After listening to SEC Media Days from my cubicle at work (I'm not the only one, reveal yourselves), I can no longer ignore the optimism from nearly everyone about the 2012 Tennessee Volunteers. Don't be scared or ashamed if you feel the same way because the Vols' 2011 campaign was nearly a completely different story.
Let's rethink a few commonly held beliefs about Tennessee from last year to this year and see if we can't get a better gauge on where they should have been and where they are.
Vols' Bad SEC East Record in 2011 Shows They're Way Behind
Your annoying co-worker who roots for Florida because his great aunt lives in Tampa (his only connection to the state) smugly asks you how Tennessee hopes to best the Gators this year.
At first thought, you have no response. The Volunteers went 1-4 in the SEC East last year, hardly anything to be proud of. But a deeper look is very revealing.
Tennessee lost by an average eight points to teams in the East in 2011. Justin Hunter, my and your top pick for best wide receiver last season, played in approximately five of the 240 minutes recorded against those four teams. Do you think he's worth seven or eight points per game? Do you think the Vols played differently when down by one instead of eight?
(Side note: The Vols continued a strong opening drive against Florida even after Hunter went down. Michael Palardy, as usual, missed a field goal from the 20-yard line that would've changed the game significantly. We tend to forget the little things.)
Tyler Bray broke his right thumb on the helmet of a Georgia defender in the closing minutes of their bout with the eventual East champions. Indeed, Matt Simms finished off the drive with a touchdown but not before he dinked and dunked twice as the clock rolled, was sacked and intentionally grounded the ball and was stuffed on the goal line, forcing Tennessee to take its last timeout.
Simms did his job—get the ball in the end zone. But Bray would've gotten it done faster. Even just 90 seconds quicker would've left the Vols with one minute, 48 seconds and a timeout instead of 18 seconds and a prayer at the end of the game.
Is it unfair to call the Vols unlucky? Is that not a good excuse? To me, anything that's true is a valid excuse, and Tennessee was extremely unlucky with the injuries to Hunter and Bray.
Tell your co-worker that you'll buy his ticket to the game in Neyland. It will be worth it.
Tennessee's Boring Defense Can't Change Games
No football coach can completely overhaul a defense in one offseason, but one thing he can do is make them blitz more. That obvious fact should do wonders for the Vols this year.
Justin Wilcox, a fine young defensive coordinator, didn't feel that he had the players to put consistently strong pressure on the quarterback. He felt the risk of a big play outweighed the reward of a sack, fumble or interception.
Numerous times last fall, Dooley requested Wilcox roll the dice and try to get the ball back in the Volunteer offense's hands. Wilcox just couldn't gamble, and I don't really blame him, but what if he had tried some bigger plays?
Compare Wilcox's pensive, Jeff Fisher-like approach to Sal Sunseri, and you'll know that the 2012 defense won't be waiting around. If you want an NFL comparison for Sunseri, I give you the late Jim Johnson of the Philadelphia Eagles. If you want a more entertaining one, I give you a police-trained German Shepard.
If Dooley yells blitz, Sunseri will send the entire team. And you don't have to tell him twice.
I'm ready for that kind of aggression. With the sort of points Tennessee is going to put up, risking a big play on defense is OK every once in a while. Giving Bray and Co. the ball sooner than expected is worth it.
Volunteers' Are Weak-Minded—Just Look at Their 2011 SEC West Games
In a matter of four weeks, the Vols were beaten badly by the future No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the country. Let's call that a tough break.
But for people that actually watched the game instead of flipping through ESPN's postgame highlights, you know that Tennessee fought hard in the first half of each one of those games.
Against LSU, it was 17-7 at half. Against Alabama, it was 6-6. At Arkansas, it was 21-7. All three of these games, especially the one against eventual national champion Alabama, were highly competitive for 30 minutes. So what happened in the second half?
Did Derek Dooley get outcoached? It's possible, but I doubt Les Miles outcoaches anyone by 21 points in one half. He's a great character, but far from a brilliant mind.
Were the Vols not deep or experienced enough to "carry the fight to the opponent and keep it there for 60 minutes"? Did Bane sneak in and freak them out in the locker room? Either one of these explanations is possible, but I believe depth and experience is more likely.
Building depth takes time. You can't snap your fingers and make it happen. One of the few good things about the numerous injuries last year is that Tennessee was forced to build its own depth from within. With three strong recruiting classes on the Hill, the depth is stronger than has been in years.
An easier schedule, more depth and greater experience will help the Vols put their second half woes to bed.
Kentucky Loss was a Sign of Things to Come
Let's face it, even after the disappointing 2011 season, Tennessee fans would've had a much rosier picture of the 2012 campaign had the Volunteers not laid an egg against Kentucky. It was an atrocious showing by the Big Orange, but it was also Derek Dooley's first and only game that he lost as the favorite.
Had the Volunteers not digressed to the idiotic Wildcat offense after Tyler Bray completed a 44-yard bomb to Raijon Neal that put the Vols on the eight-yard line, it's likely that the ball wouldn't have been snapped over Neal's head and been recovered by Kentucky. Tennessee could've punched it in with a more traditional play and taken an early 7-0 lead.
It was an elementary play call by Dooley and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. But it was one play, not an entire season.
The "halo effect" is well-documented. When the final result of a project (or season, in this case) is good, we feel that everything that happened within the project was also good. There's no review of what could've been done better because the result was positive.
Similarly, Vol fans have put a halo around the entire 2011 season because of one terrible game at Kentucky. It was a dud. Let's not destroy the whole season.
After all, had Tennessee found a way to pull it out, the Vols would've been bowl eligible. They likely would've found themselves in the Liberty Bowl against Cincinnati or other similar opponent.
They throttled the Bearcats 45-23 earlier in the year. They probably win again, riding a wave of momentum and enthusiasm into the offseason.
Then what are we saying now? Is Dooley turning the corner instead of sitting on the hot seat? Is Bray a viable Heisman contender?
All because of one play, our hopes and expectations have changed. That's a bit of an overreaction.
The Hype is Warranted
All I heard last week was that Tyler Bray looks like a monster having put on 30 pounds. Justin Hunter is feeling good. Antonio Richardson is a beast, and everyone is seeing that. Herman Lathers is back and finally healthy, ready to watch Jacques Smith and Curt Maggitt play as outside linebackers in the 3-4.
Lathers also thought Bray could outdo a 4,000-yard/40 touchdown season.
All I heard was optimism! Even the downer Clay Travis (whose attitude reminds me of Randy Quaid in Major League 2) was raving about Bray's size and the Vols' potential. That's when you know things are good, when Travis takes a moment to recognize a person other than Vanderbilt's James Franklin.
I'm tired of talking about who is and isn't on the hot seat. Six- and seven-win seasons are boring and should be left to the Mississippi schools and the occasional Kentucky/Vandy program. The Vols are better than we realize.
Josh Ward of Knoxville's 99.1 FM Sports Animal made a great point at SEC Media Days. He said that just because last year's results were down, doesn't mean we should carry that same expectation into this year.
Conference contender? Not quite yet. But with just over a month until the season kickoff, I've not heard such enthusiasm since 2005. The myths aren't true, and the 2012 Vols are for real.