Sorry, Florida. Too bad, BYU. Nice try, Syracuse. The votes are in. No team has lobbied more ably for Flop of the Year than Tennessee. The Vols, 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the Southeastern Conference, are a lock for the FOY award.
They convinced the doubters on Saturday, when archrival Alabama ran at will en route to a 56-28 victory. The Crimson Tide, 7-0, rushed for 457 yards, its highest total since the 'Bama wishbone was in its heyday in the '70s. And after hearing 10,000 visiting 'Bama fans outholler the 85,000-plus Vol faithful in Neyland Stadium, there's no question that last season's Rocky Top Fever has hit rock bottom.
So has the Vols' defense. How bad is it? The last time the Vols gave up 56 points in one game was in 1893. Coach Johnny Majors calls his "a defense that did not show up."
The defense actually has been AWOL since Jan. 1, when the Vols capped a 9-1-2 season by throttling Miami 35-7 in the Sugar Bowl. Oddly enough, nine starters are back from the 1985 unit, which gave up only four touchdowns in its final seven games and had the best turnover ratio (+21) in the country. "If we needed a big play," safety Charles Davis says, "it just fell into place."
Maybe the Vols should have started the season in January, when they were still hot. Consider what has happened since then:
•Tony Robinson, one of the premier quarterbacks in the nation last year, was arrested and charged with selling cocaine. His trial begins next month, and rumors are thick that current players will be mentioned as customers.
•Richard Cooper, a standout at defensive tackle, blew out an ankle in a pickup basketball game before summer practice and is just now approaching full speed.
•Tennessee's athletic department beat the NCAA to the punch by suspending 10 Vols from the season opener against New Mexico because the players had improperly used the complimentary pass list last season.
•The Vol-de-rol continued. On Sept. 13, with less than a minute to go and Tennessee trailing Mississippi State by only four points, Vol quarterback Randy Sanders overthrew Terence Cleveland, who was wide open in the end zone. On Oct. 11, with :50 left and the Vols holding a four-point lead, Army blocked a punt and returned it for the winning TD.
You want to talk about the ball bouncing the wrong way? The Vols' turnover ratio is +1 this season.
Because of last year's performance, Majors had counted on the defense to carry Tennessee until his green offense could get untracked. It hasn't quite worked out that way. While sophomore quarterback Jeff Francis has thrown for more than 300 yards in each of the Vols' last two games, the defense couldn't stop its own nose from running. Alabama opened Saturday's game with a double tight-end formation just to see if Tennessee's rushing vulnerability was for real. "It's the type of formation you try, and if it doesn't work, you go back to your basic offense," says Alabama offensive coordinator George Henshaw. "We used it on our first series [a 74-yard scoring march] and stayed with it."
"It's frustrating," says linebacker Kelly Ziegler. "We have good players, good coaches. We have a good scheme. Somewhere in there we're not getting it done." Tennessee hasn't fallen into place this year. It has just fallen.
DAVID L. JOHNSON/ACTION IMAGES
Bo Wright barreled by the hapless Vols for a TD.