Tennessee Volunteers: 10 Biggest Questions for the 2011 College Football Season
It appears as though the Tennessee Volunteers football program has finally found steady ground once again after three years of turmoil. That doesn't mean that there aren't questions and concerns for the team on Rocky Top.
Playing in the most powerful football conference in the country magnifies each and every weakness. While I like being able to say that my Vols are facing the top competition (and winning, hopefully), it's also the proverbial grind to play in the SEC.
The first step in preparing for any hardship—the SEC schedule in this case—is to understand what variables you have to deal with.
So here we go! The 10 biggest questions facing the 2011 Tennessee Volunteers football team are...
10: How Are the Crimes of Lane Kiffin Going to Affect the Future of the Team?
If you're a fan of the Tennessee Volunteers—and I think you must be, unless you're reading this as a spy for the Florida Gators—then I think you understand by what I mean when I ask about Lane Kiffin's "crimes".
Obviously, no state or federal laws were broken during his 13-month tornado-like tenure as the head football coach. But virtually everything near and dear to the hearts of Vol fans was torn down.
He posted videos and pictures of his USC Trojans all over the locker room at the first meeting. He guaranteed a victory over Florida in the Swamp. He sent 4-star quarterback recruit Tajh Boyd elsewhere because he supposedly couldn't use him.
And he got Tennessee into extremely hot water with the NCAA.
The meeting with the Infractions Committee has come and gone, but the boom has yet to be lowered. I've heard rumors that the penalties could be anywhere from a simple two-year reduction in scholarships (one or two) or as complicated a bowl bans and harsh recruiting restrictions.
With a new head coach and a new athletic director, all Tennessee can do is hope and pray.
9: Will Tennessee Find Any Consistency in the Kicking Game?
I was only about 10 years old at the time, but I don't remember Jeff Hall ever missing a field goal.
It's been a while since the Tennessee Volunteers have had a kicker that they could really depend on, and 2011 is no different.
Daniel Lincoln finally regained his form in 2010 and hit 10 of 11 field goals on the year. Highly touted recruit Michael Palardy received some playing both in kicking and punting and showed signs of his great ability.
But his low, driving kicks are susceptible to being blocked. With the graduation of Lincoln, it's up to Palardy to take the reigns of the Vols kicking game over.
8: Can Tauren Poole Take the Next Step at Runing Back?
The guy who has all the heart and guts usually is a fan favorite. We all want him to succeed and bring glory back to the team.
It's just not typical that that guys is the only option you have.
Tauren Poole heads up an unproven corp of running backs for the 2011 Tennessee Volunteers in what will be his last year on The Hill. He barely edged the 1,000-yard milestone last year by managing to accumulate 1,034.
Tennessee hasn't had a rusher get 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons since before 2004. If Poole can achieve 1,100 to 1,200 yards, the Vols have an excellent chance of seeing their potent offense improve on 2010.
There are some youngsters looking to crack into the lineup, though.
Raijon Neal and Toney Williams are both strong runners with some speed. In fact, I see Poole, Neal, and Williams as very similar running backs, both a blessing and a curse.
Marlin Lane, a Rivals.com 4-star recruit, will probably become more and more involved in the offense at the end of the season due to a knee injury he suffered his senior year of high school.
7: How Will the Big Orange Juggle the Offensive Line?
It's time for a happy question to ask!
The Tennessee Volunteers have an embarrassment of riches on the offensive line. Not since the days of Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry have the Big Orange been able to line up in the fourth quarter and dominate you with their offensive line.
I'm happy to report that those days are on the horizon.
In 2010, the entire right side of the line, including the center, was comprised of freshmen. While they certainly made mistakes that can be attributed to their youth, most college analysts were very impressed with their performance.
Now they're all one year older and one year wiser.
Expect to see junior tackle Dallas Thomas protect quarterback Tyler Bray's blindside, while sophomore Ja'Wuan James will once again take the other tackle position.
The guards will be sophomore Zach Fulton and Notre Dame transfer Alex Bullard, a junior.
Finally, expect to see the lefty center James Stone snapping the ball.
Bullard and Stone are capable of swapping positions, which allows the interior line to get breathers more often with a quick substitution.
6: Who Are Going to Be the Linebackers?
The linebacker position has been weak ever since the NFL drafted players like Jerod Mayo, Kevin Burnett, and Kevin Simon away from the Tennessee Volunteers.
Austin Johnson and Herman Lathers are the most likely candidates for middle linebacker, with the other playing the outside spot.
