Tennessee wasn’t nearly as bad as it appeared in its 2005, 5-6
season, and it wasn’t quite as good as it looked in the 2006,
9-4 campaign. Now it’s time to be Tennessee again, the elite
national player it appeared to be after starting off the season
with a dominant win over California.
There’s more than enough athleticism on both sides of the ball
to keep the NFL stocked for years to come, Erik Ainge is going
into his fourth year as the starting quarterback, the backfield
has more good backs than it’ll know what to do with, and the
defense, which struggled so much with its consistency last year,
has just enough experience to be far better.
So can the Vols finally put it all back together and win the SEC
title for the first time since the 1998 national championship
season? With road trips to Cal and Florida in the season’s first
three weeks, we’ll know pretty quickly.
What to watch for on offense:
More of a commitment to the running game. Tennessee, the program
of Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry and other stars, ran for more than
100 yards in only five games last year, and won them all. After
playing musical running backs throughout last year, Tennessee
might have a star to carry the offense in LaMarcus Coker, but he
has to be consistent, and he has to beat out Montario Hardesty
and one of the stars of spring ball, Arian Foster. They’ll have
to, given the loss of top receivers Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain
and Bret Smith.
What to watch for on defense: Improvement in the run
defense. Long known for being a brick wall against the run, the
Vols got steamrolled by Arkansas, Penn State and LSU and got
pushed around way too often, allowing 100 yards or more in ten
games, including each of the last six. Part of the reason was
injuries, like the loss of top tackle Justin Harrell, and part
of the reason was a lack of consistent pass rush to bring down
the net numbers. That’s why …
The team will be far better if … the defensive front four
plays like the Tennessee defensive front four. Job one will be
to focus on being better up the middle, which might be a problem without tackles Turk
McBride and Matt McGlothlin. Some semblance of a pass rush has
to be generated from the outside with Xavier Mitchell, Antonio
Reynolds and Robert Ayers all looking the part, but needing to
be more productive.
national title-caliber team (at least in expectations from the fan base)
have two tougher road games before September 15th than going
to California and Florida? The rest of the away dates aren’t horrible,
as the Vols travel to Mississippi State, Alabama and Kentucky, and
there’s a nice four-game homestand over the second half of the season
against South Carolina, UL Lafayette, Arkansas and Kentucky.
Best Offensive Player:
QB Erik Ainge. From all indications, the knee injury suffered this
spring isn’t going to be any big deal once the season starts. The bigger
problem will be the loss of Robert Meachem, who made Ainge look good.
Yeah, he was night-and-day better once David Cutcliffe came aboard to
handle the offense, but it helped when his receivers took several short
passes a long, long way. Of course, Ainge had to put the ball in the
right spot and he set up his targets well, and now he’ll have to be even
Best Defensive Player:
Jonathan Hefney. There might not be a better pound-for-pound tackler in
the country. The 5-9, 185-pound senior has been all over the field for
three years, getting in on 226 tackles while being a top ball-hawk,
breaking up 16 passes and picking off nine others. He’s also becoming an
elite punt returner.
Key player to a
Sophomore OT Chris
Scott. Senior Eric Young will find a starting spot at one of the tackle
spots, with a gaping hole still to be filled at the other. The 325-pound
Scott has the size, and he has a year of tutelage under his belt after
backing up Arron Sears. Now he’ll likely have to step in at left tackle
and replace the All-American, while the rest of the line tries to
improve after two off years.
The season will be a
... Tennessee wins 11 games. Yeah, you heard this last year, but
California really is good enough to be in the national title discussion,
and playing Florida at Florida is as tough as it gets. If the Vols can
at least split against those two, an 11-1 regular season is an
attainable goal. Missing Auburn and LSU from the West is a huge break. A
little more offensive consistency, and more close wins, should lead to a
double-digit win season.
Sept. 15 at Florida.
The Vols likely will be favored in every game after the trip to The
Swamp, so if they can pull off the win they’ll be the favorites to win
the East and to play for the SEC championship. If they can also beat
California, then it might be Tennessee vs. LSU for the conference title,
as well as the national championship.
2006 Fun Stats:
- First quarter scoring: Tennessee 65; Opponents 34
- Sacks: Tennessee 17 for 122 yards; Opponents 19 for 134 yards
- Rushing yards per game: Tennessee 108; Opponents 146.7