Jump to content

Vols trying to erase nightmare 2005 season

DKW 86

Recommended Posts


How much motivation do they have?

Vols trying to erase nightmare 2005 season


Advocate sportswriter

Published: Jul 28, 2006

HOOVER, Ala. — Unaccustomed as he had become to spending Christmas home in Martin, Tenn., Justin Harrell looked forward to spending the holidays with family and friends.

Then he ended up answering more questions than opening presents.

The Grinch didn’t just steal Christmas. He stole Tennessee’s winning tradition, and left the Volunteers with a 5-6 record and no bowl trophy to serve as a stocking stuffer.

“It was definitely rough,” said Harrell, a senior defensive tackle. “We had a lot of down time to think about the season. Tennessee is not used to being at home. I watched some of those early bowl games and the BCS games and I just got aggravated.”

After a tense 17-10 win over UAB and a disheartening 16-7 loss to archrival Florida, the Vols thought their season had turned around the night they left Baton Rouge with a 30-27 overtime victory over LSU.

In a game that left Tiger fans with serious doubts about new coach Les Miles, the Vols had little doubt they were on their way to typical Tennessee glory after coming back from a nearly insurmountable 21-0 halftime deficit.

“LSU was a big game,” senior offensive tackle Aaron Sears said. “I thought it changed our season.

“But bad things continued to happen.”

After beating Ole Miss 27-10 the next week, the Volunteers dropped four of their next five, including a 16-15 loss to South Carolina that was the Gamecocks’ first win in Knoxville in 13 tries.

“It seemed every time we were driving about to get back on track we’d have a fumble or an interception,” Sears said.

Then, Rocky Top truly hit rock bottom. Trailing Tennessee 24-21, Vanderbilt rallied in the closing moments to win 28-24 on a 5-yard Jay Cutler to Earl Bennett touchdown pass with 1:11 remaining. The loss snapped Tennessee’s 22-year reign over the Commodores.

Predicted to be a top-10 team going into the season, the Volunteers instead finished with their first losing season since 1988.

“Tennessee is not used to being 5-6,” Harrell said. “We’re trying to erase it.”

Was it a question of talent? Toughness? Or just the bad breaks beating a good team into submission, Clint Stoerner’s fumble for Arkansas that paved the way to the Vols’ 1998 national title finally coming back to even the score.

“In this league, a few plays will make the difference in a season,” Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. “In the past we made those plays. Last season we gave up those plays — or didn’t make them.”

Going into this season, Tennessee will try to recapture the success, rekindle the winning ways that turned the Volunteers into a national power and the SEC’s winningest team over the last two decades.

But few are expecting the return of championships overnight. Only one of eight major preseason polls pick the Vols to win the SEC Eastern Division, as they have four times since 1997. Barring a major upset, Tennessee won’t be picked to win the SEC East when the poll of attending media is released today.

“I’ve always looked at myself by nature as an optimist,” said Fulmer, who has come under withering criticism despite the national championship and two SEC titles on his resume.

“I’m also, I think, certainly a realist. I do realize that we have a number of challenges with this team.”

The first challenge was retooling an offense that had grown stagnant under former play caller Randy Sanders, ranking 10th in the 12-team SEC in scoring and eighth in total yardage.

David Cutcliffe, who coached six seasons at Ole Miss and missed last season after taking a job at Notre Dame in 2005, then leaving because of health reasons, is back with Tennessee.

Cutcliffe orchestrated the Tennessee offenses of Peyton Manning, Tee Martin and Heath Shuler from 1982-98, and now tries to beef up an attack led by junior Erik Ainge.

“David is, obviously with the track record he’s had, the finest quarterback coach that I’ve ever been around,” Fulmer said. “He has a real calming effect with (the quarterbacks), knows when to pull the triggers and what to ask them to do.”

The second challenge is on defense. Harrell is the only starter who returns on the front seven, though the Vols’ remain one of the SEC’s most talented teams.

“We had a lot of talent last year,” Harrell said. “This year we have a lot of young guys who haven’t been used to being in starting roles.”

Tennessee will get a stern test right away. The Vols open the season Sept. 2 against California, which will likely be ranked in the top 10 and is an early favorite to beat Tennessee on its home field.

“It’s good to play Cal early,” Sears said. “They’re ranked high and it’ll be a chance for us to check ourselves out and see how good we really are.”

Or aren’t. After last season, no one is exactly sure if the Volunteers will give themselves the gift of another bowl trip — or be back home for the holidays answering questions.


Link to comment
Share on other sites


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Create New...