Tennessee Volunteers Football: Time for Fans to Start Looking Toward Next Year?

Daniel BarnesCorrespondent IIIOctober 10, 2011

COLUMBIA, SC - OCTOBER 30:  Matt Simms #2 of the Tennessee Volunteers against the South Carolina Gamecocks during their game at Williams-Brice Stadium on October 30, 2010 in Columbia, South Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Three weeks after Justin Hunter came out of the Florida game with a season-ending injury, the Volunteers are experiencing injury problems yet again. This time, they're even worse.

Tyler Bray left the game against Georgia after sustaining an injury to the thumb of his throwing hand, and now it seems like he'll be out for a minimum of four weeks.

That means for the games against LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Middle Tennessee, there will be no Tyler Bray. He may not even play against Arkansas.

While an upset of LSU or Alabama was already highly unlikely, South Carolina has been struggling a lot lately, and with a little luck, it looked like the Vols could've come away with an upset.

This seems very improbable now.

No disrespect to Simms, but he is no Tyler Bray. Bray had an off game against Georgia (perhaps due to the hand injury), but still went 18-for-33 for 251 yards. His 10-game streak of two of more touchdowns per game was the second-longest active streak in college football, second only to Kellen Moore. That streak ended against Georgia.

Tennessee has certainly had an unlucky season on both sides of the ball. Before the season started, Tennessee's only returning linebacker, Herman Lathers, sustained an injury that has kept him off the field so far this season.

Shortly after, star free safety Janzen Jackson was dismissed from the team for allegedly failing a drug test.

Just like that, two of Tennessee's best defensive players were gone.

Hope still remained, since Tennessee's offense looked sharp despite the defensive struggles. That changed when Justin Hunter tore his ACL after his first catch against Florida. He had been Tennessee's leading receiver up until that point.

Finally, against Georgia, things have gone from bad to worse to borderline hopeless. Bray will now be out for four weeks during the toughest stretch on the Vols schedule.

Next week, Tennessee will face the No. 1 team in the country without its best two players on offense, and quite possibly still without two of its best players on defense. Lathers may well return to face LSU, but the jury is still out.

Even if Lathers does finally suit up, it may be too little, too late for Tennessee.

The week after that, Tennessee faces No. 2 ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa before coming back to Knoxville to take on South Carolina.

Now, with both the Vols starting quarterback and his No. 1 target out, the rest of the season looks pretty bleak. A 6-6 record, for the second year in a row, seems likely.

However, with nearly the entire team set to return next year and a much more favorable conference schedule, there is still reason to be optimistic for the 2012 season.

For Tennessee fans, it's gonna be a long time until next September. Still, being an eternal optimist, that's where I'm now setting my hopes.