2012 will be a make-or-break season for Tennessee coach Derek Dooley
The Derek Dooley era at Tennessee hasn't exactly gotten off to a rousing start, as the Volunteers have gone just 11-14 in Dooley's first two seasons.
As he enters his third year at the helm, Dooley has begun to hear plenty of groans and criticism from the Tennessee faithful, and he knows that another losing season without a bowl appearance likely won't be tolerated.
Luckily for Dooley, he's got a team that is loaded with experience for the 2012 season, as a whopping 19 starters return from last year.
The face of the team will undoubtedly be QB Tyler Bray, but there's plenty of other talent on both sides of the ball.
Dooley knows that the Vols need to make some changes and improvement in key areas in order to find more success this season.
There will likely be some major differences between Tennessee's 2011 season and the upcoming 2012 campaign, and here's a look at a few of the differences to expect.
Tyler Bray was limited to just seven games of action last season due to a hand injury, yet he still managed to throw for 1,983 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2011.
Bray is one of the most talented passers in all of college football, and he has a real chance to shine in 2012.
The 6'6'', 213-pound junior is a prototypical pro-style pocket-passer who possesses the size, arm strength, accuracy and intangibles to develop into one of college football's elite quarterbacks this season.
He's certainly already on the NFL's radar, and if he has the type of performance he's capable of in 2012, Bray's got the chance to become one of college football's most talked about signal-callers and one of the most coveted quarterback prospects for the 2013 NFL draft.
Tennessee ranked 116th in the country in rushing offense last season, as the Vols averaged a pitiful 90 yards on the ground per game in 2011.
You could blame that lack of production on having to face some of the stoutest defenses in the country such as Florida, Georgia, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina.
You could blame it on senior running back Tauren Poole, who underperformed as a senior after a strong 2010 campaign.
Or, you could blame it on an offensive line that was one of the most inconsistent in the SEC last season.
All of those factors played some sort of role in Tennessee's struggles to establish a consistent rushing attack in 2011, but the good news is, at least things can get any worse in 2012.
Even though Poole's gone, former 4-star recruit Marlin Lane appears ready to become the team's workhorse back this season.
Lane only averaged 3.7 yards per carry in 2011. However, now that Tyler Bray is back to soften up defenses with his arm, and with the offensive line expected to be more effective this year, the 6'0'', 205-pound sophomore should be much more productive in 2012.
Last year, Da'Rick Rogers managed to live up to his 5-star high school hype, as Rogers enjoyed a breakout campaign, leading the SEC with 67 catches for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns.
The 6'3'', 208-pound junior proved to be a dangerous weapon in the passing game in 2011.
One of the reasons that he was able to be so productive, though, was beacuse Tennessee's other playmaking receiver Justin Hunter was out for the season with an injury.
Like his teammate Rogers, Hunter is one of the most talented junior receivers in the country, and now that he's rehabilitated his knee, he should be ready to have a monster campaign.
Rogers and Hunter will form one of the most dangerous receiver duos in the country this season, and they'll provide QB Tyler Bray with the firepower he needs to really light up secondaries in 2012.
Former Alabama linebacker coach Sal Sunseri will take over the defensive coordinator responsibilities at Tennessee this season. Sunseri has installed a new 3-4 scheme in Knoxville this offseason, and it should be interesting to see how the Vols respond in 2012.
Tennessee welcomes back nine starters this season, including 13 of the top 15 tacklers from 2011.
Big run-stuffing tackle Maurice Couch should flourish up front at the nose tackle position, while A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt, Herman Lathers and Jacques Smith will make up one of the best linebacker units in the country.
With so much talent in the front-seven, and with potential All-SEC cornerback Prentiss Waggner and ball-hawking safety Brian Randolph holding things down in the secondary, Sunseri will have the pieces he needs to build one of the SEC's strongest defenses for the 2012 season.
Tennessee's offensive line was one of the most glaring weak spots of the team last season, as the Vols failed to find much cohesion in the trenches in 2011.
Although the line's pass-blocking was fairly strong, allowing just 18 sacks, the front-five just couldn't get a push in the running game at all last year.
With all five starters returning for the 2012 season, that should change, though. The leaders of the group will be guards Zach Fulton and Dallas Thomas, who both possess All-SEC potential, and they'll be joined by tackles Ja'Wuan James and Antonio Richardson and center Alex Bullard.
If the line can make the necessary improvements during the offseason, and work together better this year, this should be one of the most improved units in the country in 2012.
Not only does Tennessee have two future defensive stars in sophomore linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt, but also the Vols will have an experienced veteran senior to help mentor them this year, as Herman Lathers is expected to return from an ankle injury that kept him out of for the entire 2011 season.
After notching 75 tackles and three sacks back in 2010, Lathers looked as it he would be one of the SEC's most productive linebackers this past season before the injury pushed him to the sideline.
The 6'0'', 225-pound senior should be a solid fit in Tennessee's new 3-4 defense, and with Johnson and Maggitt both flanking him, he should be able to make plenty of key stops in 2012.
Tennessee's offense seemed lost for most of last season, as the Vols ranked 104th in the country in total offense and 106th in scoring offense, averaging just 332 yards and 20 points per game in 2011.
Now that QB Tyler Bray and WR Justin Hunter will both be healthy, though, this is an attack that should be much more explosive this season.
Bray, Hunter, RB Marlin Lane and WR Da'Rick Rogers have the potential to be an explosive foursome at the skill positions, and with the entire starting offensive line returning, Tennessee should be able to put up much better offensive numbers in 2012 than the Vols did last season.