Friday, January 09, 2004

On the brighter side, it looks like Tennessee may have a basketball team this year. These guys, who are playing ball with each other for the first time, look like they're veterans. And, they beat Georgia handily. Georgia just recently beat the number 3 team in the country, Georgia Tech.

The $64 question is whether the B-Ball Vols can play consistently as well against what must be one of the toughest conference schedules ever: Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, etc. Whew.

Stay tuned.
As anyone who knows me will confirm, I am a big Tennessee football fan. I'm the one who caught the Flu -- and then pneumonia -- because I had to sit in the rain to see Tennessee whip Ohio State in the 1996 Citrus Bowl [driving rain that day, ugh]. I'm the one who has sat through the losses and the wins since 1970. I have been to the top of the mountain, and to the depths of the valley with my Volunteers. Being something of a student of this team through the years, I feel mildly qualified to comment on the team's status now, with the 2003 campaign ending not like a lion, but like a lamb.

The uninitiated must understand that most Tennessee fans are (a) educated as to the game, (b) vociferous in their desire to achieve the pinnacle of college football, and (c) not afraid to let anyone know what they think. I'm like that. So it will come as no shock to learn that I am, to say the least, dissatisfied with where the football program is, and has been, since we achieved the ultimate [national championship] in 1998. Evidence of unacceptable results from the 2003 season is found here , here, and here, as well as the "flop" in the Peach Bowl last week, linked above. Even when we did win, it felt like we lost. Evidence: needing overtime to beat an eventual 5-7 South Carolina, or 5 overtimes to beat an outmanned and outmatched 4-9 Alabama.

OFFENSE: our offensive production has declined every year since the 1998 season. The offense often doesn't know who's supposed to be on the field at a given moment. Penalties are endemic. We are not playing our best personnel. Playcalling is predictable and stale. We appear to be afraid to throw the ball downfield, between the zone. Execution is glaringly inconsistent. In the past, when we had a good play, we, well, expected it. Now, when we have a good play, we breathe a sigh of relief because a minor miracle has occurred to allow us the good fortune. We no longer know inherently how to do what it takes to win. If we get behind, we more often than not lose the game. If we get several touchdowns behind, as against Georgia, we quit. And anybody who sat through the debacle of the Tennessee-Georgia second half knows that I do not overstate the case. In fact, I read published reports from the coaches that they in fact intentionally quit, so as not to get players injured [I couldn't find links]. What message does that send your players, when the COACHES give it up -- and admit it -- with a quarter and a half remaining in the game?

I refuse to believe, as the pundits will declare, that these shortcomings are a result of a lack of talent. Aside from last year's class, Tennessee has had top 5 recruiting classes every year at least over the last 7 or 8 years. I make the assumption therefore that our talent is at least as good as any other top program in the country. It is at least as good as USC's or LSU's talent.

If our lack of success is not as a result of lack of raw talent, then where does the blame lay? I refuse to blame the players, who have come here to learn how to win at the highest level. The blame must fall at the feet of the coaches, who have taken the Manning years, and the record-setting Tee Martin offense, and run it into the ground, through lack of player development, lack of adequate preparation lack of creative game planning, lack of motivation to execute, and ultimately, lack of success at the only goal meaningful: the winning of championships. Let's look just at a couple of offensive areas as examples.

Quarterback: Casey Clausen should have been a Heisman candidate -- or at least Maxwell Trophy. He's got the talent and the intelligence to have exceeded even Peyton Manning at the quarterback position. Why did he not? He wasn't developed properly. I truly believe that if Clausen had been brough along by David Cutcliffe instead of Randy Sanders, Clausen would have broken all the reocrds in the book, and would be a top round draft pick for the NFL. As it is, it will be lucky if he gets drafted at all.

Instead of decrying Clausen's lack of development by his coach [Randy Sanders], the pundits started making up statistics to make him look good, like the one early this season when it was crowed that Clausen was undefeated in regular season games on the road. Never heard that one before. Anyway, it didn't last, because we promptly lost at Auburn, despite Clausen's heroic effort. It was a stupid statistic, especially in light of our embarassment in the 2001 SEC championship to LSU, and expecially in the 2003 Peach Bowl loss to Maryland, 30-3.

