The Tennessee Volunteers have always been one of the most successful programs in the SEC. They've won national titles, conference titles, and produced some of the best players in the NFL. This year looks like the Vols will have another solid team, but unfortunately for them they will play in the toughest division and conference and the nation, which will make it difficult for them to make a repeat trip to the SEC Championship game. What's in store for the Vols, and can they actually make a run towards success in the brutal SEC East?
Offense: Erik Ainge developed into one of the best quarterbacks Tennesse has had since Peyton Manning left town, but him and quarterbacks coach David Cutcliffe have both moved on. Replacing Ainge will be Jonathan Crompton, who has talent but is unproven. If he can get the proper guidance from new coordinator Dave Clawson, then the Vols could be really good on offense because all around him are quality players. Arian Foster is one of the most underrated college players in all of college football, and now that he's running towards the end zone instead of running from cops he should be one of the best backs in the SEC. He'll run behind an experienced offensive line that returns 4 starters from a unit that only gave up 4 sacks last year. The man on the outside to watch is Gerald Jones, who looks poised to be the next great Tennessee reciever. Only a sophomore, Jones has Percy Harvin level talent and versatility and will give the Vols an explosive dimension that few other teams in the nation can possibly match.
Defense: Quite possibly, the key to the Tennessee season will be how the front 7 on defense can play. The Vols already lost leader Jerod Mayo to the NFL, and many of the guys around him still have not lived up to their potential. Defensive end Robert Ayers must provide a pass rush, and the young linebackers on the roster must be disciplined and technically sound for the defensive unit to stop the run. Thankfully for Vols fans, their secondary is one of the best in the nation. Strong safety Eric Berry is quite possibly the best secondary player in the SEC since Champ Bailey was killin' kids at UGA and he will now be rejoined by Demetrice Morley, who was All-SEC before being ruled academically ineligible last year. The corners also have a ton of talent and have the ability to shut down any opposing reciever they will face this year. Its all going to come down to the front 7 though, if Tennesee can't stop the rushing game then the entire defense is going to suffer greatly.
Coaching: Philip Fulmer is fat and disliked by many Tennessee fans. In recent years the Vols consistency has dropped off and many think its because Fulmer has lost his edge. He'll be under the microscope even more so now that Cutcliffe took the head coaching job at Duke. If you remember, Fulmer was almost out the door before he convinced Cutcliffe to return to Knoxville and resurrect his offense. It remains to be seen if this year's offense will be as good without Cutcliffe, or if Fulmer has the ability to lead his team to success without some of his top assistants around. Regardless, unless Tennessee beats either Georgia or Florida, Fulmer will remain on the hot seat in Knoxville well into 2009.
Predicted Schedule and Outcomes:
@UCLA - W
UAB - W
Florida - W
@ Auburn - L
Northern Illinois - W
@ Georgia - L
Mississippi State - W
Alabama - W
@ South Carolina - L
Wyoming - W
@ Vanderbilt - W
Kentucky - W
Not many teams can say that they will face 3 top-1o ranked teams among their first 6 games, and make a cross-country trip to face a Pac-10 teams. If Tennesee can win 2 of those 3 games against their top SEC foes than the rest of the season can set up pretty nicely. I'm giving Tennesee a win over Florida early in the season, but I just don't see how they can win on the road at UGA, who will be fired up after last season's ass-whooping, or on the Plains the week after an emotional matchup with Florida. Its also going to be tought to win in Columbia after playing for 6 straight weeks prior to that game. However, as tough as the SEC East is this year, a 9-3 record wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, though if the defense does not improve its possible that the Vols could be looking at 4 or 5 losses too.