Lane Kiffin has been the center of attention in the SEC this past month—not always for the right reasons.
His supporters suggest his staff of stellar recruiters, and Monte (Dad) Kiffin running the defense, give him a good chance of success in the cutthroat SEC. The truth is, however, that his regime may be in trouble for reasons neither his Dad, or his all-star recruiters, can help him with before it's too late.
Defense wasn't the problem at UT last year—they finished third in total defense, and 10th in scoring defense. Monte might make them better, but it will only be incremental improvement, not a quantum leap. What got Phil Fulmer fired was the offense, 115th in total offense and 110th in scoring (out of 119 FBS teams).
Lane's challenge is to make dramatic improvement on offense, with the same players—or perhaps a less talented group—than Fulmer had last year.
Tennessee starts 2009 with the same quarterbacks that didn't get it done in 2008: Jonathan Crompton (51.5%, 4 TD, 5 INT), Nick Stevens (48.5%, 4 TD, 3 INT), and B. J. Coleman (redshirted). Kiffin, and his offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, must get more from these guys quickly or 2009 will be a repeat of 2008, and the honeymoon will be fading fast. Another strike against UT's offense for 2009 is the loss of their leading rusher (Arian Foster), receiver (Lucas Taylor), and both starting offensive tackles.
Kiffin and Chaney need to do what David Cutcliffe did for Erik Ainge and the Tennessee offense. Cutcliffe proved that good coaching can salvage a foundering QB, and discipline and better play calling can get far more out of personnel that disappointed only a year earlier. Are they up to it?
It doesn't get better in 2010, either. Tennessee only signed six offensive players in 2009, and eight in 2008. Of those eight players in 2008, only five are still playing offense at Tennessee. Eleven players in two years is dangerously low, especially considering none of them are quarterbacks. Kiffin faces 2010 without Crompton, but he'll gain yet-to-be-recruited quarterbacks, if he dares (or must) play a true freshman in the SEC that year.
Next year's win-loss tally will depend on his staff getting better play at a number of positions—but most importantly quarterback—out of what is largely the same talent that underwhelmed last year.
If that doesn't work, the cavalry (fresh talent) doesn't arrive until 2010 and will have to deliver as true freshmen. Not an enviable prospect for a coach that might be facing a short honeymoon after this last month's headlines.
If Kiffin can get more out of Fulmer's players, he'll be given the key to the Vols' kingdom. Failure to do so will likely result in quick banishment, before he can reap the rewards his recruiters are sure to bring to Rocky Top.