sports (2006-46)

The art of predictably unpredictable football

Sneaky Vols

by Tony Basilio

Can’t you see the title now of the latest from Host Communications “Vols on Video”? 2006, The Year of the Sneaky Vols . Two straight losses mean that Tennessee’s once-promising season is up in smoke.

A fatal quarterback sneak late in the South Carolina game put quarterback Erik Ainge out of commission and Tennessee out of the Top 20. All of the sudden an apparent 10-2 season could devolve into an 8-4. Not good news for a team coming off a 5-6 season.

Tennessee started the season by sneaking up on Top 5 Cal. Playing its most complete game of the century, the Vols were so dominant that they actually pulled off the gas early in the second half. It was a surprisingly strong win for a team coming off a losing season and a less than stellar spring and summer.

Tennessee hosted Florida in week three for pole position on a trip to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game at stake. The Vols, behind a terrific game plan on both sides of the ball and equally deft execution, worked their way to a 10-point second-half lead before succumbing to Chris Leak and the Gators. It was a night the Sneaky Vols saw the tables turned as true freshman Gator hotshot QB Tim Tebow was the one doing the sneaking. Tebow was unstoppable much of the night, sneaking seven times without throwing a pass. Tennessee snuck up on the more talented Gators, but the Gators ultimately snuck out of Knoxville with a one-point win. It was a night that would haunt Tennessee for the rest of the season, leaving its fan base wondering, “What if?”

Especially after Tennessee (4-1) went on the road and pummeled No. 8 Georgia. It looked like a long night at first as the Dogs rolled to an early 24-7 lead. Then the Vols snuck in a late second-quarter touchdown and hung 51 on the Dogs between the hedges. Ainge was 25-38 for 268 yards and two TDs passing. He even scored on a sneak in the 51-33 win at Athens! It doesn’t get any better than that!

At the year’s midway point, Tennessee bore the distinction of being perhaps the nation’s best one-loss team and at least the SEC’s top team with only one blemish. Erik Ainge was being recognized as the comeback player of the year at the helm of one of America’s top five passing games. Robert Meachem had snuck up on the college football world as he started to realize his tremendous potential. Peyton Manning’s seemingly unbreakable single season records that he threw up in 1997 were now in sight. The Vols, despite a running game that was anemic at best, were an offensive force to be reckoned with. Heading into the Alabama game with a 5-1 record, Tennessee was under the command of a quarterback who led the SEC in passing yards per game (276), pass efficiency rating and total yards per game. The Vols were rolling!

Ainge’s legend actually grew in a substandard passing effort against ’Bama. This after he snuck up on Tide defensive back Simeon Castille during an interception return to record a late game tackle at the Tennessee eight-yard line. Castille was shocked that Ainge didn’t quit on the play despite throwing his third pick of the game. Ainge was rewarded for the hustle play as the Tide was forced to settle for a field goal in a game that it ultimately lost 16-13.

Then came the Pyrrhic victory at Columbia. It was great beating Spurrier, but you wonder if the Vols got too cutesy with the play calling. Why do you run a quarterback sneak from the 10-yard line with a guy who doesn’t run well? It was, in a word, silly. Yeah. The Vols won the battle to improve to 7-1, but were in the process of losing the war.

Ainge was able to start the LSU game, but not finish. The inability to run the football, which was covered up in wins over Georgia and Alabama, became a factor, as LSU used a huge edge in time of possession to wear down the Vols and sneak up on Tennessee in the fourth quarter with a couple of late scores to win. For the second time, Tennessee blew a 10-point second-half lead in a loss. Tennessee’s record in this century fell to 1-8 versus nationally ranked opponents in Neyland Stadium.

With Ainge unable to go in the Arkansas game, and Tennessee unable to run the ball, Tennessee was stifled by an Arkansas team harboring BCS title game hopes. Gus Malzahn, the Hogs’ new offensive coordinator, creatively used tailback Darren McFadden under center for sneaks that confounded the reeling Vols. Malzahn’s story is a sneaky one in his own right, as he was coaching high-school football last year in Arkansas and had never coached college ball before this year. Perhaps the sycophants in the media will quit lionizing college coaching like it’s brain surgery. As Malzahn is proving, it’s not.

Tennessee needs to avoid losing to either Kentucky or Vandy in its final two games. Failure to do so will mean that the Vols all of the sudden finish 8-4. Alas, Father Time may be sneaking up on this Tennessee coaching regime after all.

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