November 03, 2008
How does one of the winningest major college coaches in history go from this:
... to this?
Answer: very slowly:
This is like one of those charts of a drug's effect on the brain over time -- high, then low, then not quite as high, then a little lower, then not quite as high, etc. Fulmer was very good at pulling out quasi-shocking seasons, even after the 1998 championship run -- the Vols' East Division titles in 2001, 2004 and 2007 were all surprises, and that's really the problem: while UT has continued to peak over the last ten years, those peaks haven't been as high, while the valleys have become more frequent and more depressing. Since '99, Tennessee's been favored to win the SEC East -- not the conference, just the division -- only once, in 2005, the year it collapsed and missed a bowl game (uh, the first year it collapsed and missed a bowl game). Year to year, it seems like there's not much consistency either way, but the overall trend since '98 is progressively, steadily down.
Why? Recruiting? Fulmer's classes followed essentially the same on-again/off-again pattern over the last six years, from highs in 2002 (best in the SEC by Rivals), 2004 (No. 4 in the SEC), 2005 (No. 1) and 2007 (No. 2) to lows in 2003 (No. 7), 2006 (also No. 7) and last year (No. 8). And the feted 2005 class, as minutely detailed last Friday by the Knoxville News-Sentinel, has been a bust compared to its advanced billing, leaving the ship in inordinately young hands.
That may or may not explain the near-total failure of the offense this year, which seems to hinge more than anything else on the problems at quarterback, which may or may not be tied to longtime guru David Cutcliffe's exit to Duke after successful stints at UT with Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning, Tee Martin and Erik Ainge. But overall, it seems like as good an explanation as any past, "They just lost it" -- when you're competing against the beasts assembled by Urban Meyer and Mark Richt in the division, and the Saban/Miles monster at LSU, with Tommy Tuberville and now Saban putting up giant border fences around Alabama, more than one subpar year in any three or four-year period can set the entire program back. And losing to UCLA ... that just makes no sense.