When last we saw the Tennessee Volunteers they were walking off the field of the Chil-Fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Day after being dominated by a stronger and deeper Virginia Tech team. Despite the loss, Vol fans were excited about the future of Tennessee football.
Lane Kiffin had built a groundswell of support in Knoxville by talking tough and gaining commitments from the highest rated prep stars in the country.
Kiffin, in conjunction with a strong staff, actually coached the Vols pretty well too. Jonathan Crompton went from benched scapegoat in 2009 to NFL draft pick in 2010 under Kiffin’s tutelage.
The Vols played with toughness and heart, taking national champion Alabama and SEC runners-up Florida each down to the wire in close losses. A 5-7 team in 2008 that showed little cohesion losing to the likes of Wyoming, now looked two or three years away from BCS bowl conversations.
By now we know the rest of the story. Kiffin scorned players who had “bought in” for his “dream job” in Los Angeles and may have left behind a trail of NCAA sanctions.
Despite strong efforts on the part of new Vol coach Derek Dooley and his staff, landing a top ten recruiting class in a mere three weeks, Tennessee struggled to sign much needed defensive and offensive linemen.
Dooley has acknowledged multiple times to local media that he is very concerned about the lack of depth, particularly on the line. Tennessee beat writer Wes Rucker reported last week that Steven Fowlkes, who arrived in Knoxville a 213 pound wide receiver, was being moved to the defensive tackle position despite now weighing only 250 pounds. Need any more evidence than that?
What hope is there, then, for a team in this situation that also happens to be replacing it’s NFL drafted starting tailback, quarterback, and one of the greatest safeties in the history of college football?
Hope in Knoxville surrounds Derek Dooley. Dooley, has garnered much respect from fans who see him as a plain talking man of conscience with a quietly calculating edge. He is a disciple of Nick Saban who has shown the same intensity and attention to detail off of the field at UT that SEC fans have seen from Saban on Saturdays.
Though Dooley’s record at Louisiana Tech, a tough place to coach, is not a ringing endorsement, his staff is impressive and includes key holdovers from last year to ensure less drama in the transition period.
The Vols are also slowly wracking up commitments from impressive high school linemen for the 2011 season. Linemen often come with lower star ratings from the recruiting services and usually won’t get you in the top ten index, but they will save your quarterback’s hide on Saturday night.
These future Vols, along with last year’s haul of fantastic wide receivers and talented true freshman quarterback Tyler Bray, give fans hope for the future.
2010, however, is now. What can Vol fans expect from Tennessee? This year’s team is unpredictable. SEC media members selected UT to finish 5th in the SEC East, below Kentucky. Historically, the Vols tend to surprise when they are predicted to stumble.
Senior tight end Luke Stocker, running back Tauren Poole, and receiver Gerald Jones provide good weapons for quarterback Matt Simms, who has shown enough promise in the offseason for Dooley to declare him the current leader for the starting nod.
The great concern is in who will protect these playmakers long enough to allow them to show their stuff. It doesn’t help that Tennessee faces one of the nation’s most difficult schedules, and competes in the strongest league in all of college football.
Is it going to be a long 2010 on Rocky Top? Here’s a breakdown of the Vols’ chances.
Guaranteed win against…
Before the recent batch of injuries to the defensive line, this category would have included more than one game. As things stand, no games, except the opener against the outmanned Skyhawks, who finished with a losing record in the OVC last year, appear guaranteed.
Vol fans should expect, but not take for granted, wins against…
U.A.B.: Conference USA has proven to be no slouch verses larger schools in recent years. UAB finished last season with a high powered offense, led by senior Joe Webb who finished the year with almost 1500 rushing yards and over 2000 yards passing.
Even then they only finished 5th in their conference. 2010 means life after Webb. The Vols should win, but their rallying cry should be “Remember Wyoming!” lest they forget the still embarrassing 2008 upset to an inferior opponent on their home turf.
Memphis: New head coach Larry Porter takes over a 2-10 team with lots of holes, but the Tigers’ strengths are the offensive and defensive lines. This could match up well with Tennessee. Memphis still doesn’t have the talent to compete with the Vols, but the fact that Tennessee could easily be walking onto the field the losers of six out of seven previous games and that the Tigers typically play the Vols tough, means this is no guarantee.
The Vols should be evenly matched with…
Mississippi : This year’s Mississippi team is far removed from the previous two years’ talented teams that Houston Nutt enjoyed in Oxford. Mississippi, much like the Vols, is replacing a number of starters without the high ranking recruits they became accustomed to during Ed Orgeron’s time as coach (unfortunately for Coach O, it took Nutt to coach them to any real success).
The Vols took an embarrassing beating from the Rebels last year on the road. This year they face Mississippi in Knoxville on Homecoming. That should give the Vols an edge.
Kentucky: When was the last you time you could honestly say that Kentucky and Tennessee were equal in talent? Kentucky’s recruiting under Rich Brooks improved as significantly as Tennessee’s recruiting dropped off in recent years.
