As 2010 dawns, changes abound for the University of Tennessee football program.
That sentence could have been the first sentence written about any of the last three seasons. This year however, it comes with more trepidation than in previous seasons, as the Vols are coming into their own, on their own with few more than themselves seeing success at the end of what many believe will be a long season on Rocky Top.
If you are reading this, you are certainly already aware of the changes that the team and coaching staff have undergone in the past nine months. Changes have also been made to the stadium as in previous seasons with this year’s upgrades cosmetically pleasing to both the casual fan’s eye and the eye of the consummate old timer.
Arriving mid-season will be a statue of Tennessee legend General Robert Neyland. Already in place on the west side of the stadium’s exterior is a pedestal which has some of the General’s game maxims carved into it. Those same maxims are again to be recited by the team in the locker room before every game (after the change to that tradition under Kiffin) and one maxim will be on each season ticket this year for the home game schedule.
With the return of the maxim tradition by the University, Blazer Chronicles pays homage by using the maxims to preview this season’s opener with the UT Martin Skyhawks.
The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win
In football, mistakes are measured by turnovers and penalties. Mistakes are often made by young teams with inexperienced players.
UT Martin returns 45 lettermen after losing 20 from a season ago, and they split down the middle by returning and losing 14 starters.
Tennessee returns 37 lettermen after losing 28, and the Vols return 11 starters against 13 starters lost.
Derek Dooley and his coaching staff are completely new at Tennessee except for holdovers Jim Chaney and Lance Thompson, while UT Martin coach Jason Simpson enters his fifth season with the Skyhawks and has hired four new coaches since last season, including, interestingly enough, a graduate of USC that coached at Ole Miss under former Vols DL coach Ed Orgeron.
Simply looking at these numbers, one would expect the Vols to commit more mistakes. However, do not overlook the “wow factor” of playing inside Neyland Stadium in front of 100,000 orange clad screaming fans. The Skyhawks and their coaching staff should have composure issues regardless of their experience. The season-ending win over Austin Peay last season at Graham Stadium was played in front of 4,120 fans.
Play for and make the breaks, and when one comes your way, SCORE
In 2009, the Vols’ defense forced 24 takeaways through 13 games and scored 138 points from those takeaways. The Skyhawks, on the other hand, forced 21 turnovers through 11 games and points scored off of those turnovers were unavailable at the time of this article.
It’s hard to predict how many turnovers each team will have on September 4th, but the Vols should be in a good position to turn any Skyhawks mistakes into points.
If at first the game—or the breaks—go against you, don’t let up. Put on more steam
Both the Vols and Skyhawks struggled early in games in 2009. The Vols outscored opponents but not by much (79-67) while the Skyhawks were outscored by 20 in the opening frames of 2009 (79-59).
However, both squads did a good job of putting on more steam, as the Skyhawks outscored their opponents 89-68 in the fourth quarter last season, while the Vols outscored opponents 89-56 in the final frames of 2009 games.
If the game goes the way Tennessee and its fans would like, the Vols won’t need to score late however. By the fourth quarter, the Vols’ backups should be focusing on keeping the Skyhawks grounded.
Protect our kickers, our quarterback, our lead, and our ballgame
2009 saw the year of the block for Tennessee kickers, especially Daniel Lincoln who had two fourth quarter field goals blocked in a 12-10 loss at Alabama. On the season, the Vols had four field goals and a punt blocked, while the Skyhawks only saw one of each on the season.
The Vols offensive line of 2009 surrendered 21 sacks but no starters return to the unit for 2010. The Skyhawks lost two senior starters on their offensive line that gave up 18 sacks to opponents in 2009.
The Skyhawks were a perfect 4-0 when leading after three quarters while the Vols were 7-0 on the 09 season.
Ball, oskie, cover, block, cut and slice, pursue and gang tackle, for this is the WINNING EDGE
This maxim talks about overall hard play on the defensive side of the ball. The Vols were good at this in 2009, totaling 71 tackles for a loss, 21 sacks, 18 forced fumbles, 14 of those recovered, 45 passes broken up, 10 interceptions and 37 QB hurries.
With a new defensive coordinator that is known for his aggressive defense with disguised blitzes from all directions and the talent difference between FBS and FCS players, the Vols should more than have the edge here.
UT Martin dented stat books in 2009 with 73 tackles for a loss, 20 sacks, 18 forced fumbles, 10 of those recovered, 28 passes broken up, 11 interceptions and 17 QB hurries.
Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made
Tennessee understands this Maxim more than ever after the loss at Alabama and kickers from three different teams converted four field goals on the Vols in 2009.
Special teams are a focus for the Vols under Head Coach Derek Dooley whose addition of a Special Teams Coach is the first for the Vols in decades.
The Vols were 13-21 on field goals in 2009 and averaged just over 41 yards per punt. A 9.3 yard punt return average and 24 yard kickoff return average weren’t anything to get excited about either.
For the Skyhawks, their special teams were anything but special. Head Coach Jason Simpson was not happy with going 3-8 on field goal attempts and having a punting average just under 36 yards, a punt return average of around six and a half yards, and a kickoff return average of right at 20 yards. He was so unhappy, he too hired a new special teams coach, Ryan Nielsen, the aforementioned USC alum.
Carry the fight to our opponent and keep it there for 60 minutes
This is the intangible maxim that the Vols must have in every game this season. The Vols must be hungry. The Vols must be ready to carry the fight to every opponent regardless of their talent level and they have to keep it up for the entire game.
New football strength and conditioning coach Bennie Wylie has done his part to prepare the Vols for four quarters. How will the willpower and dedication of 72 scholarship athletes and a handful of walk-ons translate on the field?
Only time will tell. However one thing about this season is a certainty to me.
The UT Martin Skyhawks should provide little resistance in the pursuit of Head Coach Derek Dooley’s first Tennessee win.
Blazer Chronicles’ Prediction: Tennessee Vols 47 UT Martin 10