But the other linebacker will come from a group that consists of Daryl Vereen, Nigel Mitchell-Thornton, and Raicques Crump.
Sure, we've heard of them, but never in any significant role. With the departure of seniors LaMarcus Thompson and Savion Frazier, the Vols are frighteningly shallow at linebacker.
Luckily, head coach Derek Dooley secured a good class of linebacker recruits that will be on campus this fall, but how much can we expect out of these freshmen so early?
A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt will be huge pieces in the future, though.
5: Who Is Going to Play on the Defensive Line?
As troubling as the linebacker situation is for the Tennessee Volunteers, the defensive line might be even more so.
When news of Montori Hughes' dismissal from the team became a hot topic on Vols message boards, I realized just how thin Tennessee is on the defensive side of the trenches.
Hughes is a year younger than me and went to my high school in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. While he was clearly a great athlete on the field, he was far from a breath-taking defensive lineman.
And if you're not electric in high school, it's tough to be momentous in the SEC.
Malik Jackson and Jacques Smith are bright spots on the otherwise destitute line, with Jackson being perhaps the leader of the entire defense.
Smith can lay vicious hits on the quarterback and running back when he gets to them, and the defense will need him to keep doing so.
Marlon Walls, who was sidelined for all of 2010 with an Achilles' heel injury, is finally back for his redshirt sophomore year. He is the wild card in this scenario and could lift the unit greatly with solid play.
Cross your fingers that Willie Bohannon and Daniel Hood are able to channel their inner Rudy Ruettigers
4: Is Janzen Jackson Going to Be a Part of the Volunteer Defense?
One of the last remaining Lane Kiffin recruits is Janzen Jackson.
His presence as the safety position is really invaluable for the untested Tennessee Volunteers defense. What he does on the field allows the players in front of him to take a few more chances and make a few more big plays because of it.
But he's a bit of a headcase, as is every Kiffin player. As a student at Tennessee, there was a rumor that he had been more involved in the Pilot incident as well as the Bar Knoxville incident but had been able to escape both.
Without Jackson, the Vols will depend on Prentiss Waggner and former second rounder in the MLB Draft Brent Brewer.
3: Can Tyler Bray Play Against the Best SEC Defenses?
Derek Dooley says it was unintentional, but we all know better.
Right when the 2010 Tennessee Volunteers schedule eased up, he decided to start Tyler Bray at quarterback instead of Matt Simms.
I think it was an excellent decision because Bray was able to get great experience without having to get mauled by the likes of Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. He did quite well against SEC East champion South Carolina, though.
Simms should be respected for his willingness to tough it out for the Vols. He didn't take too well to being benched, but I like that in players. However, his time has passed. His job is to help Bray.
Bray will be looked upon to lead Tennessee with his cannon arm this season and build his football IQ at the line of scrimmage. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has a track record of coaching quarterbacks that are great passers (Drew Brees, Kyle Orton), and I expect Bray to become another.
Gatorade Player of the Year Justin Worley is now on the roster. The best case scenario for Worley and Tennessee is for him to redshirt this year, backup Bray next year, and then take over in 2013.
In other words, I really hope I don't see Worley and his stud arm this year!
2: Will Tennessee Show Up for the Month of October?
The Tennessee Volunteers have gone 4-8 in the month of October over the past three years. That includes going 0-4 in 2010.
True, the month of October is always a grind on Rocky Top, but it's your performance in those games that determines the standings at year's end.
If you can't take on Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama, you can't expect to win anything of note in the SEC.
The 2011 season seems destined to be better for the Vols in October, offering five games instead of the usual four. Four of the five games are at home and the first of the month is Buffalo.
It's now or never for the Big Orange. One of the most critical things the team can do is come out of October with three or even four huge wins.
1: Will Derek Dooley Bring Home Tennessee's First Bowl Win in Five Years?
It only takes six wins to become bowl eligible, and I definitely think the 2011 Tennessee Volunteers will get that many.
The question that needs to be answered is whether or not the Vols can bring home some hardware for the first time in Eric Berry's (and my) freshman year in 2007.
Yes, the end of the Music City Bowl was one of the most atrocious things I've ever seen, but the fact of the matter is we they gave the trophy to North Carolina instead of us. It was wrong, but it was done.
Excitement and energy helps build a fanbase, recruit players, and drive the program forward for only so long. At the end of the day, winning is the only thing that can carry a program in the long run.
More specifically, winning on the big stage.
Derek Dooley has my allegiance. The question is, will he earn it in 2011?