2011 Tennessee Preview
Tennessee RB Tauren Poole
Tennessee RB Tauren Poole
Posted May 23, 2011

Tennessee got to a bowl game last year, but it was a rebuilding campaign. True freshmen were thrown to the wolves, it took wins over bad teams to salvage the season, and the program appeared to be light years away from the good old days. Now the rewards should come after taking the lumps, but can Tauren Poole and the Vols get in the SEC title hunt? Check out the CFN 2011 Tennessee Preview.

Tennessee Volunteers

Preview 2011

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Derek Dooley
2nd year: 6-7
5th year overall: 23-27
Returning Lettermen:
Off. 17, Def. 26, ST 2
Lettermen Lost: 18
Ten Best Tennessee Players
1. DT/DE Malik Jackson, Sr.
2. RB Tauren Poole, Sr.
3. FS Prentiss Waggner, Jr.
4. QB Tyler Bray, Soph.
5. WR Justin Hunter, Soph.
6. C James Stone, Soph.
7. LB Herman Lathers, Jr.
8. WR Da'Rick Rogers, Soph.
9. OG JerQuari Schofield, Soph.
10. OT Ja'Wuan James, Soph.
2011 Schedule

Sep. 3 Montana
Sep. 10 Cincinnati
Sep. 17 at Florida
Oct. 1 Buffalo
Oct. 8 Georgia
Oct. 15 LSU
Oct. 22 at Alabama
Oct. 29 South Carolina
Nov. 5 Middle Tennessee
Nov. 12 at Arkansas
Nov. 19 Vanderbilt
Nov. 26 at Kentucky

Call Tennessee an interesting case study in how to try to rebuild a powerhouse.

For years, Michigan fans screamed about how things had grown stale under Lloyd Carr. Yes there were Big Ten titles, and yes there were Rose Bowl appearances, but way too often the national title was out of the picture by the time late October hit, creating a perception that things had to be tweaked to be a regular in the championship circuit. Carr retired, Rich Rodriguez came in after leading West Virginia to within a heartbeat of a national title appearance, and the rest is history.

Tennessee's situation is almost a mirror image of Michigan's. The Vols were among the elite for a long, long time under Phil Fulmer, broke through and won a national title in 1998 – like Michigan was able to put it all together to win a share of the title in 1997 – flirted with a championship appearance in 2004 – like Michigan did in 2006 – and then things fell off the map.

All of a sudden, the NFL talent factory in Knoxville started laying people off, other SEC teams emerged as superstars, and it was time to start making big changes. Michigan had RichRod and had to fight through a few years of transition; Tennessee had Lane Kiffin and only went through one year.

Sometimes programs do need to reboot, and if Alabama can go from mediocrity to greatness with one big coaching hire, and if Florida and LSU can be steadily terrific, and if Auburn can catch fire in the right year with Gene Chick at the helm, then why can't Tennessee become Tennessee in the next few years under Derek Dooley? Tennessee doesn't have to win it all right now, but this needs to be the season that shows that Dooley is worthy of being the coach who'll be at the helm when the program rebounds.

If you're Tennessee, going to bowl games and giving Florida a nice fight isn't enough. Even though no one seemingly wanted the head coaching gig before Dooley signed on, this is one of the premier programs in college football with every conceivable advantage when it comes to fan support, facilities, recruiting territory, and it's better to take a year or so to find the right young players, with the hope of being among the elite, rather than piece things together to try to win a few games now.

Tennessee's offensive line couldn't block anyone, there were too many interceptions from the inexperienced quarterbacks, and the secondary found ways to give up chunks of big yards to just about everyone who could throw a forward pass. Even with all the problems, the Vols still rallied late in the year – helped by the schedule easing up – and got to a bowl game where it battled North Carolina in a double overtime classic.

And now it's time to start seeing the positive results.

Dooley threw a ton of true freshman to the wolves, but the offense will likely start just one senior. QB Tyler Bray, top wideouts Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers, and four extremely talented starters on the offensive line are all just sophomores. A mere four seniors are projected to start on the defensive side, a few true freshmen are likely to step up and produce in some way at linebacker, and the young depth is strong after a few good recruiting classes. Redshirt freshman Michael Darr was considered the nation's top punting prospect last year, and placekicker Michael Palardy is just a sophomore.

The team is young and growing, and so is Dooley.

Trying to do things "the right way," almost to a fault, Dooley, at least on the surface, appears to be different from the norm. Considering that few outside of the greater Auburn metropolitan area buy the Cam Newton story, and with the assumption being that cheating is rampant across the SEC, Dooley is doing what he can to be candid and honest. Of course, Tennessee has hardly been the squeakiest clean of programs over the years, but for now, in today's day and age, what Dooley is selling seems to be working.

So now it's up to the Tennessee fans, notorious for being, um, "passionate," to enjoy the ride. Soon, Vol seasons will be defined by the impossible expectations of whether or not the team wins the SEC title and is on the short list for the national championship. Then it's like being a great golfer who can't have fun after breaking 80.

