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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 49: Tennessee

The Knoxville sun shines a little brighter each day Tennessee is removed from last Jan. 12, the day Lane Kiffin took his immense baggage across coasts to U.S.C., crippling a program that had hung its hat on Kiffin’s ability to lead the Volunteers out of their malaise. Each day brings more positive vibes as Kiffin’s figure looms smaller and smaller in Tennessee’s rear view mirror, slowly but surely diminishing from view as Derek Dooley puts his specific imprint on one of college football’s most distinguished landing spots. But Kiffin’s impact is still felt, most notably in a roster lacking in senior leadership but loaded with young, hungry, unproven talent. Put added emphasis on the word hungry: Tennessee, and its roster, is sick and tired of five, six, seven wins, and wants to reclaim its spot among the SEC’s best. This reclamation project continues in 2011.

Conference
SEC, East

Location
Knoxville, Tenn.

Nickname
Volunteers

Returning starters
13 (7 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 66

2010 record
(6-7, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 63

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Montana
  • Sept. 10
    Cincinnati
  • Sept. 17
    at Florida
  • Oct. 1
    Buffalo
  • Oct. 8
    Georgia
  • Oct. 15
    L.S.U.
  • Oct. 22
    at Alabama
  • Oct. 29
    South Carolina
  • Nov. 5
    Middle Tennessee
  • Nov. 12
    at Arkansas
  • Nov. 19
    Vanderbilt
  • Nov. 26
    at Kentucky

Last year’s prediction

If Tennessee does return to bowl play in 2010, it will be by the narrowest of margins: think 6-6, with an undefeated November sending the Vols into the post-season on a high note. This coming season will be a rebuilding year, however. Tennessee has a lack of proven options at quarterback. The offensive line must be rebuilt on the fly, as must the interior of the defensive line. The Vols must replace an all-world talent in the secondary, as well as a handful of starters along the back seven of the defense. No, this team should be happy merely with landing bowl eligibility. I think Tennessee is capable of doing so, but, as noted, by the skin of its teeth.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Few expected any miracles: Derek Dooley inherited a roster short on talent, at least when held against the standard set by the current SEC and Tennessee teams of old. Yet the rookie coach coaxed six wins out of these Volunteers, which was a solid feat when considering how low the team stood entering November. To recap: there was that horrible home loss to Oregon; a win over U.A.B. that came despite five missed field goals by the opposition; that 13-man defense that led to a loss to L.S.U.; and three straight losses — Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina — where Tennessee was clearly outclassed. Yet come December, the Volunteers were back in bowl play. That was the terribly misguided standard set forth by then-athletic director Mike Hamilton — now gone, thankfully — and one that Dooley achieved, which marked a nice debut for the first-year coach.

High point A perfect November. So only one win came over an eventual bowl participant: who cares. The four straight wins pushed U.T. back into bowl play, which is all that matters. The best win was a 24-14 victory over Kentucky — another win over the poor Wildcats — but the most impressive was a 52-14 handling of Mississippi, one that saw U.T. gain 441 yards of total offense and force five turnovers.

Low point The loss to L.S.U., I suppose. We all remember what transpired, even if it remains unbelievable upon each viewing.

Tidbit Tennessee has led the SEC in attendance in 36 of the last 37 seasons. It was for 36 straight seasons heading into last season, but Alabama had to swoop in and average 101,821 fans per game, fourth-most in the nation and a tad more than Tennessee’s average of 99,781 fans per game, sixth-most in the nation. U.T. has not finished lower than sixth in the country in attendance over the last 35 years.

Tidbit (all-SEC edition) Tennessee has had at least one first-team all-SEC pick in 37 of the last 38 years, so it’s a bit surprising to see only two Volunteers — both defensive players — on the 2011 preseason all-conference team. What does this say? One, that projecting anything prior to September is an exercise in futility. Wait, did I just admit to that? And two, this fact speaks to the youth on this roster: there’s talent here, but most of it is unproven. When this roster is top-heavy with juniors and seniors, look out.

