sports (2006-33)

And this year’s Vols will do OK because of it

Weakness is Relative

by Tony Basilio

The old country song lyric goes: “The future ain’t what it used to be.” As Tennessee gets ready to embark on another football season, this stands as not just another golden oldie, it’s the stone cold truth. Put this UT team on the field with its team from ’96, and they get hammered. Go back 15 years and this team gets beat three touchdowns. Go back even five years and they get drilled. If you don’t believe me, try comparing players.

How would you like to prepare for a team that features as its linebacking corps Al Wilson in the middle, flanked by Raynoch Thompson and Leonard Little? That was what UT threw on the field nine short years ago. That’s a game you’ve lost before you’ve even taken the field. Your only hope would’ve been not to get hurt. It’s no wonder UT was nearly invincible a decade ago. Florida, of course, served as kryptonite, thus keeping Phillip Fulmer from wearing the Big Orange “S.”

Let’s compare ’96 to ’06’s projected starting line-up.

The ’96 Vols started Dustin Moore at tight end. The ’06 Vols have Chris Brown. I’m taking Dustin Moore, baggage and all. In ’96 Trey Teague was the left tackle with Spencer Riley at left guard and Brent Gibson at center. This year’s group will look like this versus California: Arron Sears at left tackle, David Ligon at left guard and Josh McNeil at center. I’m taking the ’96 line in a fairly easy clean sweep. In ’96, Robert Poole was the right guard while Chad Clifton held down the right tackle. Their ’06 counterparts are Anthony Parker at right guard and Eric Young at right tackle. Yeah, it’s a near  sweep on the offensive line, though I may concede Arron Sears over Trey Teague just to let the current Vols on the board.

The offensive line aside, the skill positions are where you’ll see the greatest disparity between the present and past. In ’96, Tennessee’s skill people looked like this: WR Marcus Nash, flanker Joey Kent, quarterback Peyton Manning, fullback Chester Ford and tailback Jay Graham. That’s pretty strong. Especially juxtaposed with the ’06 offering of WR Bret Smith, WR Robert Meachem, quarterback Erik Ainge, fullback Cory Anderson and RB Arian Foster. From the ’06 group, I might (and stress might ) give a nod to Cory Anderson over Chester Ford. Heck, let’s throw the local boy a bone. So, in review, there are two players from this year’s projected starters on offense who could’ve started for the ’96 Vols. At most positions, it’s not even comparable when looking at the talent.

On the other side of the ball, the ’96 defensive line looked like this: DE Leonard Little, DT Bill Duff, DT Ron Green, DE Jonathan Brown. Little and Brown are two of the finest ends in UT history so the ’06 squad better bring it. Here they are across the front: DE Antonio Reynolds, DT Turk McBride, DT Justin Harrell, DE Robert Ayers. Out of that group, ’96 is superior in three of the four slots. While Ayers and Reynolds are talented, they’re not in the class of Little and Brown. Harrell and McBride get the nod over Ron Green and Bill Duff. A respectable 2-2 tie in those two positions.

The linebacking corps in ’96 featured Al Wilson outside (Why wasn’t he in the middle?) with Tyrone Hines in the middle and Craig King on the weak side. The ’06 offering includes Ryan Karl on the outside, Marvin Mitchell in the middle and Jerod Mayo at weakside. Mayo may get the duke over King, but that’s it. The ’96 team wins here either 3-0 or at least 2-1. I’ll be kind since I feel good about the upcoming season and give ’96 a 2-1 win here.

In the secondary, ’96 featured Raymond Austin at one corner opposite Terry Fair, while the strong safety was Tori Noel and Jason Parker was at free safety. In ’06, Jonathan Wade and Inky Johnson project at the corners with Jon Hefney and Antwan Stewart at the safeties. Austin and Fair easily beat Wade and Johnson. All day, every day. I’ll take Hefney over Noel and Parker over Stewart. So, ’06 wins this one 3-1.

Out of 22 starting positions, six players from this year’s squad could’ve started at their school 10 years ago. You could argue all day that guys run faster and are stronger than they used to be. You can’t make the case, though, that they’re better, at least not at UT. This isn’t meant as a downer since I’m calling for a 10-2 season in Rocky Top. You see, weakness is relative. The Florida team from 10 years ago would throttle its current squad, while it would be interesting to watch Georgia’s current club try and defend Eric Zeier and Hines Ward. In other words, the Vols are weaker, but so is the rest of the East. For that matter, so is the rest of the league. Go Vols go. Just don’t go back to ’96. That is unless you want to get beat by four touchdowns!

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