The struggles continued for Tennessee football last year. For the fourth straight year, UT finished hanging around the .500 mark. During this stretch, the Volunteers' record is 23-27, with two bowl losses and two years without bowl invites.
Last year, it seemed as if the sun was finally beginning to shine through on Derek Dooley in his second year as head coach. UT went into the Georgia game at 3-1, with their lone loss to conference foe Florida. Despite their most dangerous offensive playmaker, Justin Hunter, being out for the year, spirits were high.
It was during this gritty, defensive-minded game that the wheels fell off the Big Orange bus, and UT began their downward spiral. When the spin finally ended, the Vols were 5-7 and going nowhere for bowl season.
Since the disappointing 10-7 loss at Kentucky, much of the reporting has been gloomy on the Big Orange. One expert after another has pontificated on why UT is a year, two years, or a coach and two years away from being relevant again.
We have all heard the doom and gloom. But I say many of the experts have it wrong. Here are six bold predictions for the 2012 Tennessee Volunteers.
Derek Dooley named Sam Pittman Tennessee’s new offensive line coach in January. Pittman coached the offensive line for North Carolina from 2007 through 2011.
Each year under his tutelage, the average yards per rush increased at North Carolina. Pittman has a little better talent to work with in Knoxville, so expect the line to start making holes soon.
In an interrview published in Lindy's Southeastern 2012 Preview (page 180), UT offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has admitted abandoning the run game possibly too quickly in the past. But this year, he has said he intends to stay with the run more.
Also important to note is that Chaney’s background is very heavy on offensive line coaching. I believe he knows how important it is to run the ball in the SEC, and he will keep his word on building that aspect of the offense.
UT is loaded in the passing game. But to succeed, they must improve dramatically in running the ball. They possess backs that can rely on speed and shiftiness, or power and brutality. They need both and will utilize both to improve this year.
Justin Wilcox had a good defense last year in Knoxville. They ranked No.28 in the country in yards allowed. However, the Volunteer defense still gave up an average of 341 yards and 22.6 points a game in 2011, according to NCAA Stats. Decent numbers but few big plays.
The defense only accumulated 16 sacks all year. That number needs to be doubled.
Few sacks also indicate little pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Wilcox left after the season ended, and it’s been speculated that Dooley didn’t lose any sleep over it.
Dooley has implied, in interviews that have appeared in Athlon Sports and Lindy's, that he felt the defense needed more playmakers. Translated, that means that the read-and-react style of Wilcox’s schemes isn’t what is needed to succeed in the SEC.
Sal Sunseri was hired to be the new defensive coordinator this year. He was a defensive assistant at Alabama through two national championships.
Sunseri understands the 3-4 and is implementing it at UT. His schemes are more aggressive, and the Vols have some big-play linebackers that will fit well. Though we will still see the 4-3 often, it’s likely the new defense will increase the sacks, turnovers and negative plays this year.
This game should provide a nice little kick to the team if they start the season with a win over a BCS opponent. However, NC State isn’t going to lie down just because UT rolled into town.
The Wolf Pack are coached by Tom O'Brien, formerly the coach at Boston College. O’Brien has a career record of 108-75 (75-45) at NC State. He is a better-than-average coach who gets the most out of his players.
SEC fans may recall NC State’s sixth-year defensive coordinator, Mike Archer. He once was the head coach at LSU (’87-’90). Archer also has NFL experience (Steelers LB coach, ’96-’02). He is a well-respected coordinator.
Dana Bible has been O’Brien’s offensive coordinator since 1999, and he does a good job.
The coaching staff are good and experienced. Their record last year was 8-5, and they torched No.7-ranked Clemson 37-13 late in the year. They won their bowl game over Louisville, 31-24, and return 13 starters.
The Wolf Pack also returns a senior quarterback in Mike Glennon, (3,054 pass yards 31 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) The defensive backfield returns intact and is one of the nation’s, best according to Phil Steele’s preseason magazine (page 116).
The above said, UT will run the football against what I think is an average defensive line and below-average linebacking corps. When NC State starts moving the defensive backs up to support the run, the Vols will go up top and hit the big pass play.
Vols win 24-20.
Last year’s 33-23 losing score in Gainesville was deceptive. The Gators were up on Tennessee 30-7 mid-way through the third quarter. The Vols continued to play hard, even without their best offensive weapon, Justin Hunter. He was lost for the year on a knee injury suffered on the game’s fourth play.
With just five minutes to play, Florida still led 33-16. Tennessee scored their final points on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Bray to TE Michal Rivera with 4:46 to play.
Though Tyler Bray received a good overall grading for his play (26-of-48 completed passes, 288 pass yards, 3 touchdowns, 2 interceptions), the two interceptions were costly.
Charlie Weis took his talents to Lawrence and became the Kansas head coach this year.
Will Muschamp hired Brent Pease from Boise State to be the offensive coordinator. His defensive coordinator is Dan Quinn.
Both of these guys have had successful NFL experience and should do well at this level.
As usual, the talent level at Florida is high. After a regular-season-ending loss to Florida State (21-7), Florida did a great job in winning their bowl game against Ohio State (24-17). I expect this team to continue to slowly improve in Muschamp’s second season.
Florida is a heck of a football team. Their recruiting is still hanging around the highest level. Also, they are already loaded with speed. Seven years in a row, UT has been beaten by these guys. Some of the scores (59-20 in 2007) have been ugly.
If UT is ever going to get back into serious SEC East contention, they must start winning against Florida.
Vols win 23-21.
Tennessee had empty seats at Neyland Stadium in six of the eight home games last year. By comparison, Georgia, coming off a 5-7 season the year before, sold out their stadium in each of their six home games.
My point has nothing to do with Georgia fans being better; there are no better fans anywhere than Tennessee fans. The point is, it’s been down so long on Rocky Top that the fans have tired of seeing one-sided losses or wins over out-of-conference foes.
The only real fix to get that sell-out excitement going at Volunteer home games again is for this team to finally break through and start winning against some upper-tier SEC teams. A win over Florida in Game 3 would do that.
Tennessee is hungry for a winner again. The players on this team are no longer all wide-eyed freshmen and sophomores who tend to fold when things get tough.
It’s time for Tennessee to win a couple of close, hard-fought games with good teams. Do that and the seats will fill back up in Neyland. More importantly, the energy generated by the crowds will help this team to win those tough games here.
The Volunteers will play at least 13 games this year and will win at least ten. They have a shot to play in 14 games, but that would mean an SEC East championship.
While I’m bullish on the Tennessee Volunteers this year, making the SEC championship game is a very tall order. I refuse to say they cannot get there. But if they do, Dooley should be a shoo-in for SEC Coach of the Year.
This is a talented Volunteer team. They will climb into the top 20 if they avoid the devastating injuries like they experienced in 2011. Do that and they set up for at least a run at an SEC championship in 2013.