Tennessee is more talented and has more quality depth than a year ago.
But the Volunteers will also be less experienced and face a more difficult schedule. While out of conference UT trades Oregon for Cincinnati, in the SEC, the Vols face the three best teams from the Western division: LSU, Alabama and Arkansas, with only LSU at home.
The two biggest determining factors in UT’s season will be the running game on offense and the front seven on defense.
Quarterback Tyler Bray and the passing game will be explosive, but depending on mostly underclassmen, the air attack will have its ups and downs throughout the year, and will need its counterpart to pick up the slack, something it failed to do last year.
The ground attack should be improved, but by how much? Senior Tauren Poole returns, as do four of the five starters along the offensive line. The talented, but young offensive line should become one of the team’s best units if it gels as many expect. Finding a number two tailback to complement Poole is crucial. Freshman Marlin Lane is expected to get the first shot and could provide a spark missing from last year’s team.
Defensively, the Vols return just one of their front seven from last year: All-SEC senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson. Sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith will have a breakout year — if healthy — and should be considered for all-conference recognition at season’s end. The injury that will sideline outside linebacker Herman Lathers for at least the first month of the season is a big loss to a unit that was arguably the team’s biggest question mark at the beginning of fall camp. The emergence of freshmen ’backers Curt Maggitt and A. J. Johnson have softened that blow some, but it’s hard to replace a junior, All-SEC linebacker, regardless of how talented the two freshmen are.
Before the dismissal of free safety Janzen Jackson, the team’s best player by a wide margin, I was predicting eight wins for the Vols, with a victory in the Swamp over Florida. Still, UT is clearly on the upswing in Derek Dooley’s second year, but the Vols are still a year away from truly competing for an SEC title. However, the SEC East is as wide open as it’s ever been, and an upset (or two) could really help propel UT into the 2012 season, when it should be a legitimate title contender.
Record: 7-5 (3-5 SEC)
Wins: Montana, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Georgia, Middle Tennessee State, Vanderbilt and Kentucky
Losses: Florida, LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas
Bowl game: Gator Bowl
Tennessee comes into this season with way more experience on the offensive side, but way less on the defensive side.
Still, all signs point to this year being better than the last.
In what coach Derek Dooley is calling “Year One,” he faces a much tougher route to make some headway in the SEC and return to a bowl game.
When South Carolina is projected to win the SEC East, I interpret that as the East being wide open. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Vols play the top three teams from the SEC West: They host LSU and travel to Alabama and Arkansas.
A youthful but now experienced offense, led by sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray and senior tailback Tauren Poole, looks to knock a few teams off their feet and put up a lot of points with a balanced attack.
Poole is one of four returning SEC 1,000-yard rushers from last season. For a still-young offense, Poole must put up the same numbers, but in a more consistent fashion. He had six 100-yard games in 2010, but he also had four games with under 60 yards.
The Tennessee defense is where the questions lie.
The side’s best player Janzen Jackson got booted from the team. Curt Maggit and A. J. Johnson are believed to be the first true freshmen to ever start the season-opener at linebacker for UT. First Team All-SEC tackle Malik Jackson is the only returner in the front seven.
The Vols’ most important game of the first four comes against Cincinnati. Yes, bigger than the road trip to Florida. And if I weren’t scared of being called a homer, I’d say Cincinnati may hold the key to the whole season. Remember, just two years ago the Bearcats were in the Big 12 title game and were a few ticks of the clock away from playing for a national title. They’re definitely not the same team, nor do they have now-Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, but there are still some guys with that big-time experience who make Cincinnati dangerous.
Long story short, the Vols could definitely lose this game. But they also could win it. A loss would be disastrous, in terms of momentum and confidence. The first two weeks of the season represent the only favorable two-week stretch for the Vols until they finish off with Vanderbilt and Kentucky. They have to take care of business then if they’re going to do anything above themselves this season.
Record: 8-4 (4-4 SEC)
Wins: Montana, Cincinnati, Florida, Buffalo, South Carolina, MTSU, Vanderbilt and Kentucky
Losses: Georgia, LSU, Alabama and Arkansas
Bowl game: Liberty Bowl