Today in my “12 Teams in 12 Days” segment, I will be focusing on the University of Tennessee Volunteers.
I honestly can call the Vols an interesting case study on how to try to rebuild a once powerhouse.
Tennessee’s situation is almost a mirror image of Michigan’s. The Vols were among the elite for a long, long time under Phil Fulmer, broke through and won a national title in 1998 – like Michigan was able to put it all together to win a share of the title in 1997 – flirted with a championship appearance in 2004 – like Michigan did in 2006 – and then things fell off the map. Way, way off the map.
Sometimes programs do need to rebuild, and if Alabama can go from mediocrity to greatness with one big coaching hire, and if Florida and LSU can be steadily terrific, and if Auburn can catch fire in the right year with Gene Chizik at the helm, then why can’t Tennessee become Tennessee in the next few years under Derek Dooley? Tennessee doesn’t have to win it all right now, but this needs to be the season that shows that Dooley is worthy of being the coach who’ll be at the front and center when the program rebounds.
Dooley played a ton of True Freshmen last season, and the offense this season will likely start just one senior. QB Tyler Bray, top wideouts Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers, and four extremely talented starters on the offensive line are all just sophomores. A mere four seniors are projected to start on the defensive side, a few true freshmen are likely to step up and produce in some way at linebacker, and the young depth is strong after a few good recruiting classes. Redshirt freshman Michael Darr was considered the nation’s top punting prospect last year, and placekicker Michael Palardy is just a sophomore.
One word describes this team from top to bottom……YOUNG.
Tennessee’s offensive line couldn’t block anyone last year, there were too many interceptions from Tyler Bray, and the secondary found ways to give up chunks of big yards to just about everyone who could throw a forward pass. Even with all the problems, the Vols still rallied late in the year and got to a bowl game where it battled North Carolina in a double overtime classic.
This 2011 Volunteers should be decent. The 2012 Volunteers should be great. By then, maybe the Vols will be good enough to meet Michigan in a New Year’s Day bowl.
There really is no single star I can point out on this team. But I can promise you that the Vols will have a good year if the running game can be a little bit better. Tauren Poole did everything possible to do his part, running for 100 yards or more six times, but the ground game was held in check far too often with 514 of the 1,420 yards came in the first two games and five of the 14 rushing touchdowns came in the first six quarters. It would be nice if QB Tyler Bray didn’t have to carry the offense by throwing all over the place and forcing things, but he has the talent and ability to do it. After averaging 109 rushing yards per game and 255 passing yards, there needs to be more balance.
One player to look out for is Junior OT Dallas Thomas. The offensive line is going to be good, and it could be very good with a little bit more time, but it still needs a veteran presence. Thomas started every game last year and has been a part of the equation for the last two seasons, but the Louisiana native hasn’t been consistent in pass protection. At left tackle, and protecting Tyler Bray’s blindside, he has to stand out.
There are enough winnable games this year against teams like Montana, Buffalo, Middle Tennessee and Vanderbilt to provide a nice base of wins, and if the program is going to take any sort of a step forward, then it has to be good enough to beat teams like Cincinnati and Kentucky. But Tennessee will be favored in those games, and while winning the ones it’s supposed to will be nice, the season needs a signature W. Whether it’s at Florida, against LSU at home, or at Alabama, or over South Carolina, the program needs to start beating the better teams and not just compete well against them.
Sooner than later we will see Tennessee return to greatness and rise back up as an SEC power. But for right now, they are too young at key positions. Tennessee will upset South Carolina in Neyland Stadium in late October and the Vols finish the season 7-5 this year.