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Rocky Top Roundtable

Special treat Nittany Lion fans. Today we sit down with Joel of SBNation's Tennessee Volunteers blog, Rocky Top Talk to get some insider information on our upcoming opponent in the Outback Bowl. We'll cover the game in more depth when it gets closer. Today, I just wanted to get a feel for how the Volunteers got to this point.

First off, Joel, thanks for taking some time to talk to Black Shoe Diaries. Before we get into 2006, take us through 2005. Six losses and no bowl game for the first time in forever. What happened there?

Ah, The Season of Which We Do Not Speak:

What exactly happened in 2005 is of course the subject of much debate.  My post Catastrophic Change and the Season of Which We Do Not Speak explains in horrifying detail what I thought the problem was, so if you're really interested, follow that link.  Here's the gist, though: After the 1998 National Championship, a lot of little things started going wrong.  Whether that was due to the departure of David Cutcliffe or Tennessee's history of being unable to handle success, I don't know.  From players being distracted by cell phones during half time of the following year's bowl game to becoming college football's laughingstock the summer before the 2005 season, it was a slow, horrible ride that ended with a home loss to Vanderbilt on Senior Day.  The suspects? Lack of character and/or discipline; a me-first attitude; penalties and other mental errors; a handful of conventional wisdom coaching philosophies that turned out to be erroneous; a team that embraced the media hype surrounding it; the Vols' history of failing to live up to any sort of hype; a killer schedule; the demise of home-field advantage; and season-ending injuries to key players.

2005 was the tipping point.

After such a disappointing season in 2005, what were expectations like going into 2006?

The tail end of the Season of Which We Do Not Speak post explains my expectations, and surprisingly, they were quite optimistic.  My reasoning was that if a lot of little things can conspire to create a negative tipping point, then correction of a lot of little things could tip the thing the other way.  The coaching staff seemed to be focusing on doing just that, and I was pleased.  Most other Vol fans were pretty optimistic, too, as almost a third of them picked the Vols to go 9-3 this season.

On Rocky Top Talk you asked your readers to pick a single play that defined the season for Tennessee. Now that you've had some input and thought about it yourself, take us through that play and explain how it relates to the 2006 season.

It had to be defensive end Xavier Mitchell's tackle behind the line of scrimmage on Air Force's two-point conversion attempt to win the game.  Although Vol fans were sort of optimistic going into the season, we were as surprised as the rest of the nation at how we dominated Cal.  As I said immediately after the game:

Tennessee players and fans have been starving for offense, not just since the end of last season, but since the end of the season before that.  Tonight, the all-you-can-eat buffet opened, and the Vols went on an all-out binge.  They gorged themselves so much that after three quarters, all they could do is waddle to the sofa, fall into the cushions, and unbutton their britches.  They remained in that position for the rest of the game, but they had already been satisfied.

It only took one game for us to get overconfident.  The second game, against Air Force, was a nightmare from which we woke up just as the death blow was descending.  The Falcons played their deceptive shell game all night, hiding the ball to perfection, and our defense couldn't get a bead on who had the ball until the offense was seven yards down field.  Have a look at the animated drive chart to get the full, nauseating effect.

Fortunately, Air Force couldn't stop Ainge in Orange, either.  That is, until it really mattered, when they intercepted him on Tennessee's last offensive possession with time winding down.  They went on to score, recover an onside kick, and score again.  Then, instead of kicking the extra point to send the game into overtime, they elected to try for two and the win.  Why not?  We couldn't stop them.  They knew it, and we knew it.

But Xavier Mitchell would have none of it.  He recognized the play they'd been using to beat us to death all night, anticipated the block, got around it, and collar-tackled the runner behind the line of scrimmage.  Game over.  You can see the play twice at around the 2:50 mark of this video:

or here. As I said, we awoke from the nightmare just before the death blow descended.  No telling what kind of spiral the team and the fan base would have went into had he not made that play.

Walk us through the 2006 season. What were the highlights and lowlights? (take as much time as you want)

Looking back on it, the best game of the season had to be the Cal game. Not knowing how we'd do and then doing it so well.  The highlight might have been our whoopin' of the Dawgs, but it turns out they weren't that good. A win over Florida would have been good, but, uh, we didn't win.  A win over LSU or Arkansas would have been big, but again, we came up short on those.

Really, though, this was not a "highlight" season.  It was a solid rebound from The Season of Which We Do Not Speak.  We beat teams we were supposed to beat and some we weren't.  We played well in our losses, with the exception of Arkansas, in which we were without our two best players.  It was a decent year, and a marked improvement over last, but no real highlights.

How do Volunteer fans feel about going to the Outback Bowl to play Penn State?

I don't think we know what to think.  Some of the old-timers have warned the rest of us to watch out, as y'all have a history of making us look bad.  At first glance, we're not afraid of your won/loss record, and even when you look at the fact that your losses were to some really good Big 10 teams and Notre Dame, many Vol fans remain unimpressed.  Many of us are still a bit loopy from beating Michigan so easily a few years ago.

Me, I'm not so sure.  There's a very real chance that we'll underestimate the Big 10 and that Penn State could be better than the Vols - gasp - even on paper.  You could clean our clocks.  I think you'll have trouble stopping Ainge in Orange, Robert Meachem, and LaMarcus Coker if they're all healthy.  But our defense has real trouble stopping the run.

Should be a fun one.  I want to invite all you PSU fans to participate in a Rocky Top Talk tradition: the Hail Mary Haiku.  Come on over and talk smack in the 5-7-5 format.

Looking forward to a good game.  Thanks for having me over, Mike.

Thanks again, Joel. I'm looking forward to reading more about the Outback Bowl on Rocky Top Talk in the coming weeks.