If you are reading this as a non-fan of the Tennessee Volunteers, then odds are you haven't given a whole lot of thought to the Vols this year. I can hear you disagreeing, so just hear me out. I don't doubt for a second that you've formed an opinion about the brash, inexperienced new leader of the Vols. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that it's probably a rather strong opinion. You aren't alone. The ability to elicit a lukewarm opinion is simply not a part of Lane Kiffin's skillset. So your opinion of Kiffin is likely at one of the polar extremities. Love--Hate. Genius--Imbecile. Undisciplined loudmouth--Savvy Instigator. Nothing in between.
And this is why you haven't given a whole lot of thought to the Vols. You have thought plenty about Kiffin, and then--consciously, or subconcsiously--projected your extreme feelings about the head man onto the team he coaches. It wasn't your fault, and I'm not judging. I'm here to help.
Here are ten things we have learned to date about the very non-extreme '09 Vols:
1. Layla Kiffin is Still Way Way Hotter than Your Coaches' Wife
"Hey kidbourbon, I thought this was supposed to be about the Vols and not about Kiffin. Why are you posting pictures of Layla?"
Reason #1: because my 8th grade English teacher (who, for what it's worth, was actually a pretty attractive lady in her own right (yeah, there may have been a few instances where I had to strategically untuck my shirt before getting up from my desk -- don't judge)) always stressed the importance of having an "attention grabber" in any piece of writing. And Layla grabs my attention.
Reason #2: Layla grabs your attention too.
Back to the lecture at hand.
2. The Vols certainly aren't great, but they aren't terrible either
At the highest level of generality, the Vols are a strong defensive team with an above average running game and a cosmically horrendous passing game. The Vols should be competitive in most games on the strength of the defense and running game alone. I expect to see very few, if any, games where Tennessee is simply able to score at will. I expect to see a lot of close games, the outcome of which will likely hinge on turnovers.
Tennessee's downfield passing game--much like Urban Meyer's upper lip--is simply nonexistent. It doesn't matter how hard you look....it isn't there. Unfortunately, I have no iinside information regarding the whereabouts of Urban's upper lip. I am much more informed on the subject of Tennessee's passing game, so I'll stick to that. Tennessee's downfield passing game is nonexistent because....
3. Tennessee Has the Worst Kind of Weakness
Al Pacino, as Tony D'amato in Any Given Sunday, nicely sums up the importance of the most important position.
You're a goddamn quarterback! You know what that means? It's the top spot, kid. It's the guy who takes the fall. It's the guy everybody's looking at first - the leader of a team - who will support you when they understand you. Who will break their ribs and their noses and their necks for you, because they believe. 'Cause you make them believe. That's a quarterback
With Jonathan Crompton, you believe. 'Cause Jonthan Crompton makes you believe...in the need for a good running game. And when I say "a good running game," I mean "a great running game" or perhaps "the '92 Dallas Cowboys' running game."
Okay, so I am being a little harsh. Crompton takes the bulk of the blame for the anemic passing attack, but, to be fair, it isn't all Crompton's fault because it is fair to say that...
4. Presently, Tennessee is Not Wide Receiver U
The Vols have a couple decent upperclassmen receivers. I could rattle off their names, but you will neither recognize them now or remember them later, so I won't. Just know that the best receiver coming into the year went diva during the Ohio game, and that our most physically gifted receiver does not double as the "toughest" or "most highly motivated" receiver. He generally gets labeled in a different way.
Of course, you have all heard of Nu'Keese Richardson. I love me some Nuke. I loved seeing him running the wildcat--even if for just a fleeting moment--against Ohio. And I think he could end up breaking off a big punt return before the year is out. As far as receiver goes, though, I think Nuke is probably a year away. The most SEC-ready of the freshman receivers is unquestionably Marsalis Teague. In the unlikely event that you see a UT receiver making a big play, smart money says you are looking at Teague.
In sum, there is soom room for optimism next year, but very little evidence to suggest that the '09 receivers aren't just glorified decoys for the run game. Ah yes, the run game. Let's talk about that. Much of the improvement in this year's running game can be attributed to the play of the big uglies. It is safe to say that....
