KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Saturday night at halftime, Lane Kiffin changed his clothes, ditching a black sweater in favor of an orange pullover. Presumably the wardrobe change was a superstitious response to an awful offensive half, one that saw the Vols with nine yards total passing until the final two-minute drive. If only Kiffin were less stubborn about his signal-caller. News flash, Kiffin could coach on the sideline in a burka or a Japanese sumo outfit and the result on the field would be the same -- Jonathan Crompton is going to lose the game.
Early in the season Kiffin adopted the coaching cliche, "If you've got two quarterbacks, you've got none." I'd like to advance another version of that cliche: "If your one quarterback is Jonathan Crompton, then you still ain't got one either." Right now, Kiffin's refusal to make a change at quarterback is slowly bleeding his head-coaching legitimacy among the fan base. In his first season Kiffin has struck an iceberg, and he's going down on the S.S. Crompton. So is his team. It's time for a change.
Lane Kiffin has been brash, confident, and quotable. What he hasn't been is a winner. Anywhere. In 25 games as a head coach, Kiffin is now 7-18 (5-15 with the NFL's Oakland Raiders and 2-3 with the Vols). With Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina in the next three games, it's altogether possible that Kiffin and the Vols are going to be sitting at 2-6 by the time November arrives. Another season of 5-7 or worse looms. And here's the kicker, next year Tennessee is going to be worse. In this day and age if your second season isn't a good one, you're not going to truly succeed as a coach. Pete Carroll, Nick Saban, Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer, Mark Richt -- every single one of those coaches had great second seasons. That's when their teams made a seismic jump.
Kiffin's situation is unique because his team, due to the graduating seniors on the offensive line and at tailback, and the presumed early departure of Eric Berry, is going to be worse next year. He needed to win this year, needed to beat inferior teams at home like UCLA and needed to beat teams of similar talent like Auburn. But he hasn't. And in the process Jonathan Crompton has become the albatross dragging down Kiffin, Version 1.0.
"(Kiffin) needed to win this year, needed to beat inferior teams at home like UCLA and needed to beat teams of similar talent like Auburn. But he hasn't. And in the process Jonathan Crompton has become the albatross dragging down Kiffin, Version 1.0." At this point in the season, standing at 2-3, what does Jonathan Crompton, a senior who has managed to win one SEC game in which he completed a pass in his career -- Kentucky last year -- actually give you if he plays great? The chance to finish 6-6? And then be gone from football forever?
Meanwhile, you have a redshirt junior in Nick Stephens standing on the sideline. Worst case scenario, Stephens comes in and only wins two games as your starting quarterback. But at least you give him a chance to prove that he can be your guy for a year in 2010.
My point is, I've finally come around to this argument: Stephens can't be worse. He just can't. And now it's time for a change.
Here are other observations:
1. Gene Chizik and Auburn, particularly Gus Malzahn, have blown Tennessee's highest paid coaching staff in the country out of the water this season in terms of performance.
Kiffin defenders scream, "Talent, talent, talent."
That's all well and good, but does anyone really think Auburn has more talent than Tennessee? Last year's Tennessee-Auburn game ended 14-12 and set back offensive football five decades. Now compare the two teams this year. Which looks different, which looks improved?
That's almost entirely a product of coaching, right?
In fact, this game was almost a perfect laboratory for coaching analysis. Compare the products on the field last night. Kiffin, who was supposedly an offensive guru at USC, has not improved Tennessee's offense. Chizik, under the direction of Gus Malzahn, has completely remade Auburn. They're now 5-0, loving football, and have completely bought in to what the coaching staff is selling.
Meanwhile, Kiffin and Tennessee are regressing offensively and defensively.
You can argue talent differential in games against Florida and Georgia, maybe, but you can't argue talent differential in games like Auburn and UCLA. What you can argue is inferior preparation. Again, I'll say what I did after the UCLA game: if Phillip Fulmer is standing on the sideline and makes every play call that Kiffin did, fans are outraged.
That first half of football was unwatchable.
Kiffin bears the blame.
Taking it further, there were two primary rationales to replace Fulmer: a. the team needed to be coached better and, b. the recruiting had suffered.
So far Kiffin's offense and defense look no different than Fulmer's did. So now the rationale for the coaching change boils down completely to recruiting.
Kiffin is recruiting well, but Tennessee has always recruited well. Fulmer had better players than every other team in the SEC during his tenure (using the NFL Draft as the barometer). What have we seen on the field thus far that offers clear evidence that Tennessee is being coached better?
2. Crompton's receivers didn't help him by making catches, but that's partially because they don't believe in him at quarterback.
Of course not.
They're so worried about trying to make a spectacular play for the offense, that they can't make a simple play.
Because they don't trust Crompton to make plays. Even if they're not saying it out loud, their body language tells the story. Watch how long the receivers take to get up after another failed pass attempt. The downcast head. They're beaten before the ball is snapped.
3. It's time to toss practice out the window when it comes to evaluating quarterbacks.
I said it earlier, but it bears repeating, Jonathan Crompton has won a single SEC game when he completes a pass -- Kentucky. (He also "beat" Vanderbilt as the starter last year, but his only pass, the first of the game, was intercepted.) In fact, Kentucky is the only team from a major conference that Crompton has beaten in his career.