Tidbit (you always remember your first time edition) Last season’s loss to Oregon was Tennessee’s first in six tries against first-time opposition; the Vols topped Arkansas State in 2007, Northern Illinois in 2008, Western Kentucky and Ohio in 2009 and Tennessee-Martin last fall. In all, U.T. holds a 96-34-5 record in its debut game against a new opponent.

Former players in the N.F.L.

43 QB Erik Ainge (New York Jets), CB Jason Allen (Houston), LB Robert Ayers (Denver), S Eric Berry (Kansas City), LB Kevin Burnett (San Diego), OT Chad Clifton (Green Bay), P Britton Colquitt (Denver), P Dustin Colquitt (Kansas City), TE Brad Cottam (Kansas City), LS Morgan Cox (Baltimore), QB Jonathan Crompton (New England), DE Shaun Ellis (New York Jets), RB Arian Foster (Houston), OT Ramon Foster (Pittsburgh), DT Aubrayo Franklin (San Francisco), LB Omar Gaither (Philadelphia), S Deon Grant (New York Giants), CB Jabari Greer (New Orleans), LB Parys Haralson (San Francisco), RB Montario Hardesty (Cleveland), DE Justin Harrell (Green Bay), DT Albert Haynesworth (Washington), DT John Henderson (Oakland), OG Anthony Herrera (Minnesota), QB Peyton Manning (Indianapolis), LB Jerod Mayo (New England), DE Turk McBride (Detroit), OG Jacques McClendon (Indianapolis), DE Tony McDaniel (Miami), WR Robert Meachem (New Orleans), LB Marvin Mitchell (New Orleans), OT Chris Scott (Pittsburgh), WR Donte’ Stallworth (Baltimore), TE Luke Stocker (Tampa Bay), CB Jonathan Wade (Cincinnati), C Scott Wells (Green Bay), DT Dan Williams (Arizona), S Gibril Wilson (Cincinnati), TE Jason Witten (Dallas), OT Eric Young (San Diego).

Arbitrary top five list

M.L.B. All-Stars who played for the Memphis Chicks
1. OF Tim Raines (1979-2002).
2. P David Cone (1986-2003).
3. 1B Derek Lee (1997-present).
4. 3B Tim Wallach (1980-95).
5. P Tom Gordon (1988-2009).

Coaching

Derek Dooley (Virginia ’90), 6-7 after one season at Tennessee. Dooley also notched an 18-20 mark over three seasons at Louisiana Tech. His 8-5 2008 season marked a breakout year for both Louisiana Tech and its young coach, who made quite a name for himself in leading the Bulldogs to their best finish in a decade. In the course of two seasons, Dooley rebuilt a Tech program coming of its first 10-loss season into a genuine WAC contender. This is due largely to his enthusiasm and work ethic, the latter of which he learned as a longtime assistant under Alabama Coach Nick Saban. Dooley spent 2000-5 with Saban at L.S.U., serving as the team tight ends coach (2000-2), special teams coordinator and running backs coach (2003-5). Dooley also held the recruiting coordinator title in those first three seasons, helping the Tigers land most of the players responsible for their 2003 national championship. After two more seasons under Saban, then with the Miami Dolphins, Dooley was tabbed to become Louisiana Tech’s 30th coach; it was his first head coaching job on any level. The Bulldogs showed a three-game improvement in WAC play in Dooley’s initial season in Ruston, rebounding from a dismal 3-10 (1-7 in conference) record in 2006 to finish 5-7, 4-4 in the WAC. He comes from great coaching stock; his father, Vince, coached Georgia from 1964-88, winning 201 games and the 1980 national championship. It was only a matter of time before Dooley moved up the coaching ranks to a major B.C.S. conference program. Perhaps some were surprised that it came so soon, only three years into his first job, let alone one year after suffering his second losing campaign. Yet Dooley led U.T. to bowl play against some strong odds in 2010, which was a solid start.

