Countdown to Kickoff 2009: The Preseason Top 50—No. 40 Tennessee Volunteers

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Countdown to Kickoff 2009: The Preseason Top 50—No. 40 Tennessee Volunteers

Spring practice has wrapped up across the country, and we are a little over three months away from kickoff. To make the time go a little faster, I will count down my top 50 teams one team at a time.


No. 41  Nevada Wolf Pack

No. 40  TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS

There is one storyline that will dominate Tennessee football this season: the hiring of the brash, young, and sometimes overly confident Lane Kiffin.

Kiffin came in like a tornado, verbally dogging fellow SEC coaches, hiring a much-ballyhooed coaching staff, signing prized recruits, and ultimately getting reprimanded by the NCAA. His first few months on the job have created a firestorm of controversy in the college football world.

But for Vols fans, he has created a newfound buzz of excitement that is something far removed from the conservative approach of his predecessor Phil Fulmer.

There is a totally new coaching staff in Knoxville with some pretty big names.

Monte Kiffin, the legendary NFL defensive coordinator, will join his son to take charge of the defense, and Jim Chaney will take over as the offensive coordinator after spending the last three seasons as an assistant offensive line and tight ends coach with the St. Louis Rams.

Kiffin's best move may have been bringing in Ed Orgeron, who is an excellent defensive line coach and a premier recruiter. Orgeron will also be familiar with the SEC, where he stockpiled amazing talent during his three years as the head coach at Ole Miss.

But talk, a high-priced brain trust, and a top-10 recruiting class won't amount to a hill of beans unless the Vols get better quarterback play in the fall.

The candidates include Mike Rozier, a former minor league baseball player who committed to Tennessee in mid-April, Nick Stephens who was the Vols most efficient passer last season, but suffered a fractured throwing wrist this spring, and the mediocre returning starter Jonathan Crompton, who had a terrible season last year behind a pitiful offensive line.

With a stable of good running backs and three returning starters on the offensive line, the quarterback play is the major obstacle between Tennessee returning to a respectable offensive unit.

It's amazing to believe the Vol defense was the top-ranked defense in the conference with the aforementioned hideous offensive output. The defense saw the field a lot.

The unit returns a lot of depth and talent, including all-everything safety Eric Berry, linebacker Rico McCoy, and defensive tackle Dan Williams, who should all be on the postseason awards watch lists. Defensive end Chris Walker has demonstrated all spring that he, too, is primed to make a name on the national stage now.

Kiffin's first year at Tennessee will likely be one of modest improvements, with seven wins a realistic goal. If Tennessee can return to a bowl game this season, and then enjoy another banner recruiting year, it might become a realistic threat to win the SEC East title next season.

 

KEEP AN EYE ON

Quintin Hancock (WR)

Hancock caught eight passes for 96 yards in the spring game and was voted the team's most improved offensive player. Benefiting from the coaching change, Hancock could earn a starting spot for the season opener.

 

Chris Walker (DE)

The Vols needed to find a replacement for Robert Ayers, and they might have found him in Walker. With the kind of edge speed needed to get to the quarterback, Walker was as unblockable as Montori Hughes for much of spring drills and appears likely to start in September.

 

Montori Hughes (DT)

An incredible spring may have won Hughes a starting job alongside Dan Williams in the fall. Hughes was a lightly regarded recruit coming out of high school but took advantage of the opportunity under the new coaching staff.

 

UP NEXT:  The Big Ten checks back in at No. 39.  This team went from one win in 2007 to seven in 2008.  How big a leap can they make in 2009?

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