If you haven’t heard, Derek Dooley’s out of his job as head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers. When? About December, 2012. We jest, but you get the point: Mr Dooley’s under huge pressure to get the 2012 right at Neyland Stadium after two years of debacle, and our thought is this: Shouldn’t we be thinking of the Vols as a dark horse for the division, rather than an also ran?

LAST SEASON

As awful as people who like you to think Tennessee was last year, we’d like to put this out there: The Vols were also hellish unlucky with injuries. They lost their best wide receiver Justin Hunter in their third  game of the season against Florida. Their QB, Tyler Bray, went down with a thumb injury and missed five games, too. And add to that a horrible schedule that included LSU, Alabama and Arkansas out of the West, things were always going to be poor. Having said that, we didn’t think that the Vols would lose 10-7 to Kentucky. Did anyone?

NFL-wise, the Vols had defensive lineman Malick Jackson drafted (although a point has been made that Jackson was a transfer from USC) – the only one in the class. Having said that, RB Tauren Poole is playing for the Carolina Panthers – although it’s a great possibility he’ll get cut despite having a good preseason, or simply end up on the practice squad.

LOVING THE VOLS OFFENSIVE LINE…

The Tennessee Vols should be good for pass protection for Tyler Bray, bearing in mind that they are bringing EVERYONE of the biggies back. According to Phil Steele, that gives them 105 career starts on the line – tied for third in the FBS. That’s pretty impressive. It’s important to note that they didn’t allow a lot of sacks – so expect the number to be even better this year. The biggest thing for the line will be helped the anaemic running game, which we expect to struggle, but more of that later. The name on your mouth should be giant 6 ft 6, 329-pound left tackle Antonio ‘Tiny’ Richardson, who is our tip to go in the first round in the 2014 draft.

…AND THE QB/ WR HOOK-UP ISN’T GOING TO BE BAD EITHER

Tyler Bray was having a pretty good season until not only his best receiver got injured, but he himself hurt as well. Despite all this, Bray threw for nearly 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns last year. He’s a dark horse to be All-SEC this year, particularly if Justin Hunter (314 yards from only 17 receptions last year), Da’Rick Rogers (over 1,000 yards receiving and nine TDs), and TE Mychal Rivera (over 340, 1 TD) can keep hold of the ball. That’s a pretty good line in receivers, and will certainly give their opponents something to think about.

BUT THERE’S A PROBLEM WITH THE RUNNING GAME

Tennessee has a problem with the running game. Poole has graduated, leaving inexperienced Marlin Lane, Rajion Neal and Devrin Young to pick up the pieces. Sure, Neal’s got speed, but will he be able to last against nasty SEC defenses such as Florida and Alabama? They are going to need to put some yards together, otherwise UT’s offense becomes one-shaped – and that’s going to hurt them.

AND DEFENSIVELY….

Sal Sunseri’s taken over as the new defensive co-ordinator on The Hill, and there are worries how his defense will be able to adjust from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, although with four of their top 6 starters back – as well as junior college player (and awesomely named) Darrington Sentimore – Steele says: “UT has their most experienced D-Line in years”, predicting that they will be fantastic against the rush. We’ll have to see.

Linebackers-wise, there is going to be every more strength with virtually everybody – including A.J. Johnson (80 tackles) coming back – and pay attention to cornerback Prentiss Waggner, who’s going to lead what is again a pretty experienced Vols secondary.

AND THE SCHEDULE?

August 31 NC STATE (ATLANTA, GA)

September 8 GEORGIA STATE

September 15 FLORIDA

September 22 AKRON

September 29 at Georgia

October 13 at Mississippi State

October 20 ALABAMA

October 27 at South Carolina

November 3 TROY

November 17 at Vanderbilt

November 24 KENTUCKY

Although the first four games – including the home showdown with Florida – are very winnable indeed, Tennessee’s schedule’s a horror show in the middle, with trips to Georgia and Mississippi State followed by Alabama at home and a trip to South Carolina. The Vols will be lucky to get one win out of five of those games, although they could well go 0-5 in that stretch. That means that the games against Troy, Vanderbilt (on the road) and Kentucky could be ultra-important for Vols fans – and the job of one Derek Dooley.

BOTTOM LINE: Tennessee finishes the season 7-5, the school’s best season since 2007, when it finished 10-4. The biggest win of the season comes against the hated Gators, and suddenly everyone’s a bit happier. Heck, it’s a heck of a lot happier than it’s been for a few years.

 

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