Instant Analysis - Oct. 31
Tennessee 31 ... South Carolina 13
Remember where Tennessee was last year at this time. Heck, remember where Tennessee was in a 19-15 loss to UCLA on September 12th. This was a punchless team with little production from the passing game in what appeared to be a rebuilding and adjusting year before Lane Kiffin could truly sink his teeth into the program. But along the way, Kiffin showed he could coach a little bit (even with the issues at the end of the Alabama loss), the defense stayed strong, and now, the Vols look like they have something special happening going forward.
The key over the final four games, and a bowl, will be to find some consistency. If the Vols are good enough to come within a blocked kick of beating Alabama, and were able to blow out South Carolina, then they need to roll through Memphis, at Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and at Kentucky. Kiffin is getting the pieces in place that he needs to make the offense truly hum, and if the last few weeks are any indication, watch out. The Mouth from the South might have a national title juggernaut brewing.
You want to figure out which Tennessee team is going to show up on a given weekend? Find a way into Vol QB Jonathan Crompton's head.
Throughout the season, as Crompton goes, so go the Volunteers. It's really been that simple. He's the one variable on a program that's been able to run the ball with Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown, and has been consistently terrific on defense. Just look at the numbers for proof; when Crompton has thrown for more touchdowns than interceptions in a game, Tennessee is 4-1. When he comes up short, UT is 0-3.
Saturday's pivotal win over South Carolina was yet another example of Crompton's importance to what Lane Kiffin is trying to build in his first season in Knoxville. The defense was oppressive and Hardesty and Brown combined for 180 yards and two scores on the ground, but it was the senior quarterback who helped tipped the scales in the Volunteers' favor. He had an efficient evening, throwing two touchdown passes without a turnover, helping keep his team in the hunt for a return to the postseason.
1) Proving that last week's strong, sturdy, tough and tenacious performance against Alabama wasn't just a one-game rivalry-based aberration; Tennessee showed polish and precision in the first 25 minutes on offense. Lane Kiffin did a superb job preparing his team for this game, and with this backyard win against a native son of Tennessee, Steve Spurrier, the Vols' head coach stands to win a lot more recruiting battles in the coming years. This win will carry some mileage for a program that's definitely on the way back to prominence.
2) Gee, it's the "Orange Section" back end of a South Carolina season schedule. We've seen this movie before in the Palmetto State. Could one say more? Possibly. Does one need to say more about the Gamecocks? Nope. It will take at least another year for this program to stitch together a stellar season that doesn't endure extreme fluctuations of quality and performance.
We may be getting ahead of ourselves here, but it would appear as if Lane Kiffin has something going on in Knoxville – finally. Saturday's win over what had been a stout, albeit hardly overwhelming, Ball Coached Team gives Tennessee four wins on the season, and with Memphis, staggering Mississippi, Vandy and Kentucky left on the schedule, we should see seven or even eight regular-season wins for the Vols, who looked to be in trouble earlier in the season. But a closer look shows UT was close to getting it right the whole time. It lost to Florida by 10, Auburn by four and Alabama by two. The strength of the team is the defense, but running back Montario Hardesty is becoming more and more of a weapon, and QB Jonathan Crompton is improving. If those two begin to produce every week, and Monte Kiffin's D continues to be as strong as it has been all season (it has held opponents to fewer than 20 points in six of eight games), Tennessee could cruise through the rest of its schedule without a loss. That would be pretty bad news for the rest of the SEC, because it would mean that in addition to being a great recruiter and world-class agitator, Kiffin might be able to coach some, too.