2010 CFBZ Prediction: 5th Place in SEC East
2010 Actual Finish: Tied for 3rd Place in SEC East (6-7, 3-5)
Around this time last year Tennessee's Head Coach Lane Kiffin exited stage to go coach USC. The Tennessee fans who had defended all of his shenanigans did not take the news well. The program was left embarrassed and in very bad condition. Tennessee hired Nick Saban disciple Derek Dooley, who was coming off of a 4-8 season at Louisiana Tech. Needless to say Tennessee had some huge question marks coming into the season. Despite going 6-7 Tennessee probably exceeded a lot of people's expectations by finishing in a tie for 3rd in the down SEC East. Tennessee found a couple of answers during the year in freshmen Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter. It will be interesting to see how Dooley builds on this year and if he can get the Vols back to the top tier of the SEC. We talked to the Tennessee Blog Vols In the Fall to find out their take on the 2010 Volunteers and get a quick peek into 2011.
At the beginning of the year you said that a 6-6 season (and a bowl) would be a successful year for the Vols. With the season over and the Vols finishing 6-7 do you consider the season to be a success, a failure or somewhere in between?
It is hard to believe that a Volunteer would consider a 6-and-7 campaign a success, but I do. When Lane Kiffin left Knoxville in January 2010, it was the beginning of a couple of very tense weeks. New coach Derek Dooley didn't have much time to (1) recruit before National Signing Day, (2) attempt to save previous commitments, and (3) assemble a coaching staff. This was all on top of the fact (known to those in the know) that 2010 would be a season with much less in the tank than 2009. That proved to be the case. This was the least talented and thinnest squad since 1977, Johnny Major's first team at UT (which finished 4-7).
When we were at 2-and-6 going into November, the end of the world as we knew it was in our sights. But, Dooley made some tough choices, and the players never, ever quit. They had already made progress, partly seen in the way they were beginning to "play 4 quarters" even though they were losing games by buckets full of points. November was the litmus test. Even with a relatively easy schedule, the team could have tanked, but they kept improving on their way to a perfect November (including extending the streak against Kentucky to 26) and a bowl game.
The great disappointment of the bowl loss to North Carolina notwithstanding, the season was a success because of the way the coaches and players dealt with adversity from January through October 2010. Vol fans as a whole are not satisfied with a losing record, but there is a load of optimism. Think about this: if LSU and North Carolina had not been granted a final play in their games against Tennessee, the Vols would have finished with an 8-5 record. That's how close we were to respectability.
If you could have a "re-do" for one game which would it be?
That's easy - the game against LSU in Baton Rouge. We stopped the Tigers near our goal line and the clock ran to 0:00, with Tennessee ahead. Players, coaches, and fans were going bonkers with an upset of mega proportions. Unfortunately, the Vols had 13 men on the field for that last play. LSU got one more play and scored on a 1-yard run to win. It was the most heartbreaking loss I can remember, with the possible exception of the loss to North Carolina under oddly similar circumstances only more than two months later.
What were your favorite moments from the 2010 season?
Most of them occurred in November, when we rattled off four consecutive wins to salvage the season. The game of the year was the destruction of Ole Miss in Knoxville. Our offense went wild, scoring more than 50 points for the second consecutive week. It was a beautiful fall afternoon drenched in sunlight, and the Vols played near perfect football against a fairly good Ole Miss squad that went on to lose out.
Which player was the biggest surprise of the season and on the flipside who was the biggest disappointment?
The biggest surprise has to go to freshman QB Tyler Bray. Matt Sims was the starter for the first 8 games, replaced in the second half at South Carolina by Dooley in favor of Bray, who then started the remaining 5 games, including the bowl game. He was a godsend - he sparked the entire team with enthusiasm, and gave the offense a giant flamboyant passing attack. In only 5+ games, he threw for 1850 yards, 18 TDs, and 10 INTs. He threw for over 300 yards in 4 of his 5 games that he started. All of a sudden, it was pass, pass, pass...
...which in part was because of the running game, the biggest disappointment of the season, along with the kicking game. It's hard to fault Tauren Poole, who ran for more than 1,000 yards, 5th in the SEC. But it was a massive struggle for him to get that far, and in most games, our running attack was more liability than strength, going quarters/games with little ground yardage. Most of the problem was the offensive line - with three true freshman, there was little in the way of effective run blocking. The kicking game was equally disappointing. Tennessee went through punt returner after punt returner because it seemed nobody could/wanted to catch the ball. And, our kickoffs were generally very shallow, giving the opponent needless advantages.
What does Tennessee need to improve this off-season to get back into the SEC East race?
The running game has to get resurrected via recruiting, coaching, and strength training of OL and RBs. Running the ball has been a staple of Tennessee football for the last decade-plus. It will be necessary for that part of our game to recover for UT to be competitive. We are fairly well-stocked at WR and DBs for next season, but could also use improvement at LB and DL, in addition to the inadequacies of the OL and RBs.
Don't look for Tennessee to be anywhere near the top of the SEC East in 2011. Instead, look for another season around the .500 mark (7-and-5 seems like my pre-season pick right now). But if all continues to improve, 2012 and 2013 could see The Big Orange competing again for a conference title.