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Tennessee Football: Winners and Losers from Volunteers' First Month

Graham KellyCorrespondent IOctober 4, 2011

Tennessee Football: Winners and Losers from Volunteers' First Month

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    Year two of the Dooley regime has had its ups and downs.

    Three convincing home wins against non-conference opponents has given most fans a cause for optimism.

    However, a disappointing road loss at Florida, Tennessee's only SEC game so far this season, has left some people wondering how much progress the program has really made since last season.

    With a very big pivot game coming up this weekend at home against Georgia, a win would be Dooley's first over an SEC opponent with a winning record and put UT back in the Eastern division race.

    A loss could leave UT looking at no conference wins in October for the second year in a row.

    With all this on the line this week, let's take a look at some of the winners and losers for the Volunteers after the first month of the season: Who has exceeded and fallen short of expectations.

Winner: Tyler Bray

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    The sophomore signal caller has been sensational through his first four starts.

    Completing 68.5 percent of his passes for 1,328 yards, 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions, Bray's current streak of 10 straight games with at least two touchdowns is second to only Boise State's Kellen Moore (who leads the nation with 16).

    The stats don't tell the whole story about Bray's success, either. His ability to manage the offense has been very impressive. Tennessee is currently tied with Wisconsin as the two most efficient teams in the country on third down.

    Even in his toughest test to date in the swamp against Florida, Bray had to deal with losing his best wide receiver, Justin Hunter, and Tennessee's inability to run the ball.

    He still threw for 288 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.

    At the beginning of the season, on this website, I predicted Bray would be the best quarterback in the SEC.

    That prediction has held up so far.

Loser: Offensive Line

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    This season the offensive line was supposed to be highly improved over last year's version.

    Highly-touted true sophomores Ja'Wuan James, Zach Fulton and James Stone being a year stronger and more experienced were expected to be highly improved.

    Joined by Notre Dame transfer Alex Bullard and the old man of the group, red-shirt junior Dallas Thomas, many people thought this line had the potential to be one of the better units in the SEC.

    However, the Vols' rushing attack has looked flat and uninspired all season.

    Against their biggest test so far this year, UT managed to rush for minus nine yards. That's right—negative nine.

    You can't win many games in the SEC without being able to control the clock and possession by running the ball.

    Bray has also been sacked seven times through four games. While not terrible, and certainly improved from the beatings Matt Simms took last year under center for the Vols, it is a far cry from the offensive lines of UT past that gave up four or five sacks all year.

Winner: Da'Rick Rogers

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    Da'Rick Rogers is one half of what was shaping up to be one of the most feared receiving tandems in the country.

    However, when Justin Hunter tore his ACL on the first drive against Florida, Rogers became the focal point of the UT offense.

    He has responded well, seeing as he finished the Florida game with five catches, 62 yards and one touchdown.

    Last week against Buffalo he had a career high of 180 yards on seven catches and a pair of touchdowns.

    If Rogers can continue to produce like that during the heart of Tennessee's SEC schedule, the Vols will be competitive in every game.

    But, without Justin Hunter to draw away coverages, he is going to have play better than ever to keep up his production.

Loser: The Secondary.

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    The UT secondary was supposed to be the strength of the defense this season.

    Led by returning starters Prentiss Waggner and Brent Brewer, and joined by highly-touted junior college transfers Izauea Lanier and Byron Moore, expectations were high for this unit.

    Even after All-SEC safety Janzen Jackson's dismissal from the team before the season.

    Turns out Brent Brewer hasn't lived up to the hype of the hard-hitting enforcer that many expected him to be in his second year at UT.

    He is now starting to cede playing time to true freshman Bryan Randolph. Prentiss has been playing out of position at safety to replace Jackson.

    Byron Moore has been a non-factor. This unit only has one interception to its credit so far, which came against Montana. On the other hand, Vanderbilt's defensive backs have 14 interceptions this season.

    There have also been numerous plays where defensive backs have looked lost and out of position, allowing opponents to break off long plays to the house.

    Most notably, Chris Rainey's 80-yard scamper when he said he saw "the biggest hole my whole life." However, even Buffalo's Chazz Anderson was able to break off a 68-yard touchdown run last week.

    On the bright side, Izauea Lanier beat out Justin Coleman and Art Evans for one of the starting corner spots. There didn't appear to be any problems against Buffalo, but he gets his first prime-time test against Georgia on Saturday.

Winner: Freshmen Linebackers

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    Tennessee has been starting a pair of true freshmen at both outside linebacker positions all season.

    They have lived up to expectations.

    Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson are big and aggressive and "play fast," as Dooley says. Maggitt has 19 tackles and two quarterback hurries. While Johnson has 17 tackles and one forced fumble.

    Johnson has begun to excel in UT's last two games.  Against Florida he tied the team-high with seven tackles and stripped Chris Rainey of the football in the second half—the play that allowed UT to get back into the football game.

Conclusions

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    Tennessee is a young team with a lot of talent.

    How much that talent continues to grow and improve will determine the fate of the Vols' season. The loss of Justin Hunter is a big blow, but Tyler Bray and Da'Rick Rogers are good enough that UT should still possess a feared passing attack.

    UT faces a brutal October stretch of Georgia, LSU, at Alabama and South Carolina. If UT can somehow go 2-2 during that stretch, Vols fans should be ecstatic.

    It would leave Tennessee in pretty solid position to try to finish 9-3 and contend for a New Years Day Bowl.

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