friends, and frankly, gotten him a lot of slack in the past. I don’t think it’s going to work this year.

The Vols are 3-5, with Wyoming, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky left on the schedule. I think it is realistic to see 2 wins and 2 losses in that remaining schedule. Could they win out, and go to a bowl? Possibly. Even if they do, though, I think the Fla-Ga-Bama losses are going to be the deciding factors.

I’d love to see things turn around … but I think the reality is that Fulmer’s time is over.

Cats Must Have Thought They Were Fishing

What does fishing have to do with football, you ask? Other than Hunter Cantwell’s noodling, you probably don’t see the connection. Well, let me enlighten you — the Cats must have thought they were fishing, because all they have to show for the past two weekends are the two that got away.

Let’s face it — we didn’t expect them to beat Alabama. Alabama, that had just put Georgia through the meat-grinder. Alabama, ranked number 2 in the nation. Alabama, looking like Bear Bryant had reincarnated in Nick Saban.

And here was Kentucky, playing them to what amounted to a draw, holding Alabama to 17 points, and with a chance to win even at the very end of the game. An upset of historic proportions — and Kentucky couldn’t seal the deal.

“Oh well,” we thought, “that should have been a loss all along, and after all, didn’t the team give a great effort? Proud of our Cats!” Rich Brooks was having none of it, though — I loved his comment that “we’re way past celebrating moral victories at this stage of our program.” Hear, hear.

Now comes the Old Ball Coach, who had beaten Kentucky something like 80 times in a row. (I exaggerate, but only in the count; the feeling is accurate.) And once again, the Cats come Oh So Close — but no cigar. The offense that was once a Mumme Original is now just mum.

So, a season that started with so much promise is — what? On the brink? Just another Kentucky season? Or is there still a chance to have the kind of year that looked possible a few weeks ago?

Kentucky let two big ones get away. Two REALLY big ones. It should have gotten at least one of them. I hope they are mad about it. I hope they are not flaming mad, but seething mad. The kind of mad that leads to focused determination not to let that happen again. There are six games left, and at least four of them are winnable. (And yes, that includes Tennessee.) The Cats need to win against Arkansas and Bobby “Show Me the Money” Petrino. This is a big one they can’t let get away.

At Tennessee, the “F” in Football Stands for “Fail”

My son and his friends introduced me to the use of “fail” as a noun, as in “That was a giant Fail right there.” After today’s debacle in Athens, the image that comes to mind is an orange-and-white UT with a big red FAIL stamped over it.

One yard rushing? ONE YARD?!? This is a team that made “Pound the Rock!” its motto during its 1998 championship year. The only pounding going on this year is the sound of my head meeting the wall whenever I watch the offense.

And, let’s not forget the defense. Yes, they played some better — but only ONE PUNT for Georgia until the very end when it didn’t matter. In the fourth quarter, Georgia had a ten-minute drive; the defense just could not stop them.

Which leads us to the time of possession. Georgia had the ball over 40 minutes. 40 MINUTES! If they had wanted to, they probably could have run the ball the entire game and gotten the time of possession up around 45 minutes. I know — let’s just keep our offense at home and let Georgia have the ball for the entire game!

The ultimate irony is that this season is the tenth anniversary of the 1998 national championship season. As John Pennington points out on the GoVols site, 2002 was the beginning of the skid that has taken us to this sorry point. At that point, the players who had been recruited as part of the “Peyton Manning moment” graduated, and the team began the descent. We are now 2-4, and 0-3 in the SEC for the first time in 20 years. I think it is entirely possible that the Vols could lose all their remaining games, and that would actually be a good thing, because it would force the hand of the administration to fire the entire staff and start the rebuilding.

I don’t know the reasons for the decline — I’m not on the team or inside the institution. I’m just a fan. I think, though, that the time has come for change, including change at the top.

1 yard rushing, 1 punt forced, and less than 20 minutes of offense. That’s a Fail, any way you look at it.

