Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Season Preview: Tennessee Volunteers

Today I take a gander at Mr. Football Gal's alma mater, the University of Tennessee. And it does not look good.

Who's going to throw the ball? Who's going to catch the ball? Who's going to run the ball? Who's going to coach the team?

Seriously, who is this guy?

Most pressingly--who are they possibly going to beat?

Let's review the makings of what may turn out to be the worst season Tennessee has ever had.

The Kiffin Debacle
There was this guy, see. His daddy is a real good defensive coordinator, he worked with Pete Carroll at USC, and he was supposed to be a young coaching phenom. At the tender age of 31, he was hired as head coach by the Oakland Raiders. He had no previous head coaching or NFL experience (unless he worked some weird lackey job for the Jaguars, but Wikipedia says a citation is needed for that one), but he got the job anyway because Al Davis is a crazy old man. After a season and a bit, Davis fired Kiffin and announced it in a notoriously bizarre press conference. It was easy to assumed that Kiffin was in the right, because Al Davis is a crazy old man. And that he is, but maybe he also had Kiffin pretty well sized-up.

Meanwhile! After some mediocre seasons, the powers-that-be at Tennessee decided that Phil Fulmer, for all the good he had done them over the years (including the 1998 National Championship), was not going to take the program back to the top of the SEC. This wasn't a mistake. It was a similar situation to the one A&M faced in '02 with R. C. Slocum--they had a well-respected but past-his-prime coach, and the mistake was not in replacing him, but in who they replaced him with.

UT decided on Kiffin. He immediately began racking up NCAA rules violations and generally annoying everyone. (There were more links I could have put in, but it just got tiring after awhile, you know?) He proved to be nothing special as a coach, going 7-6 in his first and, as it turned out, only season. Though he wasn't much to write home about as a coaching talent, and though he made UT the subject of too much NCAA scrutiny, the worst thing he did was to quit to take the USC job--not immediately after the season, but just a month before national signing day. (Also, he tried to lure UT's best recruits away with him: "The night Kiffin took the USC job, [assistant coach Ed] Orgeron made calls attempting to poach Tennessee recruits who were set to attend their first classes in Knoxville the next day.") The most (and only?) charitable thing I heard about Kiffin's departure from Tennessee was from my sister-in-law, who theorized that he left because his "cute little wife" wanted to move back to California.
Dudes on the internet get pretty creepy about Mrs. Kiffin.

Most people were . . . less positive.

But let's not put all of this on Kiffin. (Most, yes. Not quite all.) Don't forget the role that cowardly Pete Carroll played, in abandoning USC because he knew the consequqnces of his delinquency were finally going to come around. He knew USC would be punished this year, thanks to his overworked blind eye, and he ran away.

Since UT got into the coaching search game so late, they couldn't find anybody they really wanted. Lots of guys didn't want to do to their schools what Kiffin had just done to Tennessee. Now, I'm not saying that . . . Dennis? . . . no, Derek! Derek Dooley is a bad guy; he jumped at the chance because how could he turn down a job that far out of his league? He was coaching Louisiana Tech, and he went 17-20. That's not very good, even for LA Tech (presumably). It would be nice to think that as the son of an SEC coaching legend, he's some as-yet-undiscovered talent, a real up-and-comer who just needs his first big shot! But that seems unlikely.

I still think Tennessee could have gotten Mike Leach. (I have floated this idea past Mr. Football Gal, and he'd much rather take his chances with David Dooley. Wait, no--Derek Dooley.) Whatever you want to say about the guy (he's nuts, he has chronic verbal diarrhea, he doesn't care about defense, what's up with the whole pirate thing?, etc.), he can turn nothing into something. And that's kind of what the Vols need right now.

Doolen--oops, Dooley--did a better job of keeping Kiffin's recruiting class together than one might have expected. That said, he still lost some guys, including the promising Bryce Brown (who was one of the few fun people to watch in last year's offense, I tell you what).

It's hard to say who will start at QB. Last year's backup, Nick Stephens, left; the latest of Phil Simms' progeny, Matt, is showing some alarming incompletion and interception tendencies; and freshman Tyler Bray is 6' 6", 195 lbs, so before he gets snapped in half by a DB, at least he'll be able to see the guy coming.

And this is as bulky as he looks with pads on.

The offensive line is painfully inexperienced. The running backs are young; the receivers are OK. TE Luke Stocker gets some hype, but it's a bit overblown.

The defense may be in a little better shape, but even it lost its crown jewel Eric Berry to the NFL.

And it's not just individual player losses that hurt, it's total numbers. As my SEC Lindy's magazine told me, they only have 78 scholarship players (or they did at Lindy's' publication date, anyway) out of the possible 85; they've lost 33 players since Phil Fulmer was fired (and that was before Darren Myles got arrested and kicked off the team a couple weeks ago); and during the spring game, they couldn't even fill both sides' offensive lines with scholarship guys. Decent players are thin on the ground at Tennessee, let alone good ones.

The schedule
To add insult to multiple injuries, even for an SEC team, UT has a very difficult schedule this year. So where might wins come from?
  • 9/4, Tennessee-Martin: Hey, there's one! (1-0)
  • 9/11, Oregon: Even with their problems, they should be able to handle this Tennessee team. (1-1)
  • 9/18, Florida: No. (1-2)
  • 9/25, UAB: Barring something kind of crazy, yes. (2-2)
  • 10/2, at LSU: Even Les Miles won't be able to mess this up. (2-3)
  • 10/9, at Georgia: And Mark Richt should do even better. (2-4)
  • 10/23, Alabama: I don't think 'Bama will need to depend on blocked field goals this year. (2-5)
  • 10/30, at South Carolina: I think very little of latter-day Steve Spurrier's abilities to get his team to win, so I think there will be a chance of a UT upset here, but I'm going to play it safe and call this a loss. (2-6)
  • 11/6, at Memphis: Memphis has a football team? (3-6)
  • 11/13, Ole Miss: Doesn't look so good. (3-7)
  • 11/20, at Vanderbilt: I think Tennessee handles Vandy for, gulp, their first conference win. (4-7)
  • 11/27, Kentucky: This is the single hardest game on the schedule for me to call. Did you know that Tennessee over Kentucky is the nation's longest active series winning streak? UK hasn't beaten UT in football since 1984. I can't imagine the Vols letting that go without a fight, and the game is in Knoxville. Kentucky has a brand-new coach (the awesomely named Joker Phillips)--will that cause growing pains or reinvigoration? Basically, this is what it comes down to for me: this feels like a four-win team (and I know from four-win teams). I know it sounds stupid to say that I'd be more confident that the Vols would beat the Wildcats if they first lost to the less-good UAB Dragons or the Commodores, but that's how I feel. But things being as they are, I guess I'm predicting a loss here. (4-8)
Tennessee has never in their history had an eight-loss team. Therefore, if I'm right, UT fans should prepare for not just a bad season, but perhaps their Worst Season Ever.

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