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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. 66: Tennessee

After years near the top, U.T. will have a rocky road to make a home back in the Top 25.

So Tennessee has had its midlife crisis. It purchased that sports car, dyed its hair, lusted after the young blond. It was fun while it lasted, I suppose. Now Tennessee has to pick up the pieces: reconnect with an old friend — put Phil Fulmer’s name up somewhere, anywhere — clean last season from the memory banks and move forward with a new flame, this one more willing to connect for the long-term than last year’s flavor of the month. You know what must hurt the most? That — psst, come closer — Lane Kiffin, the impulse buy, would have done wonderfully in Knoxville.

Conference
SEC, East

Location
Knoxville, Tenn.

Nickname
Volunteers

Returning starters
10 (4 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 39

2009 record
(7-6, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 42

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Tenn.-Martin
  • Sept. 11
    Oregon
  • Sept. 18
    Florida
  • Sept. 25
    U.A.B.
  • Oct. 2
    at L.S.U.
  • Oct. 9
    at Georgia
  • Oct. 23
    Alabama
  • Oct. 30
    at South Carolina
  • Nov. 6
    at Memphis
  • Nov. 13
    Mississippi
  • Nov. 20
    at Vanderbilt
  • Nov. 27
    Kentucky

Last year’s prediction

Tennessee is going to be better than it was a season ago. Not that it would take much to do so, but the offense will be improved – it can’t be worse – and the defense should not suffer anything more than a slight drop-off in production from its last season under John Chavis. That doesn’t mean I believe the Vols will win nine games; this team is not that good. All told, this is a building season for the Vols: I predict a 7-5 finish, 4-4 in the SEC. But all eyes will be on Kiffin and the program. Isn’t that what the university wanted?

2009 recap

In a nutshell These Volunteers knew that the rest of the SEC was coming for them, but held their own in nearly every game during the regular season — even road dates with Florida and Alabama. In the end, while Tennessee still won only seven games, there were a number of positives to take away from the year: improved quarterback play from the much-maligned Jonathan Crompton; a solid performance from an offensive line far less physically gifted than in recent memory; and a stout defense, one that embraced the elder Kiffin’s defensive scheme. All positives that bring me back to this point, which I hesitate to utter lest it enrage the U.T. fan base: if Kiffin could achieve what he did in 2009 — a nice season, though short of his future expectations — with this team, what could he have done if given the use of his own recruits?

High point Tennessee blew the doors off of Georgia, scoring the final 21 points of a 45-19 embarrassment of the Bulldogs. It could have been worse: Georgia scored on a kickoff return, a safety and an interception return. Needing at least one win in its final two games to clinch bowl eligibility, Tennessee beat Vanderbilt and Kentucky to finish the regular season 7-5.

Low point I’ll rely on the Tennessee fan base to settle this question. It’s a chicken-or-egg argument: Which moment was worse, when Kiffin was hired or when he left for L.A.? In terms of on-field action, two blocked field goals in the fourth quarter gave Alabama a narrow 12-10 win over the Volunteers. Would have been great for Tennessee to steal that win against the eventual national champions.

Tidbit Kiffin is only the second Tennessee coach in the modern era of college football (since 1936) to serve only a single season in Knoxville. He joins Jim McDonald (5-5 in 1963), who moved from the field to the athletic department – he was the assistant athletic director – not from one coast to another.

Tidbit (scoring edition) Tennessee has scored at least 300 points and allowed less than 300 points in 19 of its last 20 winning seasons, dating back to a 10-2-1 finish in 1987. The lone exception came in 2002, when U.T. went 8-5 despite scoring only 296 points. The Volunteers have failed to score more than 212 points in each of its last three losing campaigns: 212 in 1988; 205 points in 2005; and 208 points in 2008.

Former players in the N.F.L.