My point, there's enough game experience film to evaluate at this point to make a decision on what the game play is going to be like. Using practice as a proxy for games doesn't make sense anymore. For whatever reason, if the coaching staff is to be believed, Crompton's talents don't translate to Saturday.
So be it.
Nick Stephens deserves his shot to see what he does in games. By all accounts, he tends to do better in games than practice. Give him a chance.
4. This team is divided already. Changing quarterbacks won't make it any worse.
For the first time in two years, the defense buckled in a game. It happened at the end of the first half as Auburn was in the process of running up 49 offensive snaps in the first half.
Tennessee had to take two timeouts to rest its defense.
Let me repeat that, Tennessee had to take two timeouts to rest the defense.
I can't imagine any more glaring indictment of the offensive performance than this. It's downright shameful how wasted the Tennessee defense is. And if you don't think those guys on defense are looking out at the offense, watching Crompton give up a field goal to the other team by dropping the ball on the center exchange, for example, you're fooling yourself.
This team is already divided along offense and defense lines. And it's only going to get worse as long as Crompton is in there. At least if a change is made, there's a tangible sign that the offense is willing to try anything to get better.
5. Why the lack of offensive ingenuity?
I want one person to explain to me why Nu'Keese Richardson carries the ball for 40 yards on the first play of the game and we never see him again.
Kiffin went to war for Richardson, brought on the wrath of an entire nation, turned Nu'Keese into a modern day Helen of Troy -- with an apostrophe -- and he can't even use him for more than one direct snap after the first one is hugely successful? That makes zero sense.
If your offense is awful, isn't it the coaching staff's responsibility to find ways to get players chances to make plays?
Putting this into context, the majorettes twirled flaming batons at halftime of the game. It was the most explosive offensive performance on the part of anyone from Tennessee.
6. Late in the third quarter, Lane Kiffin went for it on 4th-and-1 at his own 29.
This play speaks volumes -- Kiffin is even more frustrated than the biggest fan. I get that. But it's also making him choose risky options that offer limited payoffs. Down just 16-6, Kiffin put the game on the line with this decision.
What was the payoff for this ill-advised gamble? Tennessee punted three plays later from its 34. Yep, they risked the entire game for five yards of field position.
The risk-reward ratio when it comes to the Tennessee offense is completely broken. And it's leading the coach to make poor decisions that have limited tactical benefit -- what were the odds that Tennessee was going to score a touchdown on that drive with a first down at its own 30? To me that's clear evidence that a change needs to be made at the quarterback position. Even the head coach is pressing in his play calling due to the offensive woes.
7. It's time someone calls Kiffin on playing Crompton to help recruiting, and I'm going to do it.
Kiffin defenders consider his refusal to bench Crompton to be a strength. I think that's misguided. In fact, I actually think it's unfair to Crompton.
Because part of the reason Kiffin is leaving Crompton in at quarterback to bear the brunt of the criticism is because he wants to bring in at least one and potentially two stud quarterbacks in this year's recruiting class. That might make sense in the long-term, but it makes Kiffin's defense of Crompton ring hollow in the meantime.
It also makes Crompton a de facto shield for Kiffin. Instead of blaming the coaches, fans blame Crompton. I want the Crompton shield removed.
8. Two plays from last night that sum up the Crompton era.
a. Late in the third quarter, Crompton drops back and completes a pass to Gerald Jones, running a drag route across the field with three defenders in close proximity to him.
Hooray, a completed pass.
Only, the wide receiver on that same side of the field, I believe it was Denarius Moore, was left all alone running down the sideline. The receiver waved his arm, leaped, and the entire crowd in my section screamed for Crompton to uncork his massive arm and heave a pass down the field that would potentially unlock the offensive miasma.
But Crompton never saw his open receiver. He was locked on his primary read.
That's despite Tennessee rolling Crompton out to one side or the other throughout the game so he'd only have to survey one-third of the field.
Yep, even when receivers are wide-open in the one-third of the field that Crompton is facing, he doesn't see them.
b. The trip and fall play to begin the second half.
Coming out of the locker room, the Tennessee defense holds the Auburn offense to a three-and-out. Tennessee takes possession coming off a touchdown drive. Crompton takes the snap, steps back, is tripped by his own man, and falls down in the backfield for a loss of four.
This play might not be Crompton's fault, but no one on the offense and no one in the crowd was surprised that it happened to Crompton. I don't bear him any ill-will, I don't think he's a bad guy, I hope he's a success in something other than football, but it's time for his football career at Tennessee to come to a close.
Kiffin has given him five games. Crompton has proven that's he not up to the task.
Saturday night as I left the stadium a black man in a suit played a mournful dirge on his saxophone. Standing in Phillip Fulmer Way with an open case in front of him, his music soared into the clear night sky as downcast Vol fans passed him.
One fan, an older man in a Vol parka, reached into his wallet and pulled out a dollar bill. "You're the best player I've seen all night," the man said.
The saxophone player nodded as he continued to play. It was October 3rd and already fall seemed like it stretched forward into eternity.
"That damn Crompton," the man said, shaking his head, "that damn Crompton."
Clay Travis is the author of three books. His latest, "On Rocky Top: A Front Row Seat to The End of an Era" chronicles the 2008 Tennessee football season and is on sale now.