Saturday September 12th, 2009

The first nine months of the Lane Kiffin era provided no shortage of excitement for Tennessee fans. Between an all-star coaching staff, a big-time recruiting class, all those rousing booster speeches and flashy billboards, memories of Phillip Fulmer's disastrous 5-7 finale had long since faded from the minds of orange-clad faithful.

And then the Vols played someone besides Western Kentucky.

Saturday's 19-15 home loss to UCLA was like a bad case of déjà vu for anyone unfortunate enough to have watched much of the Vols' 2008 campaign. Despite a new head coach, new offensive assistants and a slew of new freshman playmakers, Tennessee's offense was every bit as painful to watch as it was a year ago. Quarterback Jonathan Crompton went 13-of-25 for 93 yards and three interceptions, and the Vols gained 209 total yards.

With 3:30 remaining, down 19-13, the Vols drove all the way to the Bruins' 3-yard line, where they faced third and goal. On consecutive plays, Kiffin called for a handoff, and on consecutive plays, UCLA's defenders stuffed ball-carriers Bryce Brown and Montario Hardesty. The plays pretty well summed up Tennessee's day.

But even then, Tennessee's defense (which held UCLA to 189 yards on the day) almost saved the day. On the Bruins' ensuing possession, Vols LB Nick Reveiz sacked UCLA QB Kevin Prince in the end zone for a safety with 1:41 remaining, giving Tennessee one more chance. The Vols took over at their own 41.

They lost four yards before turning it over on downs.

I can't say the result was entirely surprising. When I attended a Tennessee preseason practice last month, it was plainly obvious that quarterback play remained a glaring hole for the Vols. Most followers understood that this would be a rebuilding season for Kiffin, who will need at least one more big recruiting class to bring Tennessee's talent level back to respectability. Still, most were expecting the Vols to at least sneak into a low-level bowl game, and UCLA -- itself coming off a 4-8 season -- figured to be one of their more winnable games.

Instead, it's the Bruins that are now already half way to matching last season's win total. Rick Neuheisel's team overcame its own offensive woes for a nice road win that should help boost confidence heading into Pac-10 season.

Kiffin's team, on the other hand, can't come away from Saturday feeling too great about themselves, which is unfortunate timing. Next week ... they visit Florida.

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