2011 Record: (5-7, 1-7 in SEC)
Head Coach: Derek Dooley (28-34 Overall, 4-12 in SEC)
Last Bowl Game: 2010 Music City Bowl: lost to UNC 30-27
2012 Schedule Link
Must Win: 9/8 vs Georgia St, 9/22 vs Akron, 11/3 vs Troy
Revenge: 9/15 vs Florida, 9/29 at Georgia, 10/20 vs Alabama, 10/27 at South Carolina, 11/24 vs Kentucky
Swing Games: 8/31 vs NC St, 10/13 at Mississippi St, 11/10 vs Missouri, 11/17 at Vandy
2011 Statistics Link
Stat to Cheer: allowed 143 plays of more than 10 yards (3rd in SEC, 12th in Nation)
Stats to Fear: only had 15 sacks in 2011 (11th in SEC, 107th in Nation), averaged 2.76 yards per carry in 2011 (last in SEC, 117th in Nation)
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 10; Defense: 9; Specialists: 2)
Key Defensive Returnees: LB AJ Johnson (80 tackles), CB Prentiss Waggner (48 tackles, 2 INT)
Key Offensive Returnees: QB Tyler Bray (17 TD, 6 INT), WR Da'Rick Rogers (67 rec, 9 TD), WR Justin Hunter (17 rec, 2 TD in 3 games), TE Mychal Rivera (29 rec)
Top Recruits: WR Cordarrelle Patterson (JUCO), S LaDarrell McNeil (Scout.com's #6 S), DT Danny O'Brien (#18 DT), DE Trent Taylor (#29 DE), WR Jason Croom (#44 WR)
Inside Scoop with Vols in the Fall:
CFBZ: Sal Sunseri was hired from Alabama and he's installing a new 3-4 defensive scheme. Which players do you think are the best fit for that system?
Vols in the Fall: To answer that, let’s look for a moment at what the 3-4 defensive scheme is constructed to do and what makes it work. First, the 3-4 is a philosophy designed primarily to stop run-based offenses. The SEC is first and foremost a run-based conference. Second, it is a scheme that relies primarily on the linebackers, usually four of them, to do that.
Thus, the reliance isn’t so much on four monster-sized, athletic defensive front men, which are very hard to find. Instead, the key is the smaller and quicker linebacking corps who can read (offenses). Right now, Tennessee probably has a better crop of linebackers than defensive linemen. Senior Herman Lathers, Sophomores A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt should be good fits for Sunseri’s defense.
Two defensive ends are also crucial – DE’s that are strong and athletic. Juniors Jacques Smith and Marlon Walls are coming into their own. The guard position (a nose-guard-type in the classic 3-4) is up for grabs however.
This defense will be a lot more active and attacking than the last two years’ defenses. They may give up some big plays, as we did last season, but we most certainly will make more of them.
CFBZ: Tennessee struggled mightily to run the football last season. Do you see that facet of the offensive improving this season?
Vols in the Fall: When looking only at the running backs (Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane), I have no confidence to give an emphatic ‘yes’. Last season, the question was never-ending and unanswered: “Is it the fault of the RBs or the OL?” So the potential of the OL, besides having another season under their belt, is also an unknown.
But I believe the answer is a confident ‘yes’ because of Tennessee’s strong passing game. Establishing the run in the SEC is important, but if the talent of the running game is sub-par based on the conference standard, one of the best passing attacks in the country just might open up more opportunity for the Vols ground game to make important contributions when it needs to. And I believe it will.
CFBZ: What are the biggest reasons to be optimistic about Tennessee football in 2012?
Vols in the Fall: A healthy Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter, a slightly favorable schedule (as far as that can go in the SEC), and better overall depth give me some optimism. The injury to Hunter early in last year’s Florida game had a profound impact on the team. And when Bray injured his thumb late in the Georgia game, the team basically fell apart. There were many times when I felt the team quit last season. And the germ for those events was these key injuries.
The schedule is favorable in the sense that LSU and Arkansas are not on the schedule (as they were the last two seasons), and are replaced with Mississippi State and Missouri. Also, Alabama is at home, and the first four and last four are all very winnable games (NC State/Georgia St/Florida/Akron and Troy/Mizzou/Vandy/Kentucky). They better be, because three of the four middle games are on the road (Georgia/Miss St/South Car).
