Here's an admission you're not likely to hear from anyone else in the Media: I don't have a clue. At least when it comes to forecasting the fortunes of two of our local football outfits, I'm like a weatherman calling for snow.
With the end of a bad yearTitans and Commodores, this is your cue to come on downwe like to put the past behind us and start afresh. We like closure. With these guys, unfortunately, things couldn't be more wide open. Much as they'd like us to think otherwise, we don't know what to expect.
Take Vanderbilt. (For the longest time, no prospective coaches would.) Just before Christmas, the Commodores trumpeted the hiring of new head coach Bobby Johnson as the end of a long, bleak era. The only problem is that hardly anyone seems to believe the hype. And the only problem with the prevailing, more pessimistic view is that the hype has a halfway decent chance of being right.
Outside of McGugin Hall, the sanctum sanctorum of Vanderbilt athletics, news of Johnson's hiring was greeted mostly with yawns. As one underwhelmed fan put it to me, “Maybe when Todd Turner said this hire would shock the NCAA, he meant that everyone would be stunned that the best they'd come up with after all that time was a 50-year-old white guy from Division I-AA.”
He had a point. The Commodores dangled cash before Stanford's Tyrone Willingham and approached Colorado's Gary Barnett. Bringing either of them to Vandyland would have energized a shrinking and demoralized fan baseand signaled that the Commodores were serious about winning.
Though Johnson's résumé is solid, it doesn't exactly create shortness of breath among the black-and-gold faithful. During his 25 years in coaching, he spent only one season on a Division I staff. So perhaps it's fair to wonder whether he'll be able to recruit Division I players. He has averaged 10 wins per year over the past three seasons at Furmanbut he's still unproven as a head coach in a major conference.
None of these “indicators,” of course, really indicates anything. They reveal nothing of Johnson, who is described by those who know him well as intense, focused and demanding. There have been others with only small-time head-coaching experienceAra Parseghian and Grant Teaff come to mindwho did more than all right at Division I programs.
In the most hopeful sign for Vanderbilt, though Johnson's hiring did not make a statement, the school's administration sure didand their money talked louder. Establishing a precedent, Gee paid market price to lure Johnson. In another first, Johnson's assistants will be compensated at a big-time level, too.
Athletic Director Turner declared that Johnson would enjoy unprecedented resources. (Vandy fans can only hope that he meant a loosening of the school's admissions policy to make it even just half as liberal for athletes as for plodding sons and daughters of the well-connected.) Gee went even further, announcing not only that the revolving door for Commodore coaches was closed but that Vandy would “declare war” on universities that had sold their souls to football. (Presumably, Gee's underlings will start digging up dirt on practically everyone but Rice, Wake Forest, Duke and Stanford).
Vanderbilt's real enemy, however, has long been itself. With the removal of some self-imposed hurdleslow salaries, sub-SEC facilities and overly restrictive admissionsthere is reason to believe that a smart, energetic coach can prosper even in college football's most haunted house. That's the kind of coach Vandy appears to have hired.
Whether he'll actually succeed is anyone's guess. Here's one prediction, though. If he fails, he won't be the only one departing from McGugin.
The Titans' future is equally clouded, though many fans would like to believe (and the team's management hopes they'll believe) that this year's 7-9 record was an anomaly.
Maybe it was. If you're an optimist, you can support the idea that Tennessee could return to the playoffs in 2002. It's difficult, for example, to envision another season in which injuries would wipe out both the starters and backups in the defensive backfield, leaving much of the responsibilities to rookies and retreads. This year's hobbled and cobbled-together bunch, statistically the league's worst, repeatedly made bottom-feeders like Cincinnati's Jon Kitna look like all-stars. In recognition of their contribution, maybe they'll receive Rolexes from Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart, whose marvelous season owes a debt to Tennessee's porous secondary. Surely that won't happen again if Blaine Bishop, Donald Mitchell, Bobby Myers and Dainon Sidney aren't sidelined.
Perhaps a healthy-toed Eddie George will gain 1,200 yards again, as he had for five straight seasons until this one. Maybe Steve McNair, the club's real offensive catalyst, will enjoy as many opportunities to sling the ball downfield as he did in 2001. And maybe, without a first-place schedule on their calendar, the Titans will find the sledding easier.
Then again, there are serious causes for worry. Even after the team's front office restructures every contract it can, the likely losses caused by the NFL's salary cap could leave major holes to fill: probably LB Greg Favors, perhaps Jason Fisk and Eddie Robinson, maybe the stellar Frank Wycheck, and possibly even the indispensable Bishop. While the looming retirement of Bruce Matthews will help close the payroll gap, it also will create one in an offensive line that is showing leaks.
The pass rush that was much ballyhooed after the addition of Kevin Carter turned out to be largely hoo, with only two lonesome sacks for Carter. Meanwhile, with this year's lackluster performance, the offense must demonstrate that it can sustain a running game againwithout holstering its most dangerous weapon, McNair.
Most worrisome of all, there were many times this year when the Titans looked like they had undergone some Frankenstein transformationfrom a disciplined, Jeff Fisher-molded team, intoto put this cruellyVanderbilt. (Don't forget that the Commodores played at Adelphia in November 2000. Maybe they left a residue of bad karma. In 2001, counting last year's playoff game, Tennessee has gone 3-6 on a field where they once seemed invincible.)
All too often this year, the Titan-dores beat themselves with dopey penalties in key situations. At times, they uncharacteristically lost their poise. Frequently, they fumbled their concentration. (You may be excused for wondering whether Jevon Kearse and Fred Miller were engaged in a running contest to see who could surpass the other in jumping before the snap.) Things got so inexcusably boo-worthy in the final gamethe second straight week in which the Tites blew a two-touchdown leadthat a sideline hissy-fight broke out between the combustible Perry Phenix and his nominal teammate DeRon Jenkins.
Right now, the Titans simply pose more questions than they provide answers. If your crystal ball says they'll finish 12-4 next year, it could be in perfect working order. The scary part is: The same might be true if you're projecting another dismal 7-9.
Fortunately, watching the bowl games provided me with a way out of this quandary. Late in the Rose Bowl, ABC's announcers loudly proclaimed that Miami had shown (by scorching a defense that surrendered 62 points in its last outing, but never mind) that they were indisputably the nation's best college team. Two days earlier, ABC also led viewers into the Fiesta Bowla game that the network, as a BCS co-conspirator, was duty-bound to treat as a meaningless sideshowwith the tease that Oregon might be playing for a share of the national title.
That suggests to me a prognosticating strategy for 2002. Shamelessly play it both ways, and hope nobody is paying attention.