NOTE: The following post is the first in a series that will take one last horrifying look at the cadaver of the 2005 football season before we roll it into the morgue drawer once and for all. This week we’ll take a look at the pre-season expectations, followed by the UAB, Florida, LSU, and Ole Miss games. Next week, we’ll rubber-neck the four-game losing streak against Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Notre Dame, and the game against Memphis. The week after that, we’ll look at the Vanderbilt loss and the Kentucky game. Once finished, we’ll devote a day to analyzing what exactly went wrong. And then, hopefully, we’ll move on to better things, with previews of the upcoming season.
August, 2005. The University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville.
Everything was rosy along Cumberland Avenue. Make that Rosy.
Only one month remained until kickoff, and the Tennessee Volunteer football team and its fans had their eyes on the Big Prize, the National Championship, which would be played this year at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. The Vols were intent on making the trip and winning it all, just like they did in 1998 under the orange moon in Tempe, Arizona.
Tennessee had had a surprisingly good year the prior season. The team had gone 10-3, losing twice to Auburn, who went undefeated all year and was wrongfully denied an opportunity to play for the national championship. The other loss was to Notre Dame on a decidedly unlucky day during which a second quarterback was lost for the season. But despite the loss of both Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge, who had begun the season as co-starters, third-stringer Rick Clausen took the reigns and finished well. The team capped off a solid season with a 38-7 throttling of Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
All in all, it had been a good season. And nearly everyone was back.
The 2005 Volunteers returned 15 starters from the 2004 team that went 10-3. Returning on offense were QBs Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen, wide receiver Chris Hannon, fullback Cory Anderson, tackles Arron Sears and Albert Toeaina, and guards Rob Smith and Cody Douglas. Back on defense were defensive backs Jason Allen, Jonathan Hefney, and Roshaun Fellows, linebackers Omar Gaither and Jason Mitchell, tackles Jesse Mahelona and Justin Harrell, and defensive end Parys Haralson. Mahelona was an All-American, and Allen was All-SEC.
Quarterbacks. On offense, the coaching staff had a pair of really good quarterbacks to choose from in Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen. Ainge had played well as a true freshman, engineering victories over 9th- or 11th-ranked Florida at home and third-ranked Georgia in Athens. Ainge’s numbers, including 17 touchdown passes, had been earning him comparisons to Peyton Manning before he’d been injured in the Notre Dame game.
After getting acclimated in the Notre Dame game, southpaw Rick Clausen had led the team to high-scoring victories over Vanderbilt and Kentucky and had led the team to a respectable loss against the undefeated Auburn Tigers in the SEC championship. He’d earned the offensive MVP award in the Cotton Bowl, throwing for three touchdowns in a rout over the Aggies. The coaches were saying that they didn’t know who the quarterback was going to be, but they knew it would be a good one.
Receivers. Whomever the QB was, he was going to have a ball throwing to a passel of big, fast, chiseled, and strong receivers. Robert Meachem had averaged 18.4 yards per reception last season, and he was simply incredible against Kentucky, tallying 145 yards and a TD on only five catches. Receivers C.J. Fayton and Chris Hannon were seniors, and when you added Jayson Swain and Bret Smith to the mix, you had, as the media guide put it, “a dream corps of acrobatic and skilled receivers.”
Running Backs. And balance? You want balance? How about Gerald Riggs? Riggs and Cedric Houston had split time in 2004, and each had gained over 1,000 yards. Against Auburn’s stubborn defense in the SEC championship, Riggs had gained 182 yards on only 11 carries, and he was poised for a big year running through holes created by a mammoth, experienced line and behind 6’-3” 275 pound wrecking ball Cory Anderson.
Defensive Line. The defense looked to be even better. Several pre-season publications were ranking Tennessee’s defensive line as the best in the nation, and for good reason. All-American Jessee Mahelona was back, and because 18.5 of his 42 tackles in 2004 were behind the line of scrimmage, teams would undoubtedly double team him this year. Doing so, however, would leave Justin Harrell, the defensive MVP of last year’s Cotton Bowl, unaccounted for.
