To most Volunteer fans, 2011 was a relapse of the mediocre and disappointing seasons they had come to expect in years past. While the Vols looked good in their first few games, the injury bug struck, and the youth on the team could not sustain the extra burden put on them.
Perhaps the most egregious part of the season was the loss to Kentucky, ending a 26-year streak of dominance. While this loss was unbelievable, it did signal one thing that I hope Tennessee fans will see: We have hit rock bottom. We can only go up from here.
Here are four reasons why Vols fans should be excited for 2012 and, as always, continue to give their all for Tennessee.
As of now, the Volunteers will be returning 21 starters. The youth last year was a big problem because they had no experience versus teams like LSU or Alabama. The offense was anemic all season, with no running game to speak of, and no passing game once Bray and Hunter got injured. The defense was decent, but got embarrassed by teams like Arkansas and LSU.
With Bray and Hunter returning from injury, the offense will be back to its productive self. Bray has NFL talent, and is predicted by some to be the top QB in a couple of years. Both Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers are also expected to have an NFL future, and boy did they show it in some of those games. The trio of Bray-Hunter-Rogers will be something that not even the most experienced secondaries in the SEC will want to face.
The defense will lose some big players like Malik Jackson, but will still improve on last year. Prentiss Wagner, Curt Maggitt and Jacques Smith are all returning, which should bring leadership to the defense, which has been lacking. With a defense made up primarily of juniors and sophomores, the Vols will be more of a force in the SEC East now that they have the youth excuse out of the way.
Tennessee has had a great recruiting year, snatching up 18 commitments with seven 4-star recruits. Three of the seven are WR's, which will really help in the development of both Bray and up-and-coming QB Justin Worley. Add two 3-star running backs and a 4-star QB to that list, and this Tennessee offense has a ton of depth to it that will help if the injury bug hits again.
While the offense has definitely seen improvement, the defense is receiving the most impressive upgrades. Eight of the commitments are defensive and two athletes may soon join the squad. Everyone knows the SEC is the defensive conference of America, so the Vols need to be able to compete on that side of the ball.
This recruiting class has been a great one for Tennessee, and will certainly set the Vols up to compete in the SEC East for years to come.
Tennessee was spared in the conference scheduling this year in the SEC. We don't face LSU and Arkansas and get eight home games. One of those home games is versus Alabama, where we need all the help we can get. The Florida Gators are also coming to Neyland, where Vols fans are hungry to break the seven-game streak the Gators have over them.
Other winnable games include Troy, Akron, Georgia State, NC State, Vanderbilt, Kentucky (the Vols won't let them win again), Mississippi State and SEC newcomer Missouri. Last year's 5-7 was a pitiful record for Tennessee. and the Vols will look to improve on it immensely in 2012. The Vols have a good chance of finishing with at least eight or nine wins next year.
I know, I know, you hear it from every team on a downward trend. They get hyped up, told that they're the new incarnation of past dynasties. But hey, they're occasionally right. Michigan went 11-2 with a Sugar Bowl victory after a huge turnaround with the team. I expect Tennessee to also do this, and I fully expect them to be competing in the SEC East for years to come.
The '90s and Peyton Manning will not return. They are not coming through the door ever again. But what is coming is the rebound of THE national powerhouse of the '90s. The future is nothing but bright for the Tennessee Volunteers.