Even the most optimistic Volunteer fan had to know that the handwriting was on the wall for former coach Phillip Fulmer immediately following the 2008 opener.
As the Vols slogged their way off the field after an overtime loss to a sub-par UCLA squad in Rick Neuheisel’s debut, it was no longer a question of whether Fulmer would be replaced, but rather, if he would step down or be fired.
Ten seasons removed from the 1998 national championship, Tennessee football had fallen from the national elite into the arms of mediocrity. No longer a foil to their archrival Florida, the Volunteers were in danger of becoming an afterthought in the Southeastern Conference.
And that simply could not stand.
Enter new coach Lane Kiffin—the first hire outside the Tennessee family since Bill Battle in 1969.
Kiffin—the youngest head coach in Oakland Raiders history and now the youngest active head coach in Division I football—and Battle also have youth in common.
Battle was only 28 when he took over while Kiffin arrives on Rocky Top at age 33.
Battle boasted a 31-5 record over his first three seasons before tailing off with a 28-17 mark over his last four.
Based on Tennessee’s current state of affairs, I’m sure Kiffin would take that in a Big Orange second.
With that in mind, here are the three most burning questions surrounding the Tennessee Volunteers on the eve of the Lane Kiffin era in Knoxville:
1. How do this year's expectations for the program compare to previous years, and who's going to be under the most pressure in 2009?
The names of the coaches leading the team through the “T” may change, but the uniforms and expectations always remain the same:
1. Beat Florida
2. Beat Alabama
3. Contend for the national title
And unfortunately for Kiffin, that’s not about to change just because he’s in his first year. Those same expectations also leave little doubt that the Vols’ new coach will be the one person under the most pressure in 2009.
He’s got the coaching pedigree and his father (Monte Kiffin) running the defense, but he’s also got a giant bull’s-eye on his back.
Accusations of recruiting violations toward Florida coach Urban Meyer and off-the-cuff remarks allegedly lobbed toward the Georgia Bulldogs and South Carolina Gamecocks—all of whom occupy the SEC Eastern Division along with the Volunteers—absolutely made sure of that.
But, that’s all just a sideshow for the media.
The real story is on the field.
Cockiness at the SEC Coaches’ Meeting is one thing, but it’s a five-game stretch featuring trips to the Swamp and Bryant-Denny Stadium with visits from Auburn and Georgia sandwiched between that will tell you all you need to know about Kiffin’s adaptation to life in the SEC.
His dad’s trademark Tampa-2 defense should ease his transition somewhat, which leaves the younger Kiffin to transform a moribund Volunteers’ offense into something competitive.
Kiffin got a raw deal from Al Davis and the Raiders, but now we’ll find out first-hand if his genius as an offensive coordinator at USC was more about him or the constant stream of blue-chippers he had to work with.
And that brings us to our next burning question surrounding Tennessee headed into 2009:
2. Which players have high expectations heading into the 2009 season versus those that will be under less scrutiny?
High Expectations: Jonathan Crompton, Senior, Quarterback
Just how much Kiffin can transform the Tennessee offense begins and ends with the player who runs it.
And, for now, that player is Crompton.
Though all three Tennessee signal-callers made starts last season with varying levels of success, Crompton (2-4 as a starter in 2008) regained the job coming into 2009 after leading the Volunteers to a 28-10 win over Kentucky in Fulmer’s swan song.
And he’ll remain under center as long as he can hold off junior Nick Stephens (2-3) now that sophomore B.J. Coleman (1-0) transferred out of the program.
If Crompton & Co. can’t improve on last year’s performance, the effect will trickle down to running backs Montario Hardesty and Lennon Creer and limit their effectiveness just as it did departed senior Arian Foster last season.
Things could be even more problematic for the quarterback duo if the seemingly thin wide receiving corps can’t perform up to the team’s usual expectations.
Surprisingly, although Kiffin came away with a Top 10 recruiting class according to Rivals.com, the list of signees did not include a quarterback.
In other words, Peyton Manning isn’t walking through that door…Crompton will have to do.
High Expectations: Eric Berry, Junior, Defensive Back
Linebackers usually highlight Monte Kiffin’s Tampa-2 defense, but All-American Eric Berry is the unquestioned leader here.
A consummate ballhawk, Berry needs just 15 interception return yards to break the major college record (501) after tying for the national lead with seven picks in 2008.
And with an offense that may struggle to find its footing early on, the Volunteers will need Berry to be at his best if they hope to hang with high-octane offenses such as the ones they’ll face against Florida, Alabama and Ole Miss.
Though the front line is experienced, a new crop of linebackers will roam in front of Berry and the rest of the secondary, so expect them to be busy all season long.
Less Scrutiny: Luke Stocker, Junior and Jeff Cottam, Junior, Tight End
Stocker (6-6, 240) and Cottam (6-8, 260) will have a greater role in Kiffin’s offense and provide a couple of huge downfield targets for Volunteer quarterbacks. Both are adept run blockers, but this new dimension may actually be the key in getting the Tennessee offense out of the doldrums.
Our final question surrounding Tennessee football:
3. Have developments this off-season raised or lowered expectations in Tennessee?
Say what you will about the way Kiffin has approached the job at Tennessee so far, but at least people are talking about the Volunteers once again. Then again, the $5.3 million price tag on the coaching staff’s combined salary was enough to do that all by itself.
So, of course, expectations are raised while still remaining somewhat realistic.
Kiffin hasn’t foolishly promised to go out and win a national title in his first year, but he’ll be expected to at least get the Vols bowl-eligible and on their way to that by next season.
Rome wasn’t built in a day…but I’m sure it didn’t take long for the complaining to begin.