45 QB Erik Ainge (New York Jets), CB Jason Allen (Miami), 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 (San Diego), DE Shaun Ellis (New York Jets), OT Ramon Foster (Houston), DT Aubrayo Franklin (San Francisco), RB Arian Foster (Houston), 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), CB Jonathan Hefney (Detroit), 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), LB Rico McCoy (Tampa Bay), DT Tony McDaniel (Miami), WR Robert Meachem (New Orleans), LB Marvin Mitchell (New Orleans), CB Dennis Rogan (Tampa Bay), OT Chris Scott (Pittsburgh), DE Arron Sears (Tampa Bay), WR Donte’ Stallworth (Baltimore), CB Jonathan Wade (Detroit), C Scott Wells (Green Bay), DT Dan Williams (Arizona), CB DeAngelo Willingham (Seattle), S Gibril Wilson (Cincinnati), TE Jason Witten (Dallas), OT Eric Young (St. Louis).

Arbitrary top five list

Writers with Tennessee ties, with notable work
1. Robert Penn Warren. “All the King’s Men.”
2. Cormac McCarthy. “Blood Meridian.”
3. James Agee. “A Death in the Family.”
4. James Dickey. “Deliverance.”
5. Alex Haley. “Roots.”

Coaching

Derek Dooley (Virginia ’90), entering his first season at Tennessee. Dooley 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 is 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 Tennessee might have gotten in on the ground floor of something great. In terms of his off-field demeanor, Dooley is the anti-Lane Kiffin. This is not a bad thing.

Tidbit (coaching edition) If there was one thing I felt would keep Dooley at Louisiana Tech, it was the fact that he also served as the university’s athletic director — the only F.B.S. coach in the nation to hold such double duties. As I wrote in last year’s preview:

Like many other young, energetic coaches across the nation, Dooley has raised tremendous fan support for his program. He has also impressed the Louisiana Tech administration enough to be named the university’s athletic director, the only coach in the F.B.S. to hold that title. Luckily for Louisiana Tech, Dooley’s athletic director title must be the best reason for him not to entertain offers from bigger-name programs, if they become available. It is highly unlikely that any other F.B.S. school would be willing to give Dooley the same responsibilities. Even before last fall, I was a big fan of Dooley’s. After the 8-5 finish of a season ago, he is quickly rising up the Countdown’s list of coaches to watch in the F.B.S.

Being your own athletic director is nice; it provides job security, at least. Yet there was no way Dooley was going to turn down this opportunity.

Players to watch

The offensive line must be completely rebuilt. One starter, sophomore Aaron Douglas, was slated to return, but Douglas left the program in late March. In a way, however, this new group is more talented than last year’s line, particularly on the interior. Junior center Cody Pope and redshirt freshman JerQuari Schofield will represent an athletic improvement over the Sullins brothers, who held those two spots a year ago. Pope should land the starting job at center, though former defensive lineman Victor Thomas, a senior, impressed at the position during the spring. Senior Jarrod Shaw, the most experienced returning lineman, will step in at right guard. The two tackle spots are a concern. Sophomore Dallas Thomas will take over on the blind side, replacing Chris Scott, while true freshman Ja’Wuan James will get first look on the strong side. Losing Douglas, who had all-conference ability — perhaps all-American ability — hurts this line.

I like Tennessee’s mix at running back, which includes junior Tauren Poole and sophomore David Oku. This is a very talented pairing: Poole is built to do the dirty work, playing the role Montario Hardesty held last fall, while Oku has game-breaking ability. Neither earned much time last fall — Poole landed 10 carries, Oku 23 — though Oku did flash some of his speed in the return game, averaging a team-best 26.2 yards per his 33 kick returns. Tennessee has a number of young options beyond this pair, such as true and redshirt freshmen Toney Williams and Rajion Neal. If Dooley leans heavily upon the ground game, as expected, he has the horses to get the job done.

Seniors Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore will lead the receiver corps, with a cadre of first- and second-year players poised to make an impact. The senior duo will continue to serve in key roles, as they did in 2009: Moore posted 46 receptions for 680 yards, both totals best on the team, while Moore pitched in with 40 grabs for 540 yards and a team-leading seven touchdowns. Keep an eye on the development of several extremely talented youngsters, such as sophomore Marsalis Teague, one of the jewels of last season’s recruiting class, and incoming freshmen Matt Milton and Da’Rick Rogers. Milton has already made his voice heard, arriving on campus in time for spring practice, while Rogers was one of the top receiver recruits in the country this past cycle. Senior tight end Luke Stocker, whose 29 grabs last fall ranked third on the team, is an all-American candidate; yet another supremely gifted U.T. tight end.