This is no longer the “young and thin squad made worse by injuries” that was last season’s convenient excuse. This is very close to being considered a veteran squad. Leadership will be the key to success – from coaches and the players themselves.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2012 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Vols in the Fall: I have relied on my gut the last two seasons in my pre-season predictions of regular season 6-6 marks for both 2010 and 2011 instead of the overly-optimistic exuberance that normally fills the Knoxville air. I was nearly perfect (6-6 and 5-7). That exuberance hasn’t left Tennessee for 2012, as win totals like 8, 9, and even 10 are being thrown around town.
I haven’t made my prediction on my website yet, but am leaning toward a 7-5 or 8-4 regular season mark. One thing is for sure: if Dooley’s Vols don’t win eight games – either by going 7-5 and winning a bowl, or by having an 8-4 regular season – then the pressure to look for another head coach will be immense.
For me, a successful season will be finally getting a ‘big win’ under Dooley’s belt (Florida, Georgia, or Bama) and keeping from slipping on a banana skin (NC State, Missouri, Vandy, and Kentucky). If he does both, eight regular season wins are in the bag. A bowl win on top of that would be frosting.
Derek Dooley inherited a mess when Lane Kiffin flew the coop but major questions surround Dooley and whether or not he's the man for the job. As a head football coach, Dooley has only had one winning season (2008 at Louisiana Tech) out of five. In the SEC so far he's 4-12 going just 1-7 last year. He's also 0-6 against the trio of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Dooley was dealt a less than ideal hand but Tennessee is used to being at or near the top of the SEC East and this is the season that Dooley must show improvement in getting back to that standing.
Last year, Tennessee was hurt by the loss of Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray. After the loss of Bray, the Vols went 2-5 down the stretch with their only wins coming against MTSU and in OT against Vandy. In five of those seven games, the Vols scored in single digits. There are huge concerns around the lack of a running game. Tennessee was the worst in the conference in yards, ypc and ypg and they were second to last in rushing TD. They even had two games where they ran for negative yards (Florida and Georgia). Tennessee should have a potent passing attack this year with the return of Bray and Hunter and with Da'Rick Rogers, Cordarelle Patterson and Mychal Rivera. Depth at the QB position is still a huge concern for Tennessee in addition to the running game. The Vols should be more balanced and effective on offense this year with the additions and health at WR and as long as Bray can stay healthy.
DC Justin Wilcox took the Washington job and Dooley made a great hire in Alabama's Sal Suneri to replace him. The big question is how long it will take the Vols to adapt to the switch to the 3-4. It took Alabama and Georgia until the second year for the light to come on and one of the big things that helped was to have a run stuffing nose. Statistically, Tennessee's defense was in the bottom half of the SEC in just about every metric last year. It's hard to think that Sunseri will be able to simply flip a switch and have great success in year one. I think we will see gradual improvement from the Vols defense this season and they will be clearly better than last year but they aren't going to be in the upper tier of the conference in terms of defense. This is a team that is still going to need to win with their offense.
Tennessee's schedule is not a killer but they do have a very important opener against a tough NC State team. The critical stretch of the season will be from the Florida game on Sept 15th to the South Carolina game on Oct 27th. That spans six games with five really tough games (vs Florida, at Georgia, at Miss St, vs Bama, at South Carolina). Worst case scenario has the Vols coming out of that stretch at 2-6. The good news for the Vols is that the stretch run is one of the easier ones in the SEC as they play Troy, Missouri and Kentucky at home and Vandy on the road. I think this is going to be a much improved Tennessee team based on what they will bring on the field but I'm not sure how much will show up in their win-loss record. I think the Vols will beat somebody they aren't supposed to this year but I also think they will drop one they should win.
2012 Prediction: 6-6
Previous 2012 Previews:
ACC: Boston College, Duke, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami (FL), UNC, Virginia, Wake Forest
Big 12: Baylor, Kansas, Texas Tech
Big East: Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple, UConn
Big Ten: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State, Purdue
C-USA: East Carolina, Houston, Marshall, Memphis, Rice, SMU, Southern Miss, Tulane, Tulsa, UAB, UCF, UTEP
Independent: Army, BYU, Navy, Notre Dame
MAC: Akron, Ball State, Bowling Green, Buffalo, CMU, EMU, Kent St, Miami (OH), NIU, Ohio, Toledo, UMass, WMU
MWC: Air Force, Colorado St, Fresno St, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, San Diego St, UNLV, Wyoming
Pac-12: Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon St, UCLA, Washington, Washington St
SEC: Auburn, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt
Sun Belt: Arkansas St, FAU, FIU, Louisiana, MTSU, North Texas, South Alabama, Troy, ULM, WKU
WAC: Idaho, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico St, San Jose St, Texas State, Utah State, UTSA
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