Players to watch

Before anointing Tyler Bray as the next big thing, take note that he’s made all of five career starts for the Volunteers, and while the sophomore impressed as the starter we need to take his results with a grain of salt. Why? Because while Memphis, Mississippi, Vanderbilt and Kentucky are solid teams — well, at least the latter trio — those teams won’t provide quite the same test as an Alabama, Florida, L.S.U., Georgia or South Carolina, nationally-ranked foes Bray will face for the first time as a starter in 2011. North Carolina’s defense does match up with those SEC powers, however, so Bray did face one top-notched unit as a rookie.

That’s just one thing to watch; as we know, a quarterback typically needs a full season as a starter, or at least one redshirt season, to grasp the offense and the speed of the college game. As of now, Bray has five career starts and 224 attempts — in short, while he has the makings of a great college quarterback, Bray will still be learning on the job in 2011. But he does have talent, believe me: size, the arm to make every throw in the book and the confidence to attempt every throw in the book. Bray’s going to be a good one, but games against Florida, Alabama and L.S.U. will really show the sophomore’s mettle.

This offense will continue to rely heavily on senior running back Tauren Poole (1,034 yards, 11 touchdowns), an honorable mention all-SEC pick in 2010. Poole took full advantage of an open depth chart in the backfield last fall, shaking off the cobwebs developed over two years of little use — 171 yards rushing from 2008-9 — to become Tennessee’s third 1,000-yard back in four years. The Vols know that Poole will deliver, especially when given more than 15 or 16 carries, but the offense does need a second option. That should be sophomore Rajion Neal (197 yards), who showed big-play ability in 2010.

Tennessee’s three leading receivers must be replaced, which might be an issue if the Vols didn’t have such a talented group of underclassmen waiting in the wings. Denarius Moore and Gerald Jones will be replaced in the starting lineup by sophomores Justin Hunter (18 receptions for 415 yards, 7 scores) and Da’Rick Rogers (11 for 167). This is exciting: both look like future stars, particularly Hunter, who set a U.T. freshman record with those seven scores while averaging a team-best 25.9 yards per catch. Junior Zach Rogers (14 for 207) will be a key backup, along with sophomore Matt Milton and true freshmen Vincent Dallas, who was on campus during the spring, and DeAnthony Arnett, a fall arrival. The biggest concern for the receiver corps is finding a consistent target on third down, a role Jones played ably a year ago.

There isn’t a senior to be found along the offensive line, where the sophomores outnumber the juniors and the story remains potential tinged with inexperience. The sophomores dominate the depth chart, as noted, and this crop of linemen will continue to get better with each snap. At least three will start come September, perhaps four if U.T. opts to get James Stone and Notre Dame transfer Alex Bullard on the field at the same time. That would involve putting Bullard at center and Stone at left guard; the Vols could also play another sophomore, JerQuari Schofield, a five-game starter in 2010, at left guard.

We know that sophomores Zach Fulton and Ja’wuan James will start at right guard and tackle, respectively. James is the closest thing to an all-conference candidate up front, though Fulton, Stone and Schofield certainly have that potential. James will bookend the line with junior left tackle Dallas Thomas, so here’s my best guess for how things will shake out, from left to right: Thomas, Schofield, Stone, Fulton and James. But it could also look like this: Thomas, Stone, Bullard, Fulton and James. Or this: Thomas, true freshman Marcus Jackson, Bullard, Fulton and James. You get the idea. Still, no matter the combination, this line will be better.

Tennessee kept its fingers crossed all winter and spring, hoping that safety Janzen Jackson would return to the program after taking some time away dealing with some personal issues. Well, he’s back, though he’s still getting back into football shape, and Jackson’s return lifts Tennessee’s secondary into the nation’s elite. Already stout, Jackson gives the secondary an added dimension: a big-hitting, ball-hawking junior, he’s one of the nation’s best.

And while he’s the largest, most significant piece, Jackson is not the only piece of the puzzle. There’s also do-everything junior Prentiss Waggner (57 tackles, 5 interceptions), who could play safety alongside Jackson, solidifying the back end of the defense, or play cornerback, as he did a year ago. I’d think U.T. would want to keep him at cornerback, which would mean Jackson would team at safety with sophomore Brent Brewer (30 tackles).

