On the same night that Tennessee was falling to 3-5, Duke was improving to 4-3. Imagine that.
The proximity of Saturday’s outcomes increases the irony. While UT was losing 29-9 to Alabama at Neyland Stadium, Duke was upsetting Vanderbilt 10-7 in Nashville.
You can’t note one team’s failure and the other’s success without gaining an increased appreciation for Duke coach David Cutcliffe, UT’s former offensive coordinator.
I’m not touting Cutcliffe as a successor to UT head coach Phillip Fulmer. And I’m not trying to fuel the rumors that Cutcliffe might return if Fulmer were fired.
When UT finally decides to make a coaching change, you would think the change would be more significant than replacing a longtime UT head coach with a longtime former UT offensive coordinator. But that doesn’t diminish Cutcliffe’s worth as a football coach.
Look what UT has done without him. And look what Duke has done with him.
Last season, UT averaged 401.5 yards per game. This season, it is averaging 280.6 yards per game, which qualifies it as the 112th best offense in Division I-A.
Last season, UT averaged 32.5 points per game. This season, it is averaging 18.4 points, 107th best in the country.
The dramatic drop-off in production has been accomplished with basically the same personnel.
The starting offensive line returned. So did the top three receivers and the top three running backs.
The noticeable exception is at quarterback, where UT had to replace Erik Ainge, who — thanks to this year’s offensive disaster — has surpassed Casey Clausen as the most underappreciated quarterback in school history.
Combine what has gone wrong at UT with what has gone right at Duke.
Duke upset Vanderbilt in Nashville for its fourth victory in seven games. The Blue Devils might not win another game against a schedule comprised of Wake Forest, N.C. State, Clemson, Virginia Tech and North Carolina. But four victories at Duke is a rousing success.
Prior to Cutcliffe’s hiring after last season, it had taken the Blue Devils four years to win four games. In 2006-2007 they were 1-23.
Granted, with 17 returning starters, Duke should have improved this season even if it hadn’t made a coaching change. And it’s also significant that Duke has won despite an offense that ranks 98th nationally.
Duke won with defense Saturday. It held Vanderbilt to 291 yards, including 79 on one touchdown pass; then killed the Commodores’ last threat with an interception at the Duke 1.
Maybe 4-3 will be as good as it gets for Cutcliffe at Duke. You can only speculate on that.
But you don’t have to speculate about his track record at UT.
In the last season of his first stint at UT, the Vols won a national championship. The next season, a veteran, talented team dropped to 9-3.
Cutcliffe returned to UT in 2006 after five winning seasons in six years as a head coach at Ole Miss. The Vols then improved from 5-6 to 9-4.
Last year, UT was 10-4. A year later, without Cutcliffe, it’s 3-5.
Cutcliffe returns; UT gets better. Cutcliffe leaves; UT gets worse.
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.