Vol Halfway House 2011

Just before this season got underway, I prepared a preview for the 2011 season.

It was easy to break the schedule into three groups: there were six games that the Vols were expected to win (Montana, Cincinnati, Buffalo, MTSU, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt), three games that Tennessee were prohibitive underdogs (Florida, LSU, and Alabama), and three “swing games” (Georgia, South Carolina, and Arkansas). With that as the season framework, the return of a semblance of stability to the program, combined with our weak non-conference schedule, were enough to demand a 7-5 regular season. That was likely the most prevalent expectation across the Vol Nation.

My view was that we had no depth and too low of an overall quality level to expect anything beyond 6-6.

To determine what it would take to bring a winning record to Knoxville in 2011, I identified five things that were the potential “season-changers” — five things that each had less than a 50 percent chance of happening. But if one of them could materialize, that would be enough for a winning season.

So, here is a review of those five game-changers, with the preseason view in black text (verbatim from the original article) and the midseason view in orange text.

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1. Tyler Bray’s emergence as a bona fide, big-time college QB.

Will we ever wear the all-orange combination again? Surely that's worth an extra win. Photo courtesy of the The Tennessee Journalist.

Preseason View: 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?

Mid-season View: The injury to Bray, possibly for the season, makes this a moot point looking forward. But how did Tyler Bray perform? Did he emerge as a bona fide, big-time college QB? In a word, no. Overall, his numbers were among the better QBs in the land. But, his performances against the quality opponents were dangerously close to being harmful to the cause. His two INTs in Gainesville could easily have been four or more had Gator defenders not dropped Bray’s passes. Against Georgia, he was thrown off-kilter by the Bulldogs’ defense who made Bray look uncomfortably uncomfortable while throwing for no TDs. Bray has yet to prove himself against the best. His time will hopefully come in 2012. Matt Simms as a replacement for perhaps the remainder of the season is such a drop-off in quality at the QB position that one of the remaining “lock wins” (MTSU, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky) may now be in jeopardy. It is fortunate that the Vandy game in November is at home. The only question left is whether or not freshman Justin Worley’s redshirt gets burned for the cause.

2. Getting that first Dooley ‘Signature Win’.

This kind of self-promotion is thankfully a thing of the past. However, I would gladly take the speed of that Lamborghini. Photo courtesy of the St. Petersburg Times.

Preseason View: 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.

Mid-season View: We’re 0-2 in this category (0-3 if you insist on including Georgia), and next week the Vols face what could be the best football team of the last 10 years. Stepping down a tier, a win over a now-depleted South Carolina squad in Knoxville in two weeks isn’t out of the question but will hinge in part on how Tennessee physically and mentally survives the trip to Tuscaloosa this Saturday. A win over Arkansas in Fayetteville seems like a pipe-dream at the moment. Considering our injuries, and the fact that those injuries have been to our best play-makers, a win over South Carolina should be viewed as a significant accomplishment by Dooley and his staff. But such an event could just as easily be offset by a loss against Vanderbilt.

3. Significant improvement in the running game.

Rebuilding is a process, one piece at a time. Photo courtesy of Dave and Thomas Daily Timekillers.

Preseason View: 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.

Mid-season View: A dominant rushing game is a thought only possible by a poor soul suffering from dementia. Notwithstanding the improvement shown last week against a very tough LSU defense, this subject is dead. A significant improvement over last season isn’t going to happen, at least to the extent that improvements will result in a 7-5 over a 6-6 record. Perhaps a pleasant surprise is on the horizon, but I’m not betting on it. There seems to be little depth here. That is very troubling.

4. Reclaiming dominance in the middle.

Troubles off the field seem to be disappearing. Fingers crossed. Photo of Janzen Jackson courtesy of The Commercial Appeal.

Preseason View: 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.

Mid-season View: This is the subject that gives us the most hope. After early alignment problems, and being largely ineffective against Florida’s short passing game, our LBs look suited to SEC’s brand of physical football coupled with speed. Freshman A.J. Johnson is developing into being the beast of the bunch. His bookend Curt Maggitt isn’t that far behind. But, they are freshman and have played like it for large chunks of this early season. Senior Austin Johnson is starting to look like a born linebacker and never a running back. The pre-season loss of veteran Herman Lathers was a significant blow, but it has allowed the freshman opportunities to get valuable experience. Senior Daryl Vareen has been a bust.

5. Regaining our tradition of excellence in the kicking game.

With Derek Dooley, the cherished traditions of Tennessee Vols football are safe. Let's hope that the most revered tradition of winning returns soon. Photo courtesy of Run Jump Pass.

Preseason View: 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.

Mid-season View: Until the last couple of weeks, special teams were a giant train wreck. PK Michael Palardy has been disappointing, both on kickoffs and field goals, mainly because of his surprising lack of long-range threat. He has now developed a problem of scuffing FG and XP attempts, giving us chilling flashbacks to his predecessor. Punter Matt Darr was also an early underachiever but has showed signs of his talent of late, not with distance but with height, allowing little in the way of runback potential. Consistency should be his near-term goal. The marked improvement with special teams has been with kick coverage and kick returns. Bobbles and drops seem to be a memory. Devrin Young’s 60-yard KO return against LSU, a followup to his very good performance against Georgia, is the best glimpse of real hope in the last couple of years.

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So, where does all of this put us? With regard to wins and losses, at the same place as before the season began: six-and-six. With regard to next season and beyond, I haven’t got a clue. Only hope.
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