The Tennessee Football program has been in peril since 2008.
The team was bad, the coaching was bad, and the recruiting was abysmal that year. UT made stride in 2009 when outsider Lane Kiffin took over and breathed new hope into the program. That is until he left them high and dry after one season for his “dream job.”
That left Tennessee down and all but out.
Since then, Derek Dooley has been trying to put all the pieces back together. He has created the “Vol For Life program” in an attempt to change the culture for the better. He pulled in a top 15 recruiting class for the second straight season. He has a great staff full of potential to be extraordinary coaches. Dooley now has experience and knowledge of the SEC.
Everything is in place for Tennessee to break out and have a great year.
Here are the top 10 reasons they have at least 10 wins this year.
Offensive coordinator and play caller Jim Chaney has been on the coaching staff longer than most at Tennessee. He left the St. Louis Rams to join Lane Kiffin at UT in 2009. He showed his loyalty by staying when everyone else ran out of town with Kiffin or took other positions.
Chaney has been considered a great football mind since his time at Purdue where he perfected his offense and created great players like Drew Brees and Kyle Orton. He was also said to have helped Jonathan Crompton turn around his senior season.
If you have looked at the production Chaney had last year you might not think much of him. But if you take the time to look at what he had to work with, you will see where his true genius lies.
Chaney’s offense scored 27 points a game with what we’ll call below-average talent. He was the man tutoring Tyler Bray behind the scenes and he will be the brain behind a great offense in 2011.
A lot of Tennessee fans love Malik Jackson. He is a former USC player who transferred after the news of Lane Kiffin being named head coach.
There’s no better place to transfer than the place Kiffin is most despised and that’s not even a contest. Jackson proved he could play ball in his first season on Rocky Top as he led the team by a mile in tackles for loss with 11 and sacks with 5.
Jackson may not have been happy about moving to defensive tackle, but he has learned that is where he is most dangerous. His speed and quickness puzzled many SEC linemen as he flew by on his way to All-SEC recognition.
Jackson will continue to improve during his senior year and will likely be a force on the line, helping UT to a great year.
After shushing for only 85 yards in all of 2009, Poole really broke out last season. He ended the year with 1,034 yards and 11 touchdowns in a year he was named All-SEC.
Poole looks to add another 1,000 yard season to his resume in 2011, while leading Tennessee to greater heights. The 2010 team basically rode Poole’s back in the first 5 games, where he rushed the ball an average 18 times per game, while accumulating 87 yards per game.
Poole did all of this while running behind almost all freshmen on the offensive line.
He can only get hungrier and better in his second year as starting runningback.
The first thing Derek Dooley did that caught my eye was pull in a great hire in former Boise State defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
Wilcox has proved on many occasions that he knows football. He dominated offenses while at BSU with WAC Talent at his expense. He not only shut down teams, he made it look unfair.
He held offensive powerhouse Oregon to only eight points in an opening day meeting that the Broncos dominated.
Wilcox’s system has had a year to be installed and he now has all the tools to show what he can really do. With the combination of his great mind and SEC talent, there is no limit to the greatness Wilcox could create on his side of the ball this year.
Aside from South Carolina, the teams in the East are in an uphill battle right now. Florida is installing a new system, Georgia is coming off a season similar to Tennessee, while having underachieving talent, and the rest of the East is as down as it always has been.
South Carolina is entering the year as reigning champions. They return massive amounts of skill position talent, including freshman phenom Marcus Lattimore. The only questions about USC lie in the trenches, defense, and QB Stephen Garcia.
The Gamecocks lost many offensive linemen and defensive talent to graduation this year and if they can find good replacements, they may be in trouble. Signal Caller Garcia was suspended once again this offseason, adding to his already long list of trouble with the program.
South Carolina will be the predicted champ, but they could easily find themselves in the loss column if they don’t take care of these questions early.
Da’Rick Rogers made an impact in numerous ways during his freshman season.
He ran, he caught, and he even returned kicks. He likely won’t be relied on in that many aspects of the game this year, but he will carry much more responsibility in the passing game.
Rogers will probably be the number two receiver this upcoming year and will need to be productive. He will have to step up his game and live up to his 5-star rating coming out of high school.
I don’t think he will have any problem doing that. He has all the tools to become a great receiver and may even over take Justin Hunter as the number one receiver by season’s end. If Tennessee expects to be successful, Rogers will need to step up.
And I think he is primed to do so in 2011.
Tyler Bray took over the starting job after Matt Simms led Tennessee to a 2-6 record to start the season.
Bray didn’t just win his first start, he broke records. He came out firing against Memphis, racking up 325 yards on only 19 completions. He also threw 5 touchdowns in the first half, a new Tennessee record.
Bray didn’t stop there, though. He threw 13 more touchdowns in the final four games. To put that into perspective, Matt Simms threw only 8 touchdowns in his 8 starts.
Bray looks to continue the SEC’s longest active streak of games with a passing touchdown in 2011 and I believe he will extend that streak on his way to making All-SEC in his sophomore year.
The recent return of Janzen Jackson is huge news for UT. He was by far Tennessee’s best defensive player in 2010.
After taking over for mentor Eric Berry, Jackson made an impact in his sophomore season. He tied for the team lead in interceptions with 5 last year and led the team with 114 yards on interception returns. He led the secondary and was third overall in tackles and also led the team in pass deflections with 11.
Jackson recently had to withdraw from school for personal reasons which are still unknown to the public. Coach Derek Dooley supported Jackson fully and allowed him to return to play immediately.
The star safety now looks to make up for lost time on the field.
I believe he will return and make an immediate impact on defense, while being named consensus All-American like his former mentor.
Having such a green offensive line may have cost Tennessee multiple games last year. But playing those freshmen may have been the smartest thing Dooley could have done.
UT now enters 2011 returning all of the starters on the line. They gelled toward the end of the year and look to improve on that before this year starts.
If injuries can be avoided, this could be one of the best lines in the SEC by season’s end and that goes a long way in the toughest conference in America.
For the SEC Tennessee will have a… more lenient schedule this year.
UT opens the year with four very winnable games against Montana, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and a down Florida squad. Many think Tennessee could lose to Florida, but from experience, I know what coaching changes can do and you don’t just insert a new system and walk into wins in the SEC.
Tennessee then faces a tough four game stretch, going up against SEC foes Georgia, LSU, Alabama, and South Carolina. I believe this is where the trouble lies for Tennessee. Luckily three of the four games will be in Neyland Stadium and I think that is the reason the Vols survive this stretch without losing more than twice.
The last four games, as always for Tennessee, are less difficult. They host Middle Tennessee State and Vanderbilt, while going on the road to play a tough Arkansas squad and Kentucky.
After looking at this lineup, I fully believe Tennessee can finish this 10-2.