The 2012 season marks one of the most important for the Tennessee Volunteers in recent memory. Sure, it's a crucial year for the future of Derek Dooley, but it's also a potential breakout year for the Vols as a whole and a return to conference relevancy.
With juniors and seniors finally starting where freshmen and sophomores have been for the past two years, the Big Orange has experience to compete with anyone in the country.
As far as talent goes, the Vols already have several starters appearing on trophy watchlists and early presesason all-conference teams.
But why is 2012, not 2013 or even 2014, the year that the Vols are best-suited to contend for the SEC East?
By anyone's account, the Volunteers had one of the toughest schedules in the country last year. In less than one calendar month, Tennessee played the No. 1, No. 2, No. 8 and No. 13 teams in college football, with two of those games coming on the road.
The Vols were the only team outside of the SEC West to play Alabama, LSU and Arkansas, the three best teams of 2011, in my opinion. Their annual bouts with Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were tough as always, though they did fight hard and turned in losses of just 11 points or less.
There's no question that the grind of the conference schedule tired the young 2011 Vols, but that won't be the case in 2012.
The only West teams Tennessee meets are Alabama and Mississippi State. Alabama will be challenging as usual, but the road game at Mississippi State is very winnable and will be immensely easier than last year's road game at Arkansas.
The players are less likely to tire this year, too. Having at least two years of SEC experience behind them now, the offensive line, wide receivers, quarterback and much of the defense will be better equipped for the week-to-week challenge of the conference.
An important factor that rarely gets covered in college football is the importance of continuity on the offensive line. While the unit's coach, Harry Hiestand, bolted for Notre Dame, the players have remained intact.
Dallas Thomas, the elder statesman of the line, has shifted to left guard to make room (literally) for Antonio Richardson at left tackle. Alex Bullard will again serve as the center and will certainly show improvement now that he's settled in orange and white.
Zach Fulton and James Stone continue a great fight for playing time at right guard, but regardless who ends up winning, you can expect fresh legs and a competitive spirit to increase the line's effectiveness. Finally, Ja'Wuan James is a darkhorse future first-rounder as a junior at the right tackle spot.
The best part about the offensive line? Not a single one of them is new. That's something that Tennessee hasn't been able to boast in many, many years, and you can bet that it'll show in 2012.
Expect Tyler Bray, who was sacked least of all SEC quarterbacks last season, to continue to remain upright and the running backs to have better holes this fall.
As a lifelong Tennessee fan, of course I'm biased for the Volunteers, but some things are just undeniable. That the Big Orange will field one of—if not the—top passing attacks in the country is one of those things.
Like the offensive line, an important factor in the 2012 passing attack is the experience of its players. Tyler Bray is entering his second season as the starter. Still looking for his first full season of play, we've yet to see Bray's full potential.
Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers have already shown their skills in Knoxville, and it'll be interesting to see how defenses try to match-up with the two future first-rounders now that a two-time JUCO All-American has joined them.
That player, Cordarelle Patterson, was called the most ready-to-play in the FBS by numerous scouting sites, and the Vols snagged him this past winter.
The run game is terribly important, yes, but whether you use the run to set up the pass (1990s Vols) or the pass to set up the run (2012 Vols?), it really doesn't matter.
I happen to think a heavy dose of Tyler Bray and Co. would make for a fun fourth quarter of football where fans could watch Marlin Lane run through holes as wide as Daniel McCullers.
It takes a little bit of luck to contend for the SEC East title, and the Volunteers might have run into a situation where one of the usual suspects may not be a sharp as usual this fall.
Florida is coming off a lackluster 7-6 season with a 24-17 bowl win over a 6-7 Ohio State team that simply wasn't itself last year. They're also in a big transition period.
First, Charlie Weis' graced Gainesville with his offensive brilliance for one season before leaving for the head coaching job at Kansas.
Second, Florida might succumb to the adage, "When you think you have two QBs, you actually have none." Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskell split passes behind the now departed starter John Brantley in 2011 evenly. They combined for two touchdowns, six interceptions and 1.16 yards per carry for supposedly mobile quarterbacks.
Finally, they also are without Chris Rainey for this first time in school history. (But seriously, doesn't anyone else feel like he has been there since the days of Steve Spurrier?)
The game with Florida is in Neyland, and the Volunteers might very well be looking for their first 3-0 start since 2004.
Last year's SEC East champion was Georgia, and they should get heavy consideration to repeat in 2012. However, any prediction that went in their favor last month has to be reviewed after their freshman phenom Isaiah Crowell was dismissed from the team a few weeks ago.
Crowell led Georgia in rushing attemps, yards and touchdowns last year, far outpacing the second-place finisher in each of those categories, the 5'7" Carlton Thomas. Thomas isn't going to be able to carry to load, so Georgia is searching deep for their bell cow in a year that should be about building on a 2011 East title.
South Carolina is coming off its best year in school history with an 11-2 record. The dismissal of Stephen Garcia and injury to Marcus Lattimore should've derailed their 2011 season, but instead they rallied around new quarterback Connor Shaw.
Will Shaw's running ability be put on hold with the return of Lattimore? How will he function as the unquestioned starter for notorious quarterback-killer Steve Spurrier? Can Lattimore come back strong after a torn ACL?
These just aren't the typical kind of questions asked after an 11-win season. Tennessee has a chance to spring forward as the most stable SEC East contender this fall. Can you believe it?
Prentiss Waggner is in his last year as a Vol. His career has been overshadowed by coaching changes and disappointments, but he has remained a consistent leader and producer in the secondary.
Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers are all strong candidates for early departures from college for the Sunday afternoons (and seven-figure bank accounts) of the NFL.
Dallas Thomas is on a few Outland Trophy watchlists for the top lineman in the country this year and should have a future at the next level after four strong seasons in Knoxville.
Ja'Wuan James and Cordarelle Patterson are darkhorse candidates to leave early if they have great showings. In an ideal world, they could be two more first or second-round picks for Tennessee.
Waggner and Thomas are key pieces that are gone after 2012 no matter what. The rest of these players are potential losses if they have strong seasons of which they're capable.
Unless every single one of these juniors returns, this fall is the year that Tennessee needs to contend for the East.
"Necessity is the mother of invention." Nothing could be truer of Derek Dooley's 2012 season.
He absolutely needs to win this fall if he wants to keep his job, and you can expect some "inventive" lineups, playcalls and schemes to be worked into the game during key situations.
After all, he has nothing to gain, only to keep. But he does have everything to lose in terms of his tenure on Rocky Top.
Two years ago, Urban Meyer killed the hopes of the Vols against Florida with a perfectly timed fake punt. This fall could see some gadgets plays being run by Tennessee.
Last year, the only offense that worked against Kentucky was the deep bomb from Tyler Bray to Raijon Neal. In 2012, I'd bet that Dooley would let Bray rip to eke out the victory.
If a game is on the line in 2012, I fully expect for Dooley to throw caution to the wind and go for it. A close loss does nothing for him or his team. This kind of mindset coupled with an aggressive quarterback and equally aggressive defensive coordinator could prove to be dangerous in an open SEC East.
It's the biggest reason of all that the Tennessee Volunteers' best chance to contend in the East is 2012.