Sunday, August 23, 2009

CFI Countdown: #24 Tennessee Volunteers

2008 Record: 5-7 (SEC: 3-5)
Bowl Game: Did not make a bowl
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Stadium: Neyland Stadium (100,011)
Head Coach: Lane Kiffin
Overall: 0-0 (1st season)
@ Tennessee: 0-0 (1st season)
Link to UT Football Page

In case you hadn’t heard…there’s a new sheriff in Knoxville, and his name is Lane Kiffin. Whether or not you like Kiffin’s methods of calling attention to himself and his program, it is hard to deny that Monty’s son has infused the Vols with much-needed attitude and energy. Not to mention a talented recruiting class and star-studded coaching staff.

When the Volunteers Have the Ball

Offensive Coordinator: Jim Chaney (1st Season)
Scheme: Pro Style
Starters Returning: Six
Key Losses: OT Anthony Parker, RB Arian Foster, RB Lennon Greer (Left School), WR Austin Rogers (Injury), WR Lucas Taylor

Even with the status of highly touted and highly controversial recruit Bryce Brown—considered the number one tailback by most and the number one overall recruit by some—in limbo, Tennessee figures to have a solid stable of backs. Senior Montario Hardesty figures to be the starter on September 5th versus Western Kentucky, but he will be pushed by a pair of youngsters—sophomore Tauren Poole and true freshman David Oku, who joined Brown as a top-five back coming out of high school. Tight ends Jeff Cottam and Luke Stocker are solid, and the receiving corps has more potential than one would think at first glance. Look for juniors Gerald Jones and Brandon Warren, and senior Quinton Hancock to start to fulfill their potential, as well as big-play man Denarius Moore when he returns from foot surgery. The offensive line is very solid on the inside led by veteran center Josh McNeil, with fellow senior left tackle Chris Scott holding the key to the line’s success. The key to the team’s offensive success is quarterback, Jonathan Crompton, who has underperformed throughout his career to this point. He has room to improve when it comes to his accuracy, poise, and decision-making.

Top Pro Prospects: 1) C Josh McNeil (SR), 2) TE Luke Stocker (JR), 3) OT Chris Scott (SR)

When the Other Team Has the Ball

Defensive Coordinator: Monty Kiffin (1st Season)
Scheme: 4-3 Tampa Two
Starters Returning: Five
Key Losses: DE Robert Ayers, DT Demonte Bolden, LB Elix Wilson, CB DeAngelo Willingham, SS Demetrice Morley (Kicked Off Team)

Not only is Eric Berry the best defender in Rocky Top, he is hands down the top defensive player in the SEC (maybe the nation) and probably the most dynamic Vols player with the pigskin in his hands, evidenced by his amazing 487 return yards on 12 interceptions (14 yards short of the NCAA record). He leads what should be a talented secondary, which features speedsters Brent Vinson and Dennis Rogan with solid depth all-around. The defensive line looks to be in fine shape as well despite the loss of first-round pick Robert Ayers. Tackle Dan Williams a force on the inside and junior end Chris Walker is poised to bust loose in his first season as a starter. Rico McCoy, their best defender not named Berry, leads a mediocre group of linebackers from his weakside position. Remember, defense was not the problem last season—the Vols ranked 10th in the nation in scoring defense and third in total defense.

Top Pro Prospects: 1) SS Eric Berry (JR), 2) LB Rico McCoy (SR), 3) CB Brent Vinson (JR)

The Schedule

While everyone is pointing to their September 19th showdown in Gainesville (I wonder why?), the real Murderers’ Row comes in October when they face Auburn, Georgia, Alabama (on the road) and South Carolina—four probable bowl teams. They also make a trip to Ole Miss in November. If Kiffin can conjure up an upset versus Florida, Georgia, Alabama or Mississippi—no easy task—a nine-win regular season in year one is a possibility.

Pivotal Point

Considering the Vols finished 107th in passing offense, 110th in scoring, and 115th in total offense with the quarterbacks failing to complete half of their passes with a mere eight scoring strikes (nine interceptions), the easy answer is quarterback. But that would be too simplistic. It isn’t just Crompton—once the nation’s second-rated quarterback coming out of high school—who needs to live up to the recruiting hype. We are talking about defensive ends Walker, Ben Martin, and Gerald Williams, tackle Scott, and running back Hardesty, among others. Then of course, there are the stars—four- and five-star recruits, that is—of the 2009 class with wide out Nu’Keese Richardson and defensive back Janzen Jackson joining backs Brown and Oku in the youth movement.

CFI Final Analysis

With his bravado and antagonizing nature, no one has placed a bigger bull’s-eye on their chest than Lane Kiffin. But for all the hype and hoopla, as always, it comes down to one thing—wins and losses (I guess that’s two things). Many will be rooting for the Florida Gators to give the Vols their comeuppance—and they may—but that won’t stop Tennessee from bouncing back and winning nine games. It’s not how Kiffin’s first season starts, but how it ends which will count.

Check back tonight to see who is #23 in CFI’s Top 25 Countdown

Photo Credit: SEC Sports Media, Elizabeth Olivier,