Could defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox field a starting defense with eight defensive backs? Oh, he could. Waggner would be joined at cornerback by junior Marsalis Teague (46 tackles), senior Anthony Anderson, sophomores Eric Gordon and Art Evans and a few incoming additions, like freshman Justin Coleman and JUCO transfer Byron Moore. Teague seems like the likely starter opposite Waggner, but Gordon needs to play, and Moore comes with very solid credentials. With experience, all-conference talent and depth, this secondary should be considered one of the 10 best in the country.

Perhaps you can replace Nick Reveiz’s production, but you can’t replace his leadership. Or his ability to be a coach on the field at middle linebacker, setting up his teammates and making pre-snap — read? — adjustments on the fly. Don’t be surprised if U.T. does go with five defensive backs more often than not, perhaps using a Jackson or Brewer in a hybrid role. That would still leave a hole in the middle, one the Vols plan to fill with senior Austin Johnson (44 tackles), a former fullback.

At first, at least. Austin Johnson might just keep the seat warm for incoming freshman A.J. Johnson, one of the top recruits in Tennessee’s recent class. Senior Daryl Vereen will start on the strong side, but there’s a significant hole on the weak side: Herman Lathers, a key figure in Tennessee’s pass rush, is questionable for the season following shoulder surgery. Could another freshman, Christian Harris, fill his role? The thought of playing a pair of rookies in starting roles is worrisome, but if A.J. Johnson and Harris are ready, don’t be surprised if they’re starting at some point during the season.

Position battle(s) to watch

Defensive line New year, same problems. The defensive line again has issues with depth and a lack of size, two issues that plagued U.T. up front in 2010. Both the team’s depth and size took a hit over the last two months when Montori Hughes and Rae Sykes left the program; both would have been key members of the rotation. As with the offensive line, the defensive front is paced by a crop of sophomores. Unlike on offense, however, the Vols can rely heavily upon a very good senior, Malik Jackson, the former U.S.C. transfer who took nicely to the SEC. Jackson led the team in tackles for loss (11) and sacks (5), earning second-team all-conference accolades in the process. Jackson will deliver, but the biggest piece of the defensive line puzzle is sophomore Daniel Hood, a converted offensive lineman who will get the nod alongside Jackson at nose tackle. Is Hood  — up to about 290 on a biscuits-and-gravy diet — big enough to stand tall in the middle of the line? We’ll know soon. But he’d better be, as Hood looks like the only option. You can pencil sophomore Jacques Smith into a starting spot at end. Who joins him in the starting lineup? It’s hard to pinpoint what U.T. plans to do on the opposite side. Willie Bohannon (two sacks) seems like a leading contender, and the Vols could also move sophomore Corey Miller outside to end, I’d think. In all, however, the pass rush is a concern. As is a thin interior, both in terms of total numbers and size. The line seems a year away from being where Tennessee needs it to be. I’m a little concerned with the front seven’s ability to stop the run.

Game(s) to watch

The schedule won’t be easy, that’s for sure. But winnable games do exist, and U.T. can’t afford to lose more than one of them. That list includes Montana, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Middle Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Then there are the much-anticipated SEC games against Alabama, Florida and the ilk.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Year zero, as Derek Dooley calls last season, found Tennessee scrambling to fill holes along both lines, at quarterback and elsewhere, and the team’s lack of depth and experience manifested itself during U.T.’s 2-6 start. No, the light didn’t automatically turn on in November: the competition took a step back, which is why the Volunteers were able to finish the regular season 4-0 and earn a bowl berth. The light’s still not on, in my mind. I still think Tennessee has a tough road ahead before being mentioned in the same sentence with the SEC’s best. But is this team better? There’s not even a question. Is this program better today than it was on Jan. 12, 2010? No doubt about it. The Vols are better where it counts: at quarterback, the offensive line, the defensive line — though still a work in the progress — and in the secondary, and the roster continues to get stronger with each recruiting cycle. In short, U.T. is going to add one win to last year’s regular season total. Is that enough to satisfy the fan base? I hope so, as 8-4 seems like a bit of a long shot with this schedule. For the Vols to make that sort of jump, Bray will need to really live up to his potential, the pass rush must improve, the holes at linebacker be filled and the kicking game remain efficient as Michael Palardy takes over full-time for Daniel Lincoln. Listen: Tennessee could have those things happen and win eight games; I just don’t think that’s going to happen. There are seven seniors on this roster, folks. Roughly 70 percent of the roster are freshmen and sophomores. This is not a team built for success in 2011, but one built for success in 2012 and 2013. Dooley must simply keep the boat on course in year two — or year one, as he’d call it.

