AINGE FACES FIRST TRUE TEST

AINGE FACES FIRST TRUE TEST

This is not the same Erik Ainge that was on display as Tennessee's quarterback last season. This is not the same guy that completed just 45.5 percent of his passes, fired underhand passes against LSU and Notre Dame and played with all the calm of a cat walking in a room full of rockers.

No, this Ainge is confident, accurate, poised and in control.

But we temper that by saying, he hasn't done it against an SEC defense. He hasn't done it against a team the caliber of Florida. Jacksonville radio personality Frank Frangie, who has covered Florida football for over 20 years, thinks this might be the best Gator defense he's seen in over 15 years.

So don't expect Ainge to improve on his nation's leading pass efficiency number or his 75 percent completion percentage.

I didn't think there was a way in the world Ainge could be a 60 percent passer, much less connect on 75 percent. I know it's just two games, and I know Air Force couldn't cover Alcoa's receivers and California was overrated. Still, you have to be impressed with Ainge's start.

But the exhibition season is over. Now comes the real test. Ainge knows it. Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe knows it.

You build confidence against Cal and Air Force.

You build character against Florida.

I asked Cutcliffe before this season if he thought Ainge could be a 60 percent marksman. Cutcliffe wasn't sure. He has a better idea now. But he's still cautious.

``We'll see,'' Cutcliffe said. ``That's just two games. The percentage gets tougher as the opponents get tougher. Certainly, Florida will be a big challenge from that standpoint.

``It's not just about percentage when you play Florida. Florida will make their share of plays. But the key to the whole thing against the Floridas and Georgias and Alabamas and LSUs, when we have an opportunity to make plays, we've got to make those plays. We can't miss open receivers.

``We're going to have to throw it in some tight spots. They're going to knock some balls away because of tight man coverage. That will ultimately hurt your completion percentage. But his mechanics and accuracy are so much better, and if he'll continue along those lines, he'll complete the balls he should complete.

``If you do that, you've got a chance to be a 60 percent passer in the SEC. If you don't, you have no chance. He'll find himself right back at that 50 percent range.''

Ainge hasn't been sacked this season. He's hardly been pressured. Cutcliffe has done a nice job of calling plays to keep Ainge duress free with three- and five-step drops and short routes. Credit the offensive line. But also credit UT's receivers.

With rare exception, the receivers have been open, allowing Ainge to throw timing routes on time.

A year ago, however, Tennessee's receivers couldn't get open against Florida. They couldn't beat press coverage. They didn't fight for the ball.

The receivers have experienced as big a makeover as Ainge.

But here comes the first real test. Here come the Gators. It will be a different game for Ainge and the UT.

What will Florida throw at UT that Ainge hasn't seen?

``Much more secondary blitz,'' Cutcliffe said. ``Much more speed. Much more movement up front. Much more edge pressure. They will provide the things you see our defense provide on a regular basis.

``He'll be more equipped for it than he was, even in preseason, because he's played now. I've got to help him understand it will be a whole lot tougher. This is a different animal.''

Some of those animals include ends Ray McDonald and Jarvis Moss and tackles Marcus Thomas, Joe Cohen and Steven Harris. Florida has two All-SEC linebackers in Brandon Siler and Earl Everett.

Florida might have the best front seven in the SEC.

What impresses Cutcliffe most about Florida: ``Speed. Their edge speed is tremendous. They've got some inside people that can cause you problems. And in the secondary, it looks to me like they've got eight or nine really tremendous athletes that can cover and tackle well. I don't see people making extra yards.

``Matter of fact, you sit and watch the tape and it's unbelievable going back to the end of last year and the start of this season how futile it's been for Florida State and Iowa and some good football programs to generate offense against their defense.''

Florida crushed FSU 34-7 and held the Seminoles to 334 total yards. But Iowa racked up 410 in a 31-24 bowl-game loss. South Carolina beat Florida despite gaining just 246 yards. And a year ago, Florida held UT to 213 total yards.

The Gators love to blitz, according to Cutcliffe.

``They'll put pressure on you to execute,'' Cutcliffe said. ``You'll see secondary blitz. You'll see corners come off the edge. You'll see some safety pressure. They've got it all.''

Cutcliffe is well aware that the team that has rushed for the most yards has won 14 of the last 16 games in this series. When Tennessee ended Florida's five-game winning streak in 1998, the Vols had just 235 total yards, but 171 on the ground. Florida passed for over 400 yards, but was held to minus-13 yards rushing.

And in 1996, Peyton Manning passed for almost 500 yards, but Florida jumped to a 35-0 lead and held on, 35-29.

``When you play these kind of defenses, when you take a little pressure off your quarterback, you're much better off,'' Cutcliffe said. ``The team that does that best has the best chance of being success offensively.''

Cutcliffe Not Bothered by Gator Talk

Cutcliffe smiled when told Florida safety Tony Joiner said he thought the Gators could shutout Tennessee.

``That's what every player should believe,'' he said. ``Our belief has to be that we're going to execute and do our thing. That's what makes these rivalries what they are. You enjoy hearing that. I'm sure our players will enjoy hearing that.''

For the Record: Here's Fulmer's Mark

It's easy to be selective when criticizing Phillip Fulmer's record. But in fairness, if you're going to cite his five-year record against Georgia coach Mark Richt, you should point to his five-year record against Florida. If you're going to point to his 14-year record against Florida, you've got to point to his 14-year record against Georgia.

In the past five years against his three main rivals, Fulmer's record is 3-2 against Florida, 3-2 against Alabama and 1-4 against Georgia.

As a head coach against those three rivals, Fulmer is 5-9 against Florida, 9-5 against Georgia and 9-3-1 against Alabama.

EXTRA POINTS: Florida quarterback Chris Leak consults with his coaches before selecting the first 12 plays that are scripted in each game. … While Leak is only 7-7 against Top 25 teams, he has two wins each over FSU and Georgia and one each over Tennessee, Iowa and LSU's 2003 national championship team. … Former Florida coach Ron Zook was 7-3 on an opponent's home field while Urban Meyer is 1-3. Meyer's losses were at Alabama, at LSU and at South Carolina.

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