This year's offense has seesawed between mediocre and pathetic. During Satruday's debacle against Georgia, my seatmate and I figured that Tennessee has failed to score in 9 out of the 20 quarters of football it has played this season [I don't count that "last minute" touchdown referred to in the link's headline; we scored with no time left to make the score 27-14 -- it was meaningless]. While I have seen [very] poor Tennessee offenses before, never have I seen such poor performance after everyone, from the head coach down the line, told us how fabulous this team was going to be. It's no one player; it's a comprehensive offensive problem.
I refuse to believe it's the level of talent. Tennessee consistently recruits top classes. As a general assumption, it's fair to say that Tennessee's talent level rivals any other program in the NCAA.
If that is the case, then the reason for the poor play comes down to one of two things: either the outstanding prospects are simply and collectively not as good as everone thought, or those outstanding prospects are not being developed into the top college football players they could be. My vote, for several years, has been the latter.
Casey Clausen, who was a starter most of his Tennessee career, had stats almost as good as Peyton Manning's. Where's Casey these days? Graduate assistant for some SEC school. He never achieved the way Manning did because he wasn't developed as well as Manning. David Cutcliffe brought along Peyton, as wel as Eli, both successful college and NFL quarterbacks. Who developed Clausen? Randy Sanders.
In every year since 1999, the year Sanders became Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach, the Tennessee's offensive output has either gone down, or at the very least, has never reached the levels of previous teams, including the 1998 National Championship squad. While the defense under John Chavis has consistently excelled, the offense has sputtered, or fallen apart [see Florida game in 2002].
I was the first person to laud Sanders after his magnificent work in the 2004 campaign. He got two completely green quarterbacks ready to play, he got the third-stringer ready when both the first two went out with injuries, and he was able to construct an offensive line game after game, from a group that had been decimated with injuries. He should have been named the assistant coach of the year. Alas, it appears that Sanders's performance in 2004 was the exception to the rule.
Player preparation is weak. Offensive lineman are not opening holes or moving the pile to allow the running game to breathe. Receivers are dropping the ball more than I can remember in the last 16 years. The offense is consistently plagued with penalties that reflect a lack of coaching and a lack of discipline. As I said over and over again during last Saturday's game, "it's one step forward, two steps back."
The play-calling is adequate, but there are definitely times when the opposing defense has known what we're going to run, before our offense does. We are consistently told that we have a tremendously sophisticated playbook, but I seem to see the same 20 or so plays every game. If we've got it, why aren't we using it?
The bottom line is that, seven years after our shining National Championship, Tennessee football has become average. The players have lost that edge, that innate ability to do whatever is necessary to win the game that top rank teams have. Seven years ago, we would have roared back to beat Georgia, the way USC has been coming from behind to beat teams this season. Unfortunately, Tennessee is no longer in USC's league.
We need to shake things up in the Tennessee program. If that means making a change in Offensive Coordinator, so be it. I'm open to suggestions.