Former Boise State coordinator Justin Wilcox steps in for Monte Kiffin, and hopes to continue to build upon the success of last year’s defense. He has some weapons to work with, though Tennessee will struggle replacing Dan Williams, Rico McCoy and Eric Berry along each level of this unit. I like what Wilcox has to work with at end, where Ben Martin and Chris Walker performed well a season ago. A former linebacker, Walker made a smooth transition into the starting lineup in 2010, posting 42 tackles (8.5 for loss) and a team-best six sacks. Martin added 38 tackles and 3.5 sacks in his first year of significant starting experience. I think Martin, who does not lack for talent, is poised for an all-conference senior season.

The interior of the defensive line is a concern. Tennessee hopes a pair of sophomores, Marlon Walls and Montori Hughes, are up to the task of supplanting a pair of multiple-year contributors; the impact Dan Williams had up front cannot be overestimated. In their defense, both Walls and Hughes served in important roles a year ago. This was especially the case with Hughes, who made 20 stops (2 for loss) as an immediate member of the line rotation. Tennessee must also add depth, with unproven linemen like Chase Nelson, Arthur Jeffrey and Rae Sykes, the latter a former JUCO transfer, angling for significant snaps.

If he’s healthy, senior Nick Reveiz will earn the starting nod at middle linebacker. He should be ready to go come the fall after tearing his A.C.L. early into last season. A former walk-on, Reveiz is a team leader on defense. If Reveiz stumbles in his recovery, the Vols will turn to a former fullback, junior Austin Johnson, in the middle. The two outside spots will be held by sophomore Herman Lathers and senior LaMarcus Thompson. Lathers, who was a very pleasant surprise as a rookie, will attempt to replace McCoy’s production on the weak side. He has the speed to make plays in space, something his predecessor did very well. While he struggled with injuries, Thompson was a fine addition to the linebacker corps on the strong side in 2009.

There’s no replacing a talent like Eric Berry: not this year, not next, not ever. Sophomore Darren Myles will draw that intimidating task this fall, one year after being used only sparingly as a freshman. The U.T. staff could also turn to Rod Wilks at strong safety, though Wilks can play either safety spot. The next star in the Tennessee secondary is sophomore free safety Janzen Jackson, who started all nine games of his debut campaign — every game he wasn’t serving a suspension for a violation of team rules. When on the field, Jackson showed signs of the talent that will land him all-SEC accolades: speed, big-hitting ability and a nose for the ball.

U.T. returns Art Evans at cornerback, though Dennis Rogan’s early departure for the N.F.L. opens the second starting spot to competition. Junior Anthony Anderson must be considered the favorite to supplant Rogan, due to the experience he earned a season ago. Yet the Vols have plenty of options, such as redshirt freshman Eric Gordon. He likely would have earned time last fall, but Tennessee wisely kept a redshirt on the talented second-year player. I like sophomore Prentiss Wagner at cornerback, though he is currently listed at safety.

Position battles to watch

Quarterback Jonathan Crompton’s replacement should have been would-be senior Nick Stephens, but Stephens, in his infinite wisdom, transferred in April rather than compete for the U.T. starting assignment. An assignment, I feel safe in saying, he would have landed. His departure left the competition to a pair of new arrivals: incoming freshman Tyler Bray and JUCO transfer Matt Simms, each of whom arrived on campus in time to participate in spring practice. Simms left the spring with a slight lead over Bray, though the competition will surely continue when Tennessee returns to the field in the fall. As I wrote last month:

Yes, Matt Simms claimed the top spot as Tennessee exited its debut spring under Derek Dooley. He’ll struggle maintaining his starting role, especially when SEC defenses begin to comprehend the fact that while Simms is a heady player with good running ability, he won’t burn them deep. In his defense, you can’t discount the fact that Simms seems more comfortable in the position than freshman Tyler Bray. You must also admit that Bray, while he has prototypical size and arm strength, can’t make plays outside of the pocket; Simms can. But Bray has that arm. He lacks awareness, which can only be learned in a game situation.

