Vols 2011: What to Look For

Another season is about to begin. Optimism rides high as it usually does across the Volunteer state. That’s what makes anticipation of each season a special time of year.

But, some of the August predictions (pardon the pun) from fans that I’ve been reading have a whiff of peyote. Remember, the majority of starting slots on this year’s squad are filled with freshman and sophomores.

Memories of the Flaming Sophomores of 1928?

For me, I’m looking at any one of five things to happen in 2011 that have a 50-50 chance of not happening. They will be the difference makers.

Any of them happening will have a significant impact on Dooley’s rebuilding project. Here they are.

Dooley and Project Vol 2011. Saul Young/News Sentinel

1. Tyler Bray’s emergence as a bonafide, big-time college QB. You’re probably thinking that Norcalvol slept through last season: “You didn’t see Bray throw that tater last November?” I sure did. Against Elvis, Old Mist, the Comodedoors and the Mildcats. This year, the sophomore QB gets LSU, Alabama, and Florida. Last season, he was a loose cannon (in the literal sense of the word) and was bailed out numerous times by the fine athleticism of his receivers. I’m watching for progress in game management and other parts of the position (especially the mental ones) beyond throwing a ball 60 yards. Oh, and many more 300-yard games, too. Does Bray have the mental discipline to become great?

2. Getting that first Dooley ‘Signature Win’. Sure seemed like it happened in Baton Rouge last October. No, a win against North Carolina in Nashville would not have qualified. This season, I’m talking about the three-headed monster of Tigers-Tide-Gators. Some say we have our best shot against Florida with their new head coach and the program’s fall from the top elite. But, there is something about Gainesville – it always comes too early in the season. We’re 2-10 at Florida Field in the last 35 years. Alabama? C’mon. LSU? You would think that playing the Tigers at home would give us the best shot. But, I’ve generally seen more disappointing performances against elite teams at home then on the road. Logic and history notwithstanding, we can still hope for a very big day that would put Dooley and Co. on the front of sports pages nationwide once again. Keep hope alive. Wins against Arkansas or South Carolina don’t count for this category. Sorry. I’ll take three wins over Georgia, Arkansas, and South Carolina instead of one or two wins over the Big Three.

3. Significant improvement in the running game. I miss Montario Hardesty. And many of his predecessors. I miss a big-ass offensive line that can create holes for small trucks. I miss being able to put games out of reach by maintaining possession and thereby slowly increasing the weight of an orange boot-heel on the back of an opponent’s neck. Last year’s 1,000-yard rusher Tauren Poole wasn’t nearly enough to make the Vols’ ground game anything more than barely adequate. And sometimes it was downright embarrassing. I’m looking for any improvement I can find. Poole is now a senior, which demands leadership as well as yardage. This facet of the game will have the most impact on the final season record. Speedy freshman Marlin Lane just might be the most fun to watch. A dominant rushing game could mean three more wins over last season.

4. Reclaiming dominance in the middle. Linebacking at Tennessee has lost its star-power to the secondary. Two of the three starters are true freshman: Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson. I’m looking to see senior Austin Johnson regain some semblance of swagger that Vol LBs have been missing for a while. I may need prescription glasses. This is a glaring weak spot that the good opponents will exploit.

5. Regaining our tradition of excellence in the kicking game. The Vols used to be renowned as a program that excelled in all aspects of the kicking game: punting, kickoffs, returns, and field goals. Seems like a distant memory. Now it’s a KO to the 20, a dropped punt, and the horrors of driving a Lincoln. Michael Palardy could turn it all around if he can stay healthy. The kicking game HAS TO SIGNIFICANTLY IMPROVE. We’re Tennessee Vols for chrissake.

***

A winning season?

Quality recruiting, the return of a semblance of stability to the program, and our weak non-conference schedule (Buffalo for UNC) are enough to demand a 7-5 regular season. That ‘s the expectation.

But, the impediment remains the same as last season: depth of quality. Back-to-back top-15 recruiting classes notwithstanding, we’re still thin as paper. At least this year, you can’t read newsprint through that paper as you could in 2010.

If Tennessee wins the six games they will be expected to win (Montana, Cincy, Buffalo, MTSU, Kentucky, and Vandy), then it will comedown to winning just one of the swing games (Georgia, South Carolina, and Arkansas) for a winning season.

But lose one of the six wins-in-the-bag, and we may not be able to wait until next year for Dooley’s first Signature Win.

***

Last season, I predicted 5-7 for the regular season, and we finished with a dramatically strong November for a 6-6 record (condolences to those who consider that we defeated LSU and UNC last season and really were an 8-5 team).

So, for 2011, I’ll predict 6-6… to ensure a winning 7-5.

We’re still too thin where it will hurt the most for me to say anything but 6-6.

That’s it. 6-6. I’ll let the first bowl victory in ages give us the winning season we all expect.

Achieving any of my five focal points for 2011 will be worth an extra win, possibly two.

Who knows, but 2011 could be the season of the Flaming Sophomores II.

What say you?

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