October 11, 2008

Ignore calendar; season's over

ATHENS, Ga. -- Whatever the reason, Georgia waited two weeks.

And while the Bulldogs failed miserably in their scheduled "blackout" against Alabama last month inside Sanford Stadium, they blighted what remained of Tennessee's season Saturday in Athens, Ga., when they leisurely walked the Vols, 26-14. In essence, a sold-out crowd of 92,746 in a stadium that proudly inters its Bulldog mascots in an end zone mausoleum watched the home team inter UT's 2008 campaign.

The schedule reflects that Tennessee gets six more football games, but reality smacks you with the knowledge that the Volunteers' season is over. For a program that vows to compete for championships, none is left to be had. No one from the East has ever advanced to Atlanta with three losses; no one believes this team is done losing.

Here, before the midpoint of October, Tennessee has its fourth loss at the earliest date in two decades -- when on this same weekend the Vols were getting flooded by Alabama in dropping to 0-6 in 1988.

So the orange-tinted optimist might point toward another six-pack of games, previous rallies in 1994, 2000 and even last year as reasons why Tennessee can bounce back. The pragmatist notes UT is on pace for the program's first-ever eight-loss season.

And there's a swelling discontentment with a program in the midst of stretching its championship drought to a decade at season's end.

"It's like I told them. You're going to get everybody in the world is going to talk about me, going to talk about our staff, going to talk about themselves and what kind of backbone they've got," embattled head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "Look them in the eye and say, 'I'm not quitting.' And everybody around there say, 'Who's going to stand up?' They've got to go on campus, they're going to be out and about and they better be able to look people in the eye and say 'I did my best.' That's the staff, that's me and that's everybody else.

"You stay in this business long enough, you have ups and downs and you look at history. I think this was my 200th (actually 198th) game that we've played, and we've won a lot more than we've lost. And I've been disappointed in every one we lost. I felt like this. I'm not going to do anything but keep fighting."

The fight is for the future, and history affirms as much. The offense -- replete with veterans -- is regressing, which also suggests a look to the future may be more in order. What started with Nick Stephens' insertion into the starting lineup at quarterback last week should continue with increased roles for several more youngsters. Consider: Stephens hit savvy sophomore Gerald Jones for 25 yards on the first play from scrimmage. Tennessee's next nine offensive plays went for minus-5 yards net.

"Well, certainly by the numbers it is" backtracking, first-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said of the Vols' ground game. "We just never developed any consistency with it, and never ever really got any, I felt, good push. And then we fell behind, we had no reason to feel we were going to get back into the game running the football."

By game's end, the Vols could count just 1 net yard rushing. Georgia, meanwhile, basked in a dominance borne everywhere but the scoreboard. The Bulldogs snapped off 81 plays to the Vols' 45; they controlled the clock for 42 minutes, 4 seconds; converted 9 of 17 third downs.

What isn't reflected in the statistical domination is Tennessee's contributions to the Bulldogs' muddled offensive success. The Sherman-like march Georgia engineered across 97 yards of easily attainable UT real estate just before half -- the one Fulmer said "absolutely killed us" after the gap had been whittled to 13-7 -- was aided by two of the Vols' four personal foul penalties. Those were committed by the Vols' senior punter, Britton Colquitt, senior defensive back, DeAngelo Willingham, fourth-year junior safety, Demetrice Morley and elder sophomore Gerald Williams.

So it wasn't youth. Or inexperience, save for Williams. It was an overall lack of discipline. It was, right now, Tennessee football.

"If you get a personal foul penalty, that's usually a loss of composure, yes," Fulmer said. "I think the frustration from the season showing through, misguided being competitive versus being stupid, you know. That's part of it."

The frustration, at least, is understandable. The Vols have lost four games; they'll be expected to lose more. And this season, well, it's over.

But don't take my word for it. Talk of the future already emanated from UT's dejected locker room post-game.

"If they are anything like me, they are very frustrated right now," Jones said of a punchless offense that now has scored six touchdowns in four games against BCS-level competition. "I don't know which way to turn. I am at a loss for words. I don't know what to do.

"It's very frustrating, but we just have to keep playing. And we just have to keep getting better for next year."

Because next year is a new season. This one's over.

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