5. The Offensive Line -- though undeniably thin -- Has Been Adequate.
This was a huge question mark coming into this season. And the lack of depth is still a cause for concern. But the Sullins twins have proven to be very good at filling in for injured starters. The offensive line isn't hitting aces, which sucks, because I was totally looking for a way to work Pete Sampras into this post. But they are at least holding serve, even if it isn't always pretty. Kind of like Brad Gilbert. Yeah, I like that. From here on out, I shall refer to UT's Offensive Line as "Brad Gilbert." [Aside: I was flipping through the on-demand selections offered by the dreadful dreadful cable company known as Comcast, and there were like a dozen ten minute segments with Brad Gilbert providing various tips on tennis. I think I watched four of them last night before nodding off. "Better Baseline Play" was my personal favorite, if you were interested in checking it out.]
The one thing about Brad Gilbert, is that he doesn't necessarily look pretty when he plays. But he has turned out favorable results thus far, thanks in part to.....
6. Tennessee's Solid Two-RB Rotation of Hardesty and Brown.
Montario Hardesty used to be known for incessant injuries and for performing the "happy-feet hardesty shuffle" in the backfield, rather than just hitting the holes Well, he's healthy thus far (knocking on wood)), and man oh man is he hitting the holes (holding back Jacory Harris joke). He hits the hole with a purpose. One cut, and he's running downhill. And he usually finds a way to break a tackle or two after he hits the hole. As of this writing, he leads the SEC in rushing yards and is the best orange-clad running back since Travis Stephens.
Bryce Brown is still learning to hit the holes directly, and not stutter step waiting for one to open. In that respect, he is well behind Hardesty. However, the #1 overall recruit in the country has still shown ample flashes of stud. His goalline bulldozer impression against WKU was impressive, but his sure hands and obvious strong running in the open field are both promising for the future and helpful for the present.
Tennessee fans like seeing a strong running game. But every play can't be a running play. The defense will eventually figure out what you're doing and adjust accordingly. To keep the defense honest, UT has to pass occassionally, which leads into my next point.
7. Hearts All Across the Nation's Longest State Momentarily Cease Beating When Crompton Throws
This is terrible. I'm so mean. But how else do you spin this? The guy isn't any good. If Tennessee gets behind in a game, there is no catch-up to be played. There is something else altogether different from catch-up. From a fans perspective it might be referred to as "deep depression," or "good reason to liberally swill the hard stuff."
In other words, interceptions will be thrown. Note that the object of the previous sentence was not written in the singular. That wasn't an accident. If UT has to throw to get back in the game, UT will not get back in the game, but will throw at least two really awful looking INT's in the process.
[Or UT could just keep it on the ground. I mean, it isn't like they are actually trying to *win* the games or anything...]
So getting behind early is this year's UT nightmare. But if they can avoid that then...
8. Tennessee Can Avoid #7, which will result in decreased health insurance premiums and increased chances of winning
Why might that be? Because the defense is actually quite respectable. Some might even go so far as calling them "good." And how exactly did this come to be. Because.....
9. Monte Kiffin is not washed up, and is not a fraud. The old fella can still coach.
Although the Vols gave up more passing yards to Ohio U than one might have predicted, a slight hangover may have been expected. The scheme and execution against Florida was impressive. And don't let Urban or any of his loyal followers tell you otherwise. Florida wanted to hang 100 on the Vols. The reason they didn't is because they couldn't.
There is at least one other reason that Tennessee has a solid D. And that is because....
10. Eric Berry is still way way better at football than you
Although his "stats" aren't what they were last year, Eric Berry has still consistently shown that he is really really good at football. So good that the strategy-du-jour appears to be "keep away from Berry." Hence, the drop-off in interceptions.
Teams that liberally throw the ball at or around Mr. Berry are making a mistake. He will pick you off. And he will take it back for six.
I would hate to admit that this entire fanpost was simply a waste of otherwise good electrons. But, in reality, we really don't know much about Tennessee on this Friday afternoon. We will all know a lot more--about both Tennessee and Auburn--after tomorrow evening's game. I am already getting anxious. I think it is a fascinating matchup of styles that will result in a very exciting game. And I love night games at Neyland.