Defensive Ends. Oh, and then there were the defensive ends. Parys Haralson had had seven sacks and a school-record 21 hurries the prior year. He’d had 10 tackles and five sacks against Ole Miss alone. At the other end was Jason Hall, who had earned SEC Player of the Week honors against Georgia for a 7-tackle, 2-sack performance.
Hall, Harrell, Haralson. Mahelona. Best in the nation? Oh, yeah.
Linebackers. The linebackers were going to be pretty strong as well. Kevin Simon, who’d suffered season-ending knee injuries in 2002 and 2004, was finally healthy. Better than ever, they were saying, so there was no reason not to expect that he would play as well or better than he had the only season he’d both started and finished, when he’d led the team in tackles. The other two ‘backers were highly regarded seniors Jason Mitchell, who had filled in ably for Simon last year, and Omar Gaither. Gaither had had 18 tackles in the SEC Championship game and had had 12.5 tackles for a loss during the season.
Defensive Backs. In the defensive backfield, All-SEC defensive back Jason Allen had resisted the call of the NFL to return for his senior season, and after having led the team with 123 tackles as a free safety last year, he was now returning to his alma mater and his preferred position as a shut-down cornerback. Allen would lead a backfield that would include Jonathan Hefney and Roshaun Fellows, who had both been named freshman All-Americans by the Sporting News in 2004.
Special Teams. Finally, on special teams, James Wilhoit was back, and even though punter Britton Colquitt was a freshman, he was, well, a Colquitt.
So the outlook was downright Rosy, and the national pre-season publications were all over the Vols. The Coaches’ Poll had UT at No. 3, and the AP had them at No. 4. Lindy’s? No. 6. College Football News? No. 3. Athlon? No. 2. ESPN came calling before the season, videotaping practice and shooting footage for a couple of episodes of the Season Weekly. UT was poised for a stellar season. Acutely aware of the fact that Auburn last year had gone undefeated in the SEC and had been denied an opportunity to even play for the national championship due to a low pre-season poll position (No. 17), Coach Fulmer embraced the Vols’ pre-season hype and the national rankings that went with them. Such talk from the normally conservative Fulmer had the fans believing that 2005 would be something special.
Of course, there was the small matter of the schedule, with away games at Florida, LSU, Alabama, and Notre Dame and tough home games against Mark Richt’s Georgia and Steve Spurrier. But with all of its talent and potential, the general feeling was that this team was up to the task. The following post from August 28, 2005, and the excellent Daniel Proctor cartoon to which it links, captures rather well, I think, the general mood of Volunteer fans heading into the season:
Less than a week until Football Time in Tennessee.The Knoxville News Sentinel’s GoVolsXtra site kicked off the season with a huge 14-page special section. The first page of The College Football Preview ’05 (large file, and registration is required) is classic Daniel Proctor: a full-page color cartoon made to look like the Candyland board game, except that instead of sugar plums and lollipops, the multi-colored, segmented road is decorated with gators, tigers, and leprechauns.Proctor’s Rocky Road to the Rose Bowl graphically portrays the Vols’ difficult road ahead. After the UAB “Free Turn” game (which really could be anything but a walk in the park), the Vols’ must escape the Gators in the Swamp (U. of Florida) and the Tigers in Death Valley (Louisiana State U.) on consecutive weeks.
And then Tennessee’s former (and current again?) nemesis Steve Spurrier brings his new team — the South Carolina Gamecocks — to Tennessee before the team travels to always dangerous South Bend, Indiana to take on the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.
Round the corner to finish with Memphis and Vanderbilt at home and the Wildcats of Kentucky up north, and the Vols’ should end up in Atlanta and the SEC Championship. Win that, and they should be in the Rose Bowl and the National Championship.
A rocky, treacherous road to be sure, but if they can drain the Swamp, survive Death Valley, hold the Tide, best the Irish, and then take care of business at home against Georgia, South Carolina, and the others, they will have earned the right to play for the trophies.
Instead, the Vols were drowned in the Swamp, and although the team survived Death Valley, Erik Ainge did not, and the Vols lost four straight to Georgia, Alabama, Steve Spurrier, and Notre Dame.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The University of Alabama-Birmingham is up tomorrow.
Read Part 2 of the series: Re-living the Tennessee Volunteers 2005 football season: Part 2, Alabama-Birmingham.