Most preseason publications have Tennessee ranked anywhere from 40th to 30th in the country. In my humble opinion that is well deserved after last season’s 5-7 finish.
However, the Vols received one ranking last week that I thought was quite ridiculous and disrespectful. In the preseason USA Today/Coaches' Top 25, Tennessee ended up with two votes, placing them 56th in the country.
Among the teams receiving more votes was UCLA who was 4-8 in ’08; Auburn who finished 5-7 and barely beat Tennessee on their own home field; and Kentucky, whom Tennessee played their best game of ’08 against. Tennessee’s two votes were one more than Michigan (3-9 in ’08) received.
Upon learning that news I began to question why. Why couldn’t the Vols garner more than two votes? How in the world are UCLA, Auburn, and Kentucky better than Tennessee? The sad thing is there were three other teams with 5-7 records gaining more votes as well (Colorado, Illinois, and Arkansas).
Was a top 10 recruiting class chock full of true freshmen who can contribute immediately not enough for the voters?
Was all the misinformation about Tennessee no longer having the talent to compete nationally enough to keep UT off the ballots?
Was it Lane Kiffin’s mouth causing the coaches to completely overlook the Vols?
Maybe it was the fact that Tennessee welcomes back two quarterbacks that were pretty much the worst in the history of UT football.
To the questions above I say, yes. Those are legitimate concerns and question marks facing this Tennessee team this fall.
Now the question becomes; do these pollsters/coaches know something we don’t? I don’t think so. In attempting to answer these questions and try to alleviate any fear that fans may have about the upcoming season, I have come across at least five reasons why the Vols should finish in the top 25 in ’09.
1. These freshmen are will contribute big time: As biased as that may sound it’s absolutely true. Freshmen Marsalis Teague, Nu’ Keese Richardson, and Zach Rodgers have all been getting valuable practice time with the first team. Considering Richardson and Teague were basically stolen from Urban Meyer and the Gators; these guys are probably pretty good.
RB Bryce Brown was the No. 1 recruit in the country. RB David Oku was the No. 1 All-Purpose RB in the country. Take that for what you will, but past No. 1's have worked out well in college. Early reports from fall practice have these two making big time plays against a vaunted Vol defense.
Speaking of the defense, five-star defensive back Janzen Jackson is said to have the inside shot at starting in this defensive backfield. Darren Myles Jr., Mike Edwards, and Eric Gordon are receiving praise as well.
At linebacker Jerod Askew and Greg King are getting some good looks as well.
Philip Fulmer was not big on playing freshmen unless he absolutely had to. Well, Lane Kiffin has said all along that the best eleven guys on either side of the ball will start. If that happens to be a few freshmen, then so be it.
2. A stable of running backs: The aforementioned freshmen, Brown and Oku, join a good set of RBs that already included senior Montario Hardesty and sophomore Tauren Poole. Poole has had a tremendous start to fall practice running for 145 yards in the first scrimmage with two touchdowns, one from 77 yards out the other from 43 yards away.
Hardesty had six rushing touchdowns last season and has shown glimpses of greatness in between his injuries.
Brown and Oku are sure to contribute plenty this season, as both are considered better as true freshmen than either of the two returning RBs.
3. Lane Kiffin: Kiffin has installed his simple offense in Knoxville. Simple yet complex in its style, this offense should click once a quarterback is settled in. I know that’s a legit question mark at this point, but Stephens and Crompton have both looked much improved over last season.
Of course, there was no where to go but up. But Kiffin’s style is to tutor. And tutor he has. A former quarterback at Fresno State, Kiffin comes from a strong offensive background. He called the plays for the mighty USC Trojans of the mid-'00s. He took Oakland's running game from laughing stock to one of the best in the league.
Sure, his mouth might have created a few firestorms, but I fully expect a guy with Kiffin’s moxie to back up his talk in his first year.
4. Depth on the offensive line: For the first time in a while the Vols are two-deep at almost every O-line position. Vladimir Richard, Josh McNeil, Aaron Douglas, Jarrod Shaw, Jacques McClendon, and William Brimfield will all contribute greatly to the success of this line. Richard, McClendon, and McNeil were all a part of the line that allowed just three sacks two seasons ago.
Kiffin says the O-line is the most improved position on the team since his arrival. With that talent, I’m inclined to believe him.
5. Eight home games: The Vols host Western Kentucky, UCLA, Ohio, Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina, Memphis, and Vanderbilt. Seven of those games are definitely winnable for this team considering all the previous points. Until last season the Vols had won 10 consecutive home games with largely the same team it has now.
Whether or not you consider me a Vols spin-meister you cannot ignore the fact that these points are just as legit as the views of the many detractors.
Unfortunately we still have 25-plus days to seethe before we actually get to see just what the Vols might have this season.
I can assure you, though—Tennessee will not have two votes at season's end.
The question is, will it be more or less?