Ainge Ain't Nothin' But Numbers

Oct. 20, 2006

By Chris Rix

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Chris Rix is a football analyst for CSTV and a contributor to
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What a difference a coach can make.


The difference I'm referring to is the play of Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge this season. (Or if you're a fan of the Volunteers, you might say the difference is that respect has finally been restored to Good Old Rocky Top!) However, the respect for the Vols on a national level this season still doesn't seem to be there.


Once again, I do respect the Tennessee football program and a big reason behind that renewed esteem is the man behind the scenes. You may think I'm referring to head coach Phillip Fulmer, but it's actually another man behind that big orange curtain: offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. You most likely recognize the name, as it seems that Cutcliffe's name has been mentioned more this year throughout the media than Fulmer himself.


And as far as quarterback Erik Ainge, Cutcliffe seems to have made the difference in the junior quarterback and the Tennessee offense. One might initially be surprised to find that in a "first-year" offensive coordinator, but Cutcliffe has been here before (UT offensive coordinator from 1993-98), and he seems to have picked up right where he left off. His resume might be an indication of why that shouldn't be a surprise to those who, well, are surprised. That resume includes having coached eight players who would become first round draft picks. Just a few names off that list include Eli Manning whom Cutcliffe coached while at Ole Miss, and Eli's older brother Peyton, who, while under Cutcliffe, set 42 records and became the SEC's all-time leading passer while at Tennessee.


Under Cutcliffe's tutelage, Ainge has guided the Volunteers to a 5-1 record, a No. 11 BCS ranking (No.9 in USA TODAY), while tossing 14 touchdowns for 1,657 yards against just five picks -- giving Ainge a very impressive 171.6 QB rating. As for the Vols' next opponent, this is what Alabama's head coach Mike Shula thinks about Tennessee's revamped offense: "I think the biggest difference had been the quarterback. He look's like he's playing with more confidence."


As a former quarterback who has played for many teams and coaches, I know that this is one thing a coach can really provide for a player. He can help give (and also take away) confidence from a player -- especially a quarterback. The man calling the plays can in ways take away that confidence but, as we've seen with the Tennessee offense this year, apparently that man can also replenish it as well. With the exception of the Florida game, Ainge has played well in big contests. Starting off with a four-touchdown performance in the Vols' opening win against a tough Cal program, and Ainge's most recent heroics resulted in a 66 percent completion percentage and two-touchdown victory against the Georgia Bulldogs in a very hostile Athens environment.


One figure who has noticed Cutcliffe's results is Phil Fulmer. This is what the head man had to say about his "new" offensive coordinator at this week's SEC coaches' teleconference: "I think he's done a fantastic job with Erik from a fundamental standpoint. He's done a great job of creating the matchups that we're trying to get with formations and personnel. Overall he's done a heck of a job."


I'd say "a heck of a job" is an understatement by the head coach. After all, creative play-calling and favorable personnel matchups are something you would expect from your offensive coordinator and that's what the Vols were lacking before Cutcliffe returned.


David Cutcliffe and Erik Ainge are on fire and seem to be on a mission to show the nation that Tennessee now has the hottest offense in college football.


While I do expect Ainge and the Volunteer offense to have a big day statistically against a struggling Alabama defense on Saturday, I also have a feeling that David Cutcliffe will be looking for any "volunteers" around the country to take notice.







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