Football people would have you believe that their sport is complex beyond words. That theory will not wash this fall in Knoxville, where the season comes down to this: one game, one player. The game is Sept. 16 in Gainesville, Fla.; the player is sophomore quarterback Peyton Manning. If they beat Florida, the Volunteers will likely ride the player through the season, which should end with them in the SEC Championship Game. If they lose to the Gators, mediocrity will beckon.
Too simple? When a reporter told Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer in July that it might be time to start viewing tape of Florida, Fulmer shot back, "We started looking at Florida a long time ago." And when Fulmer promoted John Chavis to defensive coordinator last winter, he told Chavis to make the defense more aggressive, largely in response to the Gators' offense, which has rung up 72 points on the Volunteers over the last two years. When senior offensive tackle Jason Layman examines the Tennessee schedule, he stops at the third game. Says Layman, "If we lose that one, our season is over." In short, the consensus in Knoxville is that the Gators, who have won the SEC Eastern Division title in each of the three years since the conference split into two, stand between Tennessee and its first berth in the title game and anything beyond—a top bowl, a high ranking, a national title.
Nobody was thinking about a national title last year when the Vols got off to a 1-3 start, which included an embarrassing 31-0 loss to Florida. During that time the first-and second-string quarterbacks, Jerry Colquitt and Todd Helton, suffered season-ending injuries. Manning, the 6'5", 205-pound son of Archie Manning, first saw action against UCLA in the season opener after Colquitt went down. Determined to impress the upperclassmen with his maturity, Manning began barking orders in the huddle. Tennessee was trailing 18-0, and the veterans were not in the mood for Manning's cheerleading. "We've been here three years, we know what to do," Layman said. "Shut up and call the play."
By November, Manning had found his place and for the season completed 61.8% of his passes for 11 touchdowns while throwing only six interceptions. He was named SEC Freshman of the Year, and Tennessee won seven of its last eight games.
With Manning at the helm, production should not be an issue. The questions are on defense, which has eight first-stringers coming back but was ranked only 33rd in the country last year, allowing an average of 333.4 yards per game. Chavis's new attacking scheme will be built around middle linebacker Tyrone Hines. The particular target for this unit is Florida. "That's who everybody in the league is chasing," says Fulmer.
Nothing complex about that.