Offensive Line: Tennessee has long been known as a team that turns out top offensive linemen by the bushel. Phillip Fulmer is a linemen and former line coach. We have top blue chip talent in the offensive line. Why then can't those guys make a hole for a running game? Answer: coaching. The offensive coaches took outstanding potential, and turned out mediocre linemen. Replacing the offensive line coach after the 2002 season did little or no good; we had less than 50 yards rushing in the last game.

Of course, one has to consider the running backs, as well. We are loaded with talent, with Cedric Houston, Jabari Davis [who clearly gained a step in 2003], Gerald Riggs, Corey Larkins and Derek Tinsley. Each has a different style, and none was successful rushing the football this year. Why? Neither they nor their linemen have been developed to pay at the high level demanded of them by the Tennessee football community. It's not their fault; it's the coaches' fault.

Does anyone honestly believe Jay Graham was such a better back than these kids currently on the roster. I don't. I thought Graham, who played in the mid 1990s, was a fine back, but he benefited from better training as a running back, as well as his linemen being better trained. Remember, we're the team that, in the 1996 Citrus Bowl, made Graham the showcase back, instead of an outplayed Eddie George. Fast forward to January 2, 2004, when the unknown backs from the unranked Clemson looked like stars, while our running backs looked like wimps. What's the difference? Coaching.

DEFENSE: I don't comment a lot on defense, because I think John Chavis is one of the best 5 defensive coordinators in football today. I have for years had a problem with our philosophy of secondary coverage, which emphasizes playing off the receiver instead of looking for the ball. This style of play probably explains why Tennessee does not intercept the ball more often.

In general, however, the defense over the last several years has made more with less than any defense I can remember. Especially 2002. That year, the defense literally was decimated with injuries. Yet, if you take away opponents' scores caused by offensive miscues, and look solely at scores allowed by the defense, I believe the Tennessee defense led the nation in least amount of points scored. Game in and game out, the defense plays well enough for us to win; it's the offense that blows it. A notable execption is the win at Miami this season, 10-6. Again, offensive production was minimal, but the defense played its heart out, and held the 'Canes to only two field goals. Essentially, we won in spite of our offense, and because of our defense.

So what's answer? Obviously -- at least to this observer -- a revamping of the offensive coaching staff is in order, nay, desperately needed. Sure, we went 10-3 this year, but so what? We did not compete for any championship, and had we played LSU -- a team in disarray four years ago -- we would probably have gotten spanked but good. Let's face it: most of us breathed a sigh of relief when we didn't have to play in the SEC Chamionship. Our talent is still outstanding, but other teams are improving in their talent -- and more to the point, in their coaching. See for example what Georgia has done with Mark Richt, and of course national champion LSU under Nick Saban.

At the end of the 2002 season, I said that Phillip Fulmer was not at risk in his job, If he took fundamental steps to fix the ongoing problems on offense. He failed to do so, and having suffered through another boring, mediocre, and unsatisfying Tennessee football season, I have to now say that another season without seeing the improvements in coaching, preparation, motivation, execution, and ultimately contending for a championship will very possibly mean his job will be on the line in Knoxville.

How far the mighty have fallen. . . .
The Administration wants to go back to the Moon. That's good. Apparently, however, the Administration, in doing so, will at least temporarily eliminate our manned space flight capability, end investment in the space station, keep the project controlled completely in-house through NASA, and use an Apollo Plus methadology in doing so. That strikes me as very, very bad.

Consider the difficulties in getting federal appropriations for such an increased effort, in light of the ongoing problems funding the space station, and the consistent lowering of the NASA budget. Why would we cut off our nose to spite our face by leaving the space station out in the cold, when it could be a Moon/Mars staging point. Also, the current NASA ethic strikes me as incompatible with the spirit of exploration ncessary for this concept, which is literally the "Wagon Train to the Stars" idea. Furthermore, to make such a massive effort workable, it seems to me that business and industry, i.e., the private players, have to have an incentive to invest in the effort; there's just not enough government money available, and the national mindset may not be as supportive of a Moon shot now as it was 40 years ago (race to space, beat the Russians, and so forth). Many decades ago, Robert Heinlein wrote about "The Man Who Sold the Moon." If manned space exploration is to succeed on any kind of reasonable basis, we must sell it as a society to our society, and not as another insular government agency raison d'etre.

Is this initiative the Administration's way to get NASA's juices flowing again? If so, it's like going to England to get to California: taking the wrong direction.

(Thanks to Instapundit and Rand Simberg)