Wiedmer: Vols now seem destined for bottom half of SEC

Wiedmer: Vols now seem destined for bottom half of SEC

October 11th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

KNOXVILLE -- At Monday's Tennessee football media luncheon, senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson returned to halftime of Saturday's 20-12 loss to Georgia

"Everybody was excited," he said. "We were even with Georgia."

No offense to the Bulldog Nation -- which has far more to be excited about today than the Big Orange Nation -- but that was a two-loss team the Volunteers were excited to be even with on home soil. The "others receiving votes" Bulldogs that UT was excited to be even with before the first sellout crowd of the season.

If you want a single quote to underscore the checkered present of Checkerboard U, none better represents it than that one.

"Everybody was excited. We were even with Georgia."

They didn't finish even, of course. They lost 20-12 after watching the Bulldogs bite off the first 14 points of the final half.

And good as Georgia is -- and Mark Richt's best team in three years just may be good enough to win the SEC East outright for the first time since 2005 -- it appears no better than the fourth best team in the league behind top-ranked LSU, Alabama and Arkansas.

Given the fact that UGA already has lost to South Carolina, the Red and Black might be as low as fifth in the SEC. And that's assuming the Bulldogs can defeat Florida and Auburn later this autumn.

All of which just might mean that UT -- now 0-2 in the SEC heading into Saturday's visit from the No. 1 Bayou Bengals -- is almost certainly stuck in the bottom half of the league for another season.

All this from a program that finished first or second in the East (including ties) every year from 1993 to 2001 and won or shared the East crown three other times from 2003 to 2007.

But those Phillip Fulmer-coached teams never lost a Peyton Manning, Tee Martin or Casey Clausen to injury less than halfway through a season, as UT coach Derek Dooley has lost quarterback Tyler Bray to a broken thumb for the next five weeks.

Beyond that, those teams also never lost -- in addition to their quarterback -- their top running back (Tauren Poole, who missed the last half of the Georgia game), their top wideout (Justin Hunter, for the year) and arguably their top linebacker (Herman Lathers).

Of equal if not greater importance, they never had to endure three different head coaches in three seasons as this senior class has.

Throw in the fact that the Vols have to recruit far beyond their state borders to be competitive and it's easy to see why Dooley set out to temper any foolish optimism regarding his team's upcoming games with LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and beyond.

Recalling the late Admiral James Stockdale's cautionary story of the optimistic POW in Vietnam, Dooley recounted Stockdale's explanation for those who didn't survive their imprisonment.

"Oh, that's easy, the optimists," Stockdale explained in the book "Good to Great." "They were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas,' then Christmas would come and Christmas would go and they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter,' and Easter would come and Easter would go. [Eventually] they died of a broken heart."

Stockdale added, "This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end -- which you can never afford to lose -- with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality."

The brutal facts of the Vols' current reality is that this is all going to get much worse -- at least the next two weeks against LSU and Alabama -- before it gets better.

Even then, if more injuries occur -- and both the Bayou Bengals and Crimson Tide have a way of beating teams up -- the whole rest of the schedule could become a nightmare until The Cure arrives with Kentucky in the season finale.

Lose a handful more starters and Middle Tennessee and UK may indeed be the only victories the Vols have left.

Yet for the cockeyed optimist who sees both hope and hazard in the days ahead, Stockdale's odd turn as vice-presidential candidate in 1992 could also be a carrot of sorts.

Chosen as Ross Perot's running mate, Stockdale saw the ticket garner 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 election, far behind winner Bill Clinton and runner-up George H. Bush, even though it's the most votes ever cast for a third party ticket.

Yet many believe that had Perot not run, Bush would have been re-elected, since he took many votes from the far right that the Republican Bush might reasonably have received.

The point of this? Though it's hard to believe possible at this point, perhaps the Vols can stun at least one of their next three foes, which won't put UT in the SEC title game but just might have a huge bearing on who does gets there.

Or maybe that's just the blind optimist in me, wrongly convinced UT could turn the corner any week now, instead of in the season finale against Kentucky, which the Vols have beaten 26 straight times through good years and bad.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.