Monday, July 2, 2012

SEC East Preview: Tennessee

There is no one in the SEC this year that is on a hotter seat than Derek Dooley. He took over the Tennessee program after Lane Kiffin left in January of 2010 and has not done much to win over the Volunteer faithful. After two years, Dooley's cumulative record is 11-14 and and was responsible for the Volunteers losing to Kentucky for the first time in 26 years. This is going to be a defining year for Dooley and he luckily has 18 returning starters and 7 new assistant coaches coming in to make a valiant run at saving his job.

The Volunteers return 10 starters on an offense that finished 104th in total offense, 116th in rushing offense, and 50th in passing offense. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will need to improve on these numbers greatly and has a lot of talent to do so. Quarterback Tyler Bray comes back after starting 7 games last year and has had a solid spring. Bray threw for 1,983 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. Bray has a great receiving corps coming back led by Da'Rick Rogers and Justing Hunter. Before Justin Hunter went down with an ACL tear against Florida, he was one of the leading receivers in all of the SEC. Da'Rick Rogers caught 67 passes for 1,040 yards and 9 touchdowns while in Hunter's 3 games he caught 17 passes for 314 yards and 2 touchdowns. Hunter should be back to full strength by the N.C. State game and will be one of the best receivers in the SEC again. Sophomore Marlin Lane looks to assume the starting running back position after having rushing for a paltry 280 yards and 2 touchdowns. The running game will need to vastly improve if the Volunteer offense is going to improve on the 116th ranked rushing attack in the nation. Luckily, all five offensive line starters from last year are returning. Their experience and depth will make this one of the best offensive lines in the conference. If Tyler Bray can continue his maturation at quarterback and the running game comes along, this Tennessee offense will be one of the best in the SEC.

The Tennessee defense will be under new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri. Sunseri inherits 9 starters on his 3-4 defense that was the 27th ranked total defense, 12th ranked passing defense, and 69th ranked rushing defnese. The rushing defense was the achilles heel of this unit last year and gave up and average of 162.7 yards a game. The front three for the Volunteers will break in two new starters at defensive end and returning nose tackle Maurice Couch. Couch had 37 tackles last year with 6 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. JUCO transfer Darrington Sentimore will take over at one defensive end while Marlon Walls will be at the other. Walls played in all 12 games for the Vols last year and started 4. Walls had 22 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and 1 sack. The linebacking corps for the Vols returns 4 starters. Jacques Smith, Curt Maggitt, Herman Lathers, and A.J. Johnson bring a lot of experience and depth to this unit. Sophomore A.J. Johnson was second on the team in tackles last year registering 80 and Curt Maggitt was fourth with 56. This unit will be very effective if they can consistently shed blockers and get into the backfield. They could be the best group of linebackers in the SEC. The secondary returns all four starters as well. Prentiss Waggner and Justin Coleman will be at the corner positions while Brent Brewer and Brian Randolph will be at the safety positions. Waggner had 48 tackles last year while Coleman had 10. Randolph had 55 tackles and Brewer had 24. This secondary unit could end up being one of the best in the nation under Sal Sunseri. This unit has potential to be the best in the SEC with Sal Sunseri at the helm. If Sunseri can help this defense reach its full potential, it could go a long way in saving Dooley's job.

The Tennessee schedule is going to be a difficult one to manage. The Vols start of the year in the first half of the Chick-Fil-A classic against N.C. State. They then follow up with three straight home games against Georgia State, Florida, and Akron. The Vols are then on the road for two straight games against Georgia and Mississippi State. The Third Saturday in October will actually feature Alabama for the first time since 2007. The Vols then head to South Carolina for their last trip outside of the state of Tennessee. A homecoming game against Troy precedes the Vols first battle with new SEC East foe Missouri. After a trip to Vanderbilt, the Vols return to home to battle for the Wooden Barrell against Kentucky. Looking at the Vols schedule you see only four winnable games (Georgia State, Akron, Troy, and Kentucky though I did predict Kentucky to win it). It does not look well for the Vols this year and I see them finishing behind Kentucky this year in the SEC East. I predict that the Vols go 0-8 in the SEC this year and lose to N.C. State for an overall record of 3-9. Derek Dooley will be gone by the end of this year and Tennessee will be looking for a new head coach.

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