Simms is an interesting story: he originally enrolled at Louisville only to leave, like Stephens, when not guaranteed the starting role heading into his sophomore season. Bray is unquestionably the future at the position, though his time as the full-time starter might not come until 2011. If the season started today, Simms would start — though Bray would earn plenty of time.

Game(s) to watch

Let’s look at this optimistically: Tennessee could go 4-0 in November, when it takes on Memphis and Vanderbilt on the road and lands Mississippi and Kentucky at home. Yes U.T. could go 4-0 over this stretch. It would help to steal an SEC game over the first two months, which would not leave the Vols needing a clean sweep in November to earn bowl eligibility.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell 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. U.T. could make things significantly easier by entering that final month with three wins, though that would mean stealing a win against this murderer’s row of opposition: Oregon, Florida and Alabama at home; L.S.U., Georgia and South Carolina on the road. The SEC is not exactly laying out the welcome mat for Derek Dooley, who will struggle to match Kiffin’s one-year mark of seven wins. Now, as for Dooley: as loyal readers of the Countdown can attest, I admire his enthusiasm and commitment to the college game; I also respect his coaching lineage, both in terms of his father’s success and his standing as a true Nick Saban disciple. He may have been Tennessee’s third choice, but Dooley will get it done in Knoxville. 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.

Dream season Dooley well exceeds the expectations surrounding his debut season, leading Tennessee to nine wins and a second-place finish in the SEC East.

Nightmare season I think Tennessee fans can live with five wins; perhaps even four wins, if the Vols hang tough against top conference opposition, can be excused. A 3-9 finish would not be good.

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.

Up Next

Who is No. 65? Our next school has the largest international student body of any public university in the country.

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Comments

  1. Andrew says:

    UCLA was my guess, but google tells me I’m probably wrong.

  2. [...] it’s not like your wife hasn’t done her share of flirting before. So Tennessee has had its midlife crisis. It purchased that sports car, dyed its hair, [...]

  3. katster says:

    Andrew:

    Looks like it’s Illinois, although Purdue runs a close second. Since we’ve done Illinois, and this feels about right for Purdue, I’ll put them down as my guess.

    (Although Iowa and Michigan are pretty high too. I wouldn’t have thought the Big 10 would have been a hotbed of international students…)

  4. JJ says:

    Purdue Alum here, I’m pretty sure karster has it. Academically, the Big Ten has a long national and international reach.

  5. ConnGator says:

    You mean second place in the East, not West. Behind Florida, as usual.

  6. Mike says:

    Largest international student body is probably a Pac-10 (whoops, Pac-11) school, and public rules out Stanford, so I say California.

  7. [...] MIDLIFE CRISIS COMPLETE. Myerberg’s excellent as usual with both analogy and analysis on the Pre-Snap Read‘s Tennessee preview, and includes a reminder that Cormac McCarthy is Tennessean by birth. If [...]

  8. george howley says:

    my instinct was one of the California schools, particularly Berkley which has typically had a large asian population but I am going to take a flyer on South Florida.

  9. Quack says:

    Probably not Cal, they’ll be ranked in the 30′s or 40′s. Looks like Andrew is right it’s Purdue, NYU, and Illinois are higher according to one source I found, but Purdue is my best guess.

  10. Nate says:

    Hey didnt you use this clue last year for some school?

    Paul: Hey Nate, I don’t believe I did. It’s hard to remember, however. I know my clue for Purdue last year was: “This university is the proud owner of a drum so large it typically takes an oversized dolly and four band members (two pushing, two pulling) to move it around the field.” Since Purdue has the largest international student body of any public university, I doubt I did the same exact clue. But maybe I tweaked it for another team.

  11. David says:

    Temple?

  12. David says:

    my mistake, not temple, but I thought Purdue was second to southern cal? Forgot my morning coffee.

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