Version 2006 of the Tennessee Volunteers has already surpassed many prognosticators' predictions and is still in the hunt for a Southeastern Conference and national championship.
Moons may have to align to kick seventh-ranked Florida out of the top spot in the SEC East, but eighth-ranked Tennessee (7-1, 3-1 SEC) controls much of their destiny for a potential BCS bowl appearance. Winning out against tough opponents like No. 13 LSU on Saturday and No. 12 Arkansas next week is a must.
(T-G Photo by Danny Parker)
1. Coach Cut's return
Bringing back offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach David Cutcliffe has already paid huge dividends.
The 52-year-old wizard of signal-callers rebounded from triple heart bypass surgery to again work his magic with Rocky Top's offense and QBs.
His attention to detail spans from getting offensive linemen in better condition to improved practice habits.
The proof is in the pudding as they're averaging 32.3 points per game.
2. Ainge's progress
The maturation and performance of quarterback Erik Ainge could be No. 1a. just as easily as No. 2 with Cutcliffe's influence.
Numerous factors played into a 5-6 record last year but few are more apparent than poor quarterback play. Ainge, a part-time starter in '05, finished with an efficiency rating of 89.9 with 737 passing yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions.
This year, he's crushed those numbers already. On top of improving his rating to 158.4, Ainge has tossed for 2,213 yards with 16 scored and eight picks.
He's spreading the ball around as well as tight end Chris Brown, who has 18 receptions, is on pace to catch more balls than any receiver last year.
3. Senior leadership
Game film and halftime adjustments don't make for a top 10 team. The athletes have to clock in for a successful spring and summer.
The commitment made by the senior class started when defensive tackle Justin Harrell and offensive tackle Arron Sears decided to pass on early entry into the NFL Draft.
Sears has played banged up for the past few weeks and Harrell shocked the world by playing with a torn biceps against Florida back on Sept. 16. That kind of courage goes a long way in filling teammates' hearts with passion.
Senior receiver Jayson Swain took the field against both Alabama and South Carolina with a sprained ankle. His 21-yard reception on third-and-18 against the Gamecocks last weekend was about as big a catch as any all season.
4. Troop on the move
The juggling of the coaching staff to put Trooper Taylor in charge of the wide receivers looks like a better and better idea each week.
UT coach Phil Fulmer realized the receiving corps had as much or more potential than any other position on the team with Robert Meachem, Bret Smith and Swain slated to start.
A season ago, the trio combined for 77 receptions, 986 yards and five TDs. They're well on their way to returning the label of 'Wide Receiver U' back to Tennessee as they've grabbed 104 balls for 1,671 yards and 15 scores to this point.
Taylor created in-practice competition by slicing playing time to a small rotation of wideouts. His seniors accepted the challenge and haven't looked back since.
5. Filling the void
Graduation and suspensions hurt the depth up front on both sides of the ball before the season began with Harrell and Sears being the only returnees with many starts under their belt.
Offensive tackle Eric Young, linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive ends Antonio Reynolds and Xavier Mitchell are among a group of headliners that have hit the ground running.
"Our leadership has grown as we've gone through and probably one of the most pleasing things, in some cases, is that we've continued to have young players step up and help us," Fulmer said on Tuesday.
Mayo's earned SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors a couple times already. Young shut down Georgia's all-everything defensive end Quentin Moses as the Vols hung 51 points on the Bulldogs. Reynolds and Mitchell came up with key sacks of Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson to assure the victory over the Tide.
No matter the contribution of the individual, the tradition of a program eventually wins out. Losing seasons don't come along often in Rocky Top and the 2006 Volunteers have done what it takes to return the Orange and White atmosphere to normalcy.