This 2011 Volunteers should be good. The 2012 version should be great. By then, maybe the Vols will be good enough to meet Michigan in a New Year's Day bowl.

What to watch for on offense: The emergence of the offensive line. The front five was a major sore spot last season giving up sack after sack and failing to do anything consistently right for the running game. The immobile, indecisive quarterbacks didn't help the cause, but starting a few true freshmen and using seven different combinations led to a rocky season. There could be a night-and-day difference with the green players of last year now talented veterans with tremendous upside. Four sophomores will start, Notre Dame transfer Alex Bullard is eligible to add instant depth on the interior, and freshman Marcus Jackson is a rising star at left guard. The biggest weakness of last year should become a strength.

What to watch for on defense: A fluid linebacking corps. It's not like the Vols are asking for linebackers from the student body to fill in the gaps, but this isn't the best group the defense has had. Veteran Herman Lathers is a player, and Austin Johnson and Daryl Vereen will be fine, but it would be nice if a next-level star emerges right away as a leader and an anchor. It's possible that true freshman A.J. Johnson becomes that guy right away, with the 6-3, 245-pound size and the talent to quickly become special. Even if the newcomers take the first year off, there might be plenty of movement to find the right combination.

The team will be far better if … the ground game can be a little bit better. Tauren Poole did everything possible to do his part, running for 100 yards or more six times, but the ground game was held in check far too often with 514 of the 1,420 yards came in the first two games and five of the 14 rushing touchdowns came in the first six quarters. It would be nice if QB Tyler Bray didn't have to carry the offense by bombing away and forcing things, but he has the talent and ability to do it. After averaging 109 rushing yards per game and 255 passing yards, there needs to be more balance.

The schedule: The Vols are allowed non-conference breaks against Montana, Buffalo, Middle Tennessee, and a home game against Cincinnati considering the brutal slate the SEC dumped on them. This year, if an East team could pick three teams from the West to play, it would take Auburn, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State. Tennessee doesn't have to face any of them and has to go on the road to play Alabama and Arkansas. If that wasn't bad enough, the LSU game, while at home, comes in a backbreaking stretch of Georgia, LSU, at Alabama, and South Carolina. All this comes after starting out the SEC slate at Florida. The finishing kick is light with Vanderbilt and at Kentucky to close, but like last year, winning both games against the East lightweights could be a must for a bowl appearance.

Best offensive player: Senior RB Tauren Poole. QB Tyler Bray will likely be the star of the show just because of the position and his ability to come out bombing, but Poole will be the team's steady offensive rock. He won't get any of the spotlight compared to the rest of the star backs in the SEC, but Poole has the combination of skills to become one of the league's best all¬-around players. He can hit the home run, he can catch, and he can pound away when needed.

Best defensive player: Senior DT Malik Jackson. There's a chance that safety Prentiss Waggner becomes one of the SEC's breakout stars, but Jackson will be the key to the front four no matter where he plays. Ideally a 3-4 end, the 6-5, 270-pound former USC Trojan, worked on the outside last year for a stretch before moving inside over the second half of the season. All of his five sacks came in a four-game stretch against South Carolina, Memphis, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt once he figured out what he was doing at tackle. With a big, good line around him, he should be one of the SEC's best interior pass rushers. He won't be this year's Nick Fairley, but he might not be that far off.

Key player to a successful season: Junior OT Dallas Thomas. The offensive line is going to be good, and it could be very good with a little bit more time, but it still needs a veteran presence. Thomas started every game last year and has been a part of the equation for the last two seasons, but the Baton Rouge native hasn't been a rock in pass protection. At left tackle, and protecting Tyler Bray's blindside, he has to stand out.

The season will be a success if … the Vols win eight games. There are enough winnable games against teams like Montana, Buffalo, Middle Tennessee and Vanderbilt to provide a nice base of wins, and if the program is going to take any sort of a step forward, then it has to be good enough to beat teams like Cincinnati and Kentucky. But Tennessee will be favored in those games, and while winning the ones it's supposed to will be nice, the season needs a signature. Whether it's at Florida, against LSU at home, or at Alabama, or over South Carolina, the program needs to start beating the better teams and not just compete well against them.

Key game: September 17th at Florida. The Gators aren't quite back to being at the killer national title level of recent years, but they're going to be better and they're going to be looking to make a statement in Will Muschamp's SEC opener. It would be a perfect time for Tennessee to show something, too. The Vols haven't beaten Florida since 2004, losing six straight. It's time to put a stop to the losing run.

2010 Fun Stats:
- Tennessee First Half Scoring: 206 – Tennessee Second Half Scoring: 129
- Field Goals: Tennessee 15-of-18 – Opponents 15-of-27
- Sacks: Opponents 41 for 289 yards – Tennessee 26 for 179 yards

- 2011 Tennessee Preview | 2011 Tennessee Offense
- 2011 Tennessee Defense | 2011 Tennessee Depth Chart
- Tennessee Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006