Now Joker Phillips looks to capitalize on the offensive playmakers the newly retired Brooks left behind in Lexington. This game is always down to the wire and the Cats like to keep it close. The Vols’ NCAA record 25 game winning streak against Kentucky has to end some time. This may be even the best year for a new streak to start, but no good gambler bets against history like this, especially on Senior Day in Knoxville.
UT’s coaching staff will have had an entire season to bring their team up to speed by the time this November game rolls around and could be playing for bowl eligibility. Tennessee could lose, but I’m betting the streak goes on. Vols in a close one.
Tennessee will have to play flawlessly to beat…
Oregon: The Ducks are incredibly talented, favorites in the PAC-10, and, despite the loss of their starting quarterback due to off-the-field issues, some still consider Oregon contenders for the BCS Championship.
If Tennessee can pressure the Ducks inexperienced quarterback with their defensive backfield in the intimidating environment of Neyland Stadium they have a chance to keep it close. This game, however, is early in the season with the young Vols still getting their feet wet. The Ducks playmakers should give Oregon the ultimate advantage.
LSU: This is Tennessee’s first game against longtime Phil Fulmer Defensive Coordinator John “Chief” Chavis who now heads up the Tigers’ D. LSU is loaded with returning playmakers on offense and a strong stock of defensive players stepping into starting roles on defense. The young Vols first game on the road could not come in a tougher place to play than the infamously rowdy Tiger Stadium. This may be too much for Tennessee to overcome.
Georgia: Tennessee never seems intimidated by Sanford Stadium or Mark Richt. No matter what the talking heads predict Tennessee has shown the ability to go from underdog to powerhouse between the hedges in Athens. Richt’s team has questions at quarterback but weapons all over the rest of the field. The second game on the road for the developing Vols verses a Bulldog team with a chip on it’s shoulder after being embarrassed by Tennessee last season will likely result in a disappointing homecoming for Derek Dooley.
South Carolina: For years SC’s Steve Spurrier had Tennessee’s number as a Florida Gator. His South Carolina teams have a mediocre 2-3 record verses the Vols. This is symbolic of Spurrier’s time in Columbia. He has won, but not enough to draw serious comparisons to his Gator teams.
Many preseason football magazines think this is the year that Spurrier, armed with more talent than any other season at South Carolina, will the Gamecocks to the next level. Perhaps those same writers are still waiting for Lou Holtz to have a break out year for the Gamecocks.
Some of us have our doubts that Columbia can or will ever compare to Gainesville in football. For Tennessee, this game could easily come after a three game slide against LSU, Georgia, and Alabama. Derek Dooley’s team could be in the proverbial tank if he isn’t careful. On the other hand, after three straight tough games, these Vols could be ready for a coming out party on the road against an old nemesis. If there’s a game Tennessee wins in this category, this is it, but I still wouldn’t bet on it.
Tennessee will erect a statue in Derek Dooley’s honor if the Vols beat…
Alabama: One year ago Alabama’s national championship hopes were saved by a last second blocked field goal against Tennessee. This is the same Alabama squad with a few new faces on defense and a few new individual trophies (including the Heisman).
That 2009 Volunteer team featured Eric Berry, John Crompton, Monterio Hardesty, and a strong offensive line. All gone. This looks to be a long day in Knoxville for the Vols.
Florida: The Gators replace several starters, including recent face of the program Tim Tebow, this season. As always, Urban Meyer has restocked the pantry with five-star recruits born and raised in the Florida sunshine.
Meyer’s Gators also return a strong offensive line for new quarterback John Brantley. The loss of Tebow and the fact that this game is in Knoxville has been cause for hope among the Tennessee faithful. If this game were later in the season it might be even more interesting.
As it is, the already banged up Vols will be rebounding from a hard game with Oregon to face a very physical Gator front line. Realistically, the Vols may still be two or three years from seriously competing with Florida or Alabama again.
Overall, this is an extremely dangerous year for Tennessee. The long stretch of difficult games risks the young Volunteers’ throwing in the towel on this season before it’s over.
The toughest job for Dooley will be to keep the team focused and together until the later part of the season when the schedule brings four straight winnable games. If he doesn’t, this could easily become a 2-3 win season.
If he can keep the team together through the rough patch, and maybe even pull off an upset in Columbia, it is still possible that when the Cats and the Vols meet on November 27 in Knoxville, a bowl birth will be in the future for the Big Orange.
It says here the Vols will go bowling by the skin of their teeth with a hard fought 6-6 record. If that happens, Vol fans will sleep a little easier at night knowing they survived a treacherous season and that in 3-4 years the future will be bright orange in Tennessee.
(Johnny Lewis covers the SEC and Tennessee Volunteers for Bleacher Report and Sportshaze. Visit his web site kentuckyvols.com and follow him on Twitter @kyvolunteer.)