Dream season Tennessee’s back in the big time, well ahead of schedule. The Vols finish the regular season 10-2 and atop the SEC East division.

Nightmare season Anything less than a return to bowl play.

In case you were wondering

Where do Tennessee fans congregate? A number of options. Message board options include Vol NationVol QuestVols to the Wall and Inside Tennessee. I know I’ve missed some, so help me out. For additional coverage, take a trip to Rocky Top Talk and Go Vols Xtra, the latter a blog from The Knoxville News Sentinel.

Word Count

Through 72 teams 212,805.

Up Next

Who is No. 48? The main library at tomorrow’s university is named after the son of a Civil War general famous for his quote describing the Battle of Malvern Hill.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. UVA Wildcat says:

    Looks like NC State is up next…
    Library is named after D.H. Hill Jr.

  2. Charlie says:

    NC State is next.

  3. michael says:

    …and still no U-Dub

  4. WizardHawk says:

    Why all the mention every couple of teams about UW? Don’t see people questioning placement of any other team. Having them picked above Cal doesn’t seem unreasonable and I’d expect to see them in the mid 40′s before people raise an eyebrow.

  5. Eksynyt says:

    Seriously, Washington is not going to be this good.

  6. Dave says:

    The main library at tomorrow’s university is named after the son of a Civil War general famous for his quote describing the Battle of Malvern Hill.
    *****
    Looks like NC State is up next…
    Library is named after D.H. Hill Jr.
    *****
    And for the record, the quote is: “It wasn’t war – it was murder.”

  7. Chadnudj says:

    I think guessing “Washington” next is this year’s version of “Nebraska” for every “guess the next team” clue….

  8. GTWrek says:

    I think this is high for Tennessee. I think Dooley is just a placeholder coach and they won’t have a real chance at coming back until the next coach has been in place for a few years.

  9. schedule nit says:

    I can’t believe you just called end-of-last-season Vanderbilt a “solid team”.

    Of their final four regular season opponents, only Kentucky wasn’t flat out terrible, imo. And didn’t Bray throw like 5 picks in that bowl game?

  10. relax dude says:

    he had 3 picks to go with his 4 tds and 312 yards against the greatest UNC team of all time (or at least the last 30 years), which cheated off the field and on the field in this game to eek one out in double overtime…

  11. David says:

    wizardhawk,

    the “where’s washington” watch reminds me of something from last season in some OtheR bLog’s preseAsoN griDirOn rankingS, but in thE opposite directioN — georgia was ranked Too low for uga fans’ lIkiNg so thEy consistentLy popped up to comment on subsequent posts — “how can {insert team here} possibly be ranked above the bulldogs?”

  12. Vol98 says:

    Defensive line section didnt mention the 5 star JUC0 DT Tennessee picked up, Maurice Couch. He’s expected to start in front of Hood. If he plays anywhere close to last years top JUCO DT, Nick Fairley, the prognosis for Tennessee’s D line might be better than some are saying.

  13. Joel says:

    Iowa won’t be this good

  14. WizardHawk says:

    What we know about college football is the ending rankings are never the same as anyone’s preseason rankings. There are those who fall short of their potential and always some shockingly good teams that over achieve. Tough to fill out any 1-120 list and its all a matter of opinion. Where UW falls on this list is of no consequence. I still look forward to reading the team break downs. Their order doesn’t really matter does it?

  15. Papa John says:

    Why does the notated Rocky Top melody jump an octave in bar 9? And what’s up with the tempo marking? The beat unit in 4/4 is a quarter note, not an eighth note!

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