The Tennessee Volunteers will take a huge jump this fall. After consecutive losing seasons for the first time in a century, the Big Orange has a great chance of winning eight or nine games. Doing so would make them one of the nation's most improved teams, and fans have every reason to believe that it'll happen.
One element that gives Tennessee an advantage in the "Most Improved Team" category is their poor 2011. After all, how much better did the 1999 team get after the previous year's 13-0 BCS National Championship season?
With nowhere to go but up, the Vols will certainly improve internally. But their health, schedule and experience gives reason to believe that they'll also improve externally against their conference foes and appear among the most improved teams in the nation by season's end.
Unlucky Injuries in 2011, Unlikely in 2012
Let's face it. The Vols weren't even close to being at full strength for the vast majority of last season.
Justin Hunter, perhaps the most important player on the team (as shown by what happened to the offense when he wasn't there), lit up the highlight reel for two weeks before catching only one pass in the third game and going down with an ACL tear.
We were all infuriated by the terrible luck at the time, but with the fall fast approaching, it was fortunate that he was injured so early in the season. It helped him rehab faster, and it looks like he'll be ready to go for Aug. 31st's season opener.
Tyler Bray, a future top-five pick, broke his throwing thumb in a game against Georgia that ended with the Vols losing by eight. Had he and Hunter been healthy, I have to think the Vols can get one more touchdown. (Of course, who knows is Michael Palardy would've been able to hit the extra point.)
Brent Brewer, a bit of a disappointment last year, was still a huge part of the defense. His knee injury against South Carolina forced Derek Dooley to waffle his defensive backs between cornerback and safety.
Had all of the players stayed healthy, the outcome of 2011 would've been much different. As it stands, they're all ready to go for the 2012 season. Bray and Hunter are on everyone's watch list for awards this season, and their return is going to be huge for the Vols' quest to become the nation's most improved team.
A Short October
Since the infamous black jerseys of Halloween 2009, the Vols have a paltry 1-8 record in the month of October, all under Dooley.
The term "0-for-October" has started to enter the Tennessee vocabulary, a bad sign when the most important conference games come during that month.
Last year's October featured a weak Buffalo team on the first day of the month, followed by eventual SEC East champion Georgia, then the BCS National Championship Game duo of LSU and Alabama, followed by South Carolina who had the best season in school history.
This year, the Vols play only three games in October instead of the typical four. That will help ease the pain of the mental block Tennessee has with the month. Road games at Mississippi State and South Carolina aren't likely to be pushovers, but they're winnable, particularly State.
Then, of course, there's Alabama. But I should stop writing off that game as a definite loss. The Vols have beaten Alabama more recently than Florida, and I see Tennessee pulling off the win over the Gators in September. Why not 'Bama, too?
Tennessee gets a week off before the Mississippi State game, which should be a great competition to prepare for Alabama, which is the week after. Let's end the streak, Big Orange!
Needless to say, even a 1-2 October would be an improvement over previous seasons.
Serious Starting Lineup Experience
The last time you've really been able to boast of experience from Tennessee was 2007. That was also the last time the Volunteers played for the SEC title.
I'm not ready to call the Vols legitimate conference contenders (let's wait until after the Florida game), but here's how the projected starting lineup stacks up:
There are six juniors, three seniors and two sophomores on offense. The two sophomores, Marlin Lane and Antonio Richardson, have special circumstances surrounding them. Lane saw plenty of playing time last year as the backup behind Tauren Poole and should be fine in a conference that has season numerous freshmen dominate at running back.
Richardson's promotion is completely because of talent. Dooley could easily start James Stone, shift Dallas Thomas back to left tackle and then brag about the age of his offensive line. The fact that Richardson's performance has forced Dooley's hand is a great sign.
There are four juniors, four sophomores and three seniors on defense. Keep in mind that three of the four sophomores starting on defense were All-SEC Freshmen last year. A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt and Brian Randolph aren't your typical second-years.
In just one season, the Vols have gone from a team full of sophomores with little experience to a team full of juniors and seniors with two to three years of college football experience. A notable improvement is on the horizon.
It's (Winning) Football Time in Tennessee
We're at the point where either the Tennessee Volunteers either have a great season and confirm fans' hopes and dreams, or we learn that Derek Dooley simply isn't the guy.
No doubt Tennessee will face teams that are better than it this fall, but the gap shouldn't be as large. If the Vols avoid injury, take advantage of a softer schedule and leverage their experience into wins on Saturdays, the nation will have to recognize the Vols as one of the most improved teams.
I can't help but shrug my shoulders when thinking about this season. This is has to be it! The talent is there. The experience is there. The schedule is doable. It's put up or shut up time.
And God knows I don't want to shut up. GBO.