by Tony Basilio
Forget the Bird Flu. We had our own malady infesting Rocky Top. It wasn’t just a random outbreak but was verging on a pandemic. Those in the medical community referred to it by the acronym “RS.” Its symptoms were numerous and confounding. A near fatal disease, RS was accompanied by shaky behavior in pressure situations, along with failure to heed instruction. RS also caused the most talented of citizens to woefully underachieve. Make no mistake, the question wasn’t if, but when RS would’ve struck on a larger scale.
RS was first called into public consciousness by Nashville-based sports talk show host Bill King back in the fall of ’00. “It became apparent several years ago that RS was a disaster at UT waiting to happen,” King said. In fact, King was even the first to use the label RS for this malady. “Yeah, last year we decided not to say the name on the air. It’s too painful for so many, to say the full name, so RS suffices,” King added.
Tennessee’s bout with RS has the Vols’ season on life support. Phillip Fulmer, in the wake of the embarrassing loss to South Carolina, has hopefully found the cure for RS. The remedy for the rest of the season on offense is for Fulmer himself to call the plays. Still, tough decisions remain. Many Vol faithful are calling for the coach to pull the plug on the entire UT offensive staff. One thing is certain. Putting Tennessee’s crushing ’05 fortunes entirely at the feet of RS is misplaced.
Anyone paying attention to the trends could’ve seen this coming. With top-10 recruiting classes year after year, the Randy Sanders edition of Phillip Fulmer’s offense wobbled between wretched and sub-standard.
For Sanders’ term as offensive coordinator, the numbers didn’t lie. His most talented group was his first club in ’99. With the likes of Travis Henry, Jamal Lewis, Tee Martin, Cedrick Wilson and David Martin, the first outbreak of RS meant a UT mark of 33rd nationally in total offense while tying for 20th in scoring offense. Those are acceptable numbers. He seemed off to a decent start.
From ’99 through the present, Tennessee is 6-12 versus top-10 teams. In Neyland Stadium, the mark is an alarming 0-6 versus Top-10 teams in the Sanders era.
It is, after all, about winning on Saturdays but, in a sense, it comes down to scoring. Putting points on the board breeds winning. This is especially the case in red-letter games vs. superior competition.
In 2000, Tennessee suffered a killer home loss to Florida on its way to a 57th rank in total offense and a 19th-place finish in scoring offense. Being 19th in scoring offense is five times better than the current group of Vols who found themselves 105th in total offense going into the South Carolina game. The numbers are worse in the SC aftermath.
UT’s bout with RS brought some blessings. Take Florida in ’01. That’s when a 17-point underdog Volunteer team went to Florida in early December and upset Florida in Steve Spurrier’s final home game in the Swamp.
RS also infected Kelley “The Future” Washington in ’02. The great prophet Ronnie Milsap encapsulated that disaster when he proclaimed it in “The Future is Not What It Used To Be.” That was apparent as Tennessee limped to an 85th-place stead in total offense with an equally abysmal 86th place in scoring offense.
In ’03 the Vols improved offensively to 67th in total offense and 45th in scoring offense. But, 67th out of 114 Division 1-A teams only works when you have Tennessee’s ’05 defense. This is accomplishing just below the bare minimum at a place that recruits to the level of Tennessee.
Fourteen months ago we were celebrating Phillip Fulmer’s gutsy decision to roll with two freshmen quarterbacks. When Brent Schaeffer started in the UNLV game in ’04 he became the first true freshman starter in SEC history. Some 400 days later, all that’s left from the life of that celebration of the rebirth of UT’s offensive prowess is an RS-stricken Erik Ainge.
Tennessee finished last year ranked 35th in total offense and 39th in national scoring: Rick Clausen was flawless in garnering Cotton Bowl MVP honors. Little did we know last January in Dallas that the disease was already mutating.
RS seems to have permeated even UT’s special teams, which are in the bottom third in the country. When you’re 94th in total offense and 105th in scoring offense midway through what was masquerading as a national championship pre-season, it is on the verge of becoming a plague.
As of this writing, Randy Sanders has tendered his resignation. He will leave the staff at year’s end. Though he was a failure as a coordinator, Sanders belongs on Tennessee’s staff.
There is comforting news for the masses. Phillip Fulmer must bring in an offensive mind and relinquish control of the offensive reins. Failure to acquire fresh blood offensively (David Cutcliffe is not enough) will spell doom much worse than what RS wrought. It will also assure that Tennessee’s next trip to Atlanta will be in a Peach Bowl.
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