published Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Wiedmer: Kiffin's Voluneers look better every day

KNOXVILLE -- You always want to win your homecoming game. Especially when you're a first-year coach replacing an alum who was something of a legend and not exactly happy to no longer be in charge.

So Tennessee blowing up Memphis 56-28 on Saturday night couldn't have been more perfect for Lane Kiffin. Or a better sign that the school made the right move in pushing Phillip Fulmer to the curb last autumn.

After all, it was on this precise weekend last year -- Fulmer's firing less than six days old -- that the Vols stunningly lost to Wyoming, the clearest signal possible that the change was needed.

A year later, Kiffin and Co. made sure there would be no embarrassing reprise of that defeat. The Vols led 14-0 in less than six minutes and 21-0 early in the second quarter.

And just to make sure no one quit paying attention to the action on the field, Kiffin ordered an onside kick after UT's second score. It would have worked, too, if the Volunteers hadn't been offside on the play.

You can call that needless excess. And you might be right. Some will surely argue how smart it is to show an onside kick against such an outmanned foe.

But the following argument can also be made: By displaying the willingness to attempt an onside kick against Memphis, Kiffin has forced future Vol opponents to devote valuable preparation time to the threat of an onside kick.

Interesting, huh?

Or maybe it was to ensure no more Wyomings.

"It came to me late in the week that (the players) needed to feel my intensity," Kiffin said when asked about that onside kick. "We didn't want a letdown game."

He also didn't want a lame joke Memphis coach Tommy West told in August about Kiffin and a lying dog to go unpunished.

Asked about the joke, which fired up the Vols this past week, Kiffin said with a smirk, "I guess that dog bit back a little bit today."

You could argue that the greatest bite delivered through Kiffin's first nine games, five of them wins, is that there have been zero letdown contests.

This isn't to say the Vols haven't stumbled at times. There is no stronger proof of that than the simple fact that this was the first time all season they have won consecutive games. But that also means they haven't lost back-to-back games since falling to UCLA and Florida in weeks two and three.

What is most interesting, however, is how far these Vols have come in such a short period of time. Especially fifth-year senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton.

Crompton has now thrown 12 touchdown passes to just two interceptions in his last four games, three of them victories, the fourth a narrow loss at undefeated Alabama.

Labeled Mr. InCrompetent (blush, blush) in some quarters before this run, Crompton now leads the Southeastern Conference in passing touchdowns.

Yet in typical Crompton fashion, he resisted any attempt to lash out at his former critics Saturday night.

"That's a good thing to say I lead the SEC," he said. "But we don't care about that. We care about wins. That says a lot about our team. Our line's blocking great. Our receivers are starting to jell. We're getting better at the right time."

The Vols are getting better when they often do, in November, when the schedule softens and their resolve hardens. It's as much a Tennessee tradition as running through the "T" or Rocky Top, yet even UT's pregame notes carried the following disclaimer: Since 1990, the Vols are 65-11 in November, but seven of those 11 losses have come since 2004.

Playing as they did against Memphis, they might lose no more this regular season, Ole Miss (Saturday), Vanderbilt and Kentucky all vulnerable foes.

But it's not just the potential for an 8-4 regular season and New Year's Day bowl that makes Kiffin look better every week.

"Especially when he emphasized he had confidence in his players (when others were criticizing them)," said Crompton. "That's how you build a championship program."

You also build a championship program by never being satisfied. So despite his first homecoming win in his first try, Kiffin wasn't as happy as one might think afterward.

"This was the first time we've lost the fourth quarter all year, which is depressing," he said, despite much of the Tigers' scoring coming against the UT bench. "Obviously, we need to go recruit. We've got a lot of work to do."

Otherwise, there's always a dog out there somewhere, lying or otherwise, that can have its day against you.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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