Orange Pulp

For about two years, there has been an ongoing argument at the Go Vols web site about whether or not the Tennessee football program is in decline. After last Saturday’s victory over Northern Illinois (NORTHERN ILLINOIS!?!), the tone of that conversation has shifted.

As one commenter noted, almost no one still defends the “no slippage” position. In addition, the amount of cynicism, jokes about the team and the coaches, and gallows humor has increased rapidly in the past few weeks. When the comment boards on a Tennessee site sound like a Vandy site during a typical Vandy year, then you know the worm has turned.

Fulmer is trying to put a positive spin on things. They started a different quarterback, and he was able to tie his shoes, find the field, and run the same boring offense as his predecessor. Facing a team that a standard-issue Vols team would have beaten by 35 back in the day, this year’s offensive juggernaut managed a single touchdown — and that probably on a blown coverage by NIU. (NIU!?!)

For anyone to celebrate a 16-9 squeaker over a mid-major like Northern Illinois (NORTHERN ILLINOIS!?!) just points to how desperate the Vol leadership is for good news. The fans, the newspaper writers, and the commenters on the boards aren’t buying it.

I hope the Large Orange has some actual good news soon, like a win that means something. In the meantime, the Big Orange is rapidly becoming just a pile of Orange Pulp.

Uh-Oh — It’s Time for Cardinal Football

“It’s football time in … The Ville?”

(With apologies to John Ward of Volunteer fame)

As much as I fear the outcome, it’s time to start blogging about football … and that means it’s time to blog about U of L football. This fall, that looks like a cause for fear, hesitation, and trepidation, if there ever was one.

No one is giving the Kragmobile much chance of getting off the blocks this year. A few fans have predicted eight wins — truly evidence of a disconnect from reality. This ain’t Conference USA, folks. This is the Big East — no longer a laughing stock, but home to more than one team capable of making it to the NC game.

I’m going to begin the annual ritual of reading the preseason mags and trying to get a sense of what’s up in the great sport of college football. Just from what I’ve read so far, though, I’d say that when your AD says of this year and the next that he “just wants to get through them,” then you don’t have a lot to look forward to.

Hope I’m wrong. Hope Stevie K can turn it around. Hope the discipline problems are over, and the discipline on the field is back. Hope they win 10. Hope they go to a bowl.

But I’m prepared, as well, for all those hopes to be dashed.

Beat the Tigers! Then … Beat Them Again!

This coming Saturday, the team from K-ville has a chance to make history. They have a chance to win a 1-v-2 game for the first time in their history.

You’re probably thinking, What? The Lady Vols play 1-versus-2 games all the time — and they’re usually the 1. And you’d be right, except … we’re not talking about the Lady Vols.

That’s right — the MEN are ranked #2 for the first time in the school’s history, and Saturday they play the Memphis Tigers, currently the concensus #1 team in the land. Vols fans are giddy with excitement, not to mention speechless.

0219vols_t220.jpgFirst things first, though: the Vols play the Auburn Tigers on Wednesday, in a game that is key to their primary goal right now — winning the regular-season SEC banner. Coach Pearl is very focused on that goal, and hopes his team is too.

The Vols should beat Auburn without too much trouble, since it’s at home and Auburn is something like 3-10 in league play. Long-time Vol fans know, though, that in the past, this was a game you could count on the men to lose.

This team is different, because they play defense. Smothering, harassing, in-your-grill defense. Steals, deflections, full-court press, rebounds — they actually WORK at it, something many Vol teams in the past only mouthed about.

So, when the shots aren’t falling, they get it done by grinding on defense. And when the shots are falling, they look nearly unstoppable.

They still lack a strong-enough inside presence. Crews and Chism are good, but they are not amazing. A team with a strong inside game (read: Memphis) should give them problems.

How do they offset that? By never letting the ball into the middle. They do some great fronting, and they almost always rotate effectively. So, even when Chism should be getting schooled, they help out and keep the schooling to just a study hall or two.

Assuming the Vols get past the first set of Tigers, they will head to Memphis with the opportunity to do something no other Vol team has ever done — knock off a #1 team as the #2. It’s gonna be an amazing week. And if they pull off both wins — if they beat the Tigers, then beat the Tigers again — I may have to have my own little Big Orange party in The Ville.

Go Vols! 

Opposite Time in The Ville

Does anyone else feel like we’re living in a succession of Opposite Days here in The Ville, Greatest College Sports Town in America? Let’s take a look at all of them, beginning with Brian Brohm’s non-jump to the NFL.

Just a few years ago (circa John L days), if a Cardinal team had gone 12-1 and won a BCS bowl, not only would the star QB have gone pro — every person with any connection to the team at all would have tried to leverage the season into some sort of move upward. Why? Because everyone would have assumed it was a once-in-a-decade event, so you’d better get yours while the getting was good.

Football Opposite Days
The coach leaves, the star running back leaves — and yet, not only does the star QB stay, he stays amidst talk of Heismans and national championships. Next year. And people talk this way without either crossing their fingers or saying “just kidding.” The University of Louisville: legitimate national championship contender and Heisman producer. Imagine that statement, say, ten years ago.

Women’s Basketball
The Lady Cats and Lady Cards are kicking butt and taking names, and both are getting some notice. I knew when Mickey Demoss left Tennessee for UK that they would have a good-to-real good team in a few years. Didn’t know much about Tom Collen, but like all the rest of us I have almost shaman-like trust in Tom Jurich. So, I wasn’t surprised when the Lady Cards team went from good to pretty good as well.

But, would anyone have expected the following:

  • The women’s teams are ranked higher than the men’s.
  • The leading scorer in the Big East is a Lady Card. (This is the league, remember, that annually produces more NCAA bids than any other except the SEC, and is the home of UConn, among others.)
  • The women’s teams playing each other in Freedom Hall drew more than UK’s men’s team did the night before in the same Freedom Hall.

Men’s Basketball
This post is getting a little long, so let’s just cut to the chase.

  • UK’s men’s team is happy again about their ranking in the polls. What, did they finally move back into #1? No, they’re finally ranked at all. Do I think they may make some noise before the year is over? Yes, but there’s no doubt that right now there are at least four other teams in the SEC that strike more fear in their opponent than the Cats. Not only is the SEC no longer their playground, they can’t even count on the SEC East any more. (See: Florida and Tennessee, for starters.)
  • Then there is U of L. The men’s team lost their 12th straight to a ranked team. Before last night, I had hope that Pitino Ball was back. Last night looked like a bad night at Boston Garden. I don’t know what the real cause is, because I’m not on the team or in the practices. (And as just a fan, I’m not sure I’d know any more if I was there.) All I know is that when we say “U of L is a national championship contender” and we’re talking about football, or “leading scorer in the Big East” and we’re talking about women’s basketball, it’s definitely Opposite Time in The Ville.


OMG, What A Game!!

I have just watched what may be the best college football game of all time.

I am sitting here completely slack-jawed, having just watched Boise State (BOISE STATE!!) beat Oklahoma in overtime. For those of you who didn’t see any reason to stay up to watch the Boise State dream season die when it meets the reality of the big boys, jump to extended to see what you missed.

And I’m not kidding — this game has leaped right into the top ten of all time. OMG, what a game!

Everyone expected OK to pound Boise State into the non-blue sod of the Fiesta Bowl. Everyone, that is, except the Broncos from Boise State.

You can read the summary of the game in the paper, or online. Here in a bullet list are the reaons this is a “greatest game”:

  • Boise went up 14-0, then 21-10, and this game began to look like a rout, only opposite the way everyone thought. And it wasn’t trick plays, or smoke and mirrors; Boise was just beating OK in the fundamentals — you know, winning the line on both sides of the ball, executing your plays, playing great defense.
  • Then OK starts to come back. With two minutes to go, they’re down 8, so they need both a TD and a 2-point conversion. Calmly they move down the field, then they score on a tipped pass that was finally caught by their player.
  • If you know college football, then put OK and 2-point conversion together and the only logical answer is a running play. So, OK does the logical thing and throws a corner fade. It’s incomplete, BUT the Boise player is called for pass interference.
  • On the second 2-pt conversion try, it’s the same fade pass, and it’s complete! — BUT, OK is called for an illegal shift.
  • On the THIRD 2-pt conversion try, they pass again, and this time the OK QB finds his third-choice receiver and makes it. We’re tied, with about a minute left.
  • Boise gets the ball, and on the first (?) play their QB throws an interception that the OK player runs in for a TD. Oklahoma ahead by 7, less than a minute left, game over, right?
  • Boise gets the ball again, and proceeds to make a few first downs, then bog down. On 4th and 18, as the game is about to end and their dream is about to end with it, the Boise State coach (who was the offensive coordinator for six years, then became head coach this year) calls one of the most amazing plays of all time. They throw over the middle, and just as three OK players are about to tackle the Boise receiver, he laterals! OMG, it’s the hook-and-lateral play! It’s not a fluke — it’s obviously what they called, and it’s also obvious by the execution of it that they practice it regularly. They score! With 4 seconds left they kick the extra point, and we’re going to overtime!
  • In OT, the Oklahoma team scores on their first play, and again you get the feeling that this thing is coming to an end. The Boise State team runs some plays, makes one first down, but again they come down to a 4th and 2, and this is it.
  • Suddenly, the Boise State QB lines up as a receiver, and a receiver lines up to take the snap. Well, everyone in the place figures it’s a lateral out to the QB who’s going to throw it, so OK shifts that direction. NO! — the receiver-turned-QB rolls right and finds another receiver in the end zone! Touchdown, Boise State!
  • And then came the absolute topper. Boise decided to go for two and win it now, rather than play another overtime period. After all, as the announcer said, when you’re Cinderella or the little dog (choose your metaphor), you have to know when it’s time to put an end to the story or the fight. Boise State lines up, the QB throws a lateral to the right — NO!!! It’s the Statue of Liberty play! Even as he is faking the throw to the right, he palms the ball to the back who is running past behind him, and the back is ten yards closer to the end zone before anyone from OK figures out what is going on! He runs in untouched!! Boise State wins!!!
  • And if THAT wasn’t enough for you, here is the absolute cherry on the top: after the game, the TV reporter is interviewing the leading rusher for Boise State, who is excited but still humble, and seems to be a really classy guy. Then, as the interview ends, he says “Excuse me — I’ve got some business to take care of” or something like that, and then in front of national TV he gets on one knee and proposes to his girlfriend — who just happens to be the head cheerleader. It was a fitting ending to a truly Cinderella game.

There you have it: my vote for the best college football game this year. I’m leaving tomorrow morning to fly to Miami to cheer on the Cards in the Orange Bowl. I hope we win, and I hope it’s exciting and a great game — but I’m not sure anything can top the game I just saw. OMG, what a game!!

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Cliches Become Truth

One of my interests is sports — but only certain sports. College football, college basketball, pro football; that’s about it. As for team, that’s easy: Tennessee Tech (alma mater), Tennessee (grew up there), Louisville (live here), Kentucky (live here too). I follow Indiana to some extent, just because it’s close by.

So, today was pretty good. Louisville beat Cinci by 3 after being pummeled in the first half. It was a great game, and a great win. Indiana beat Purdue in double overtime, and that was a great game too.

Why do I love sports? These two games are examples. The teams didn’t give up, even though they were in difficult settings and difficult situations. Saying the teams didn’t give up really translates into a lot of individuals not giving up. Francisco Garcia, Louisville’s leading scorer, was heavily guarded and not getting his shots, so what did he do? Keep working hard, make assists, get rebounds, and make his teammates better through his attitude and support. The Indiana team should have won at the end of regulation, then again at the end of the first OT, but when they didn’t, they just sucked it up and won it in the second OT.

Why do I love sports? Individual effort, team effort, sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down, discipline, unselfishness — all the cliches that actually come true on occasion. This weekend, Louisville and IU turned the cliches into truth, and it was a joy to watch.