After three head coaches in as many seasons and all the turnover in the roster, we're just as confused as anyone else when it comes to Tennessee. So we asked Joel and Will from Rocky Top Talk to answer a few questions about the 2010 Volunteers.
You have a new coach this year. (Does anyone else have an odd sense of deja vu?) What are the challenges Derek Dooley faces coming in after the end of the Fulmer Era and the Kiffin Quasi-Era?
Joel: I've said this before, but the biggest thing is probably getting his players to trust him. The players had Kiffin in 2009, who burned the bridges behind the players and then up and left themselves. Most of them also endured the Clawfense in 2008, which was then jettisoned after that season. And before that, David Cutcliffe left for Duke. So the players have heard three sets of adults preach buy-in and trust and then vanish.
To be fair, we fans may be making a bigger deal of this than the players themselves, as Dooley keeps talking about how kids are resilient, probably more resilient than us old dogs.
Still, we're in the off- or pre-season now, and optimism reigns. If, probably when, the team realizes that 2010 will be more like 2008 and 2005 than 2007 (after all, we're down on both talent and numbers and working through yet another new scheme), then we'll really see that trust or lack of it come into play.
What makes this a successful season for the Vols?
Will: Get bowl eligible. It will do Derek Dooley a lot of good if the Vols aren't noticeably worse than they were under Lane Kiffin, and that was ultimately a 7-6 football team. The SEC's ridiculous bowl tie-ins mean half the league can play in January, so we may see something like last year where Tennessee is just average but ends up in a solid bowl. No Tennessee team has ever lost eight games in a season, but 5-7 and missing a bowl for the third time in six years isn't going to be deemed a success. Tennessee's schedule should deliver four wins (Tennessee-Martin, UAB, Memphis, Vanderbilt), so if Dooley can get Tennessee to victory in at least two of the others, he'll be off to a good start. And of course, as Dooley likes to remind us all, it's more about the process than anything else ... so regardless of how many wins, success will come through being competitive and making improvement. Tennessee's schedule is so frontloaded that Vegas will probably pick the Vols to start 2-5 or 2-6 ... Dooley has to keep the team together if that happens, and continue to make progress for the future. It sounds so strange to say as a Tennessee fans, but six wins is a good year.
How long are the fans going to give Dooley to get the program back on track -- i.e., contending for the SEC East title on a regular basis?
Will: I think three years is the standard. Kiffin and Dooley both closed extremely well in recruiting, so there's reason to believe the talent will return sooner than later. This upcoming class should be lineman-heavy, so it may not rank as high as some would like, but that doesn't mean Dooley isn't making progress. If six wins is success this year, Dooley needs progress: Win eight or so in 2011, and then have your system and your players in place in 2012 to step back into the spotlight. I think everyone will have their mind made up by year three.
Of all the roster spots without returning starters, which one concerns you most?
Joel: It just about has to be the offensive line because of how many other offensive units depend on it. The running backs would normally be fine, with or without Bryce Brown. Many players have secretly said that Tauren Poole should have gotten the reps that Brown got last year. He looked fantastic in the spring, and he's got a couple of good options behind him in Toney Williams and David Oku. But they need a line to block for them.
Our receiving corps could actually be the strength of the entire team. It's got talent, experience, senior leadership, and some real promise behind the starters with Dooley having landed what some are calling the best receiving class in Tennessee history. But they need the QB to get them the ball.
Under normal circumstances, even our inexperienced QBs might have been able to do that. We won't know for awhile which of Matt Simms or Tyler Bray will end up with the starting job (or whether he'll keep it), but neither of them really has any experience. Simms took some snaps at Louisville and played in junior college, but he really didn't look all that much better in the spring than did Bray, who's coming straight from high school. However, Tennessee's had experience with inexperience at QB in the past. Casey Clausen and Erik Ainge both played fairly well as true freshmen.
Of course, those guys didn't have the added burden of having to start behind an offensive line with five new starters, either. The guys along the line will have a combined total of 27 games and 3 starts of experience. And because they have to both protect the QBs and block for the RBs, I'm going to say they're the biggest concern. On the bright side of things, though, the line will probably have some better size and more upside at at least a couple of the positions, so once experience kicks in, they'll likely be fine. And if they're fine, our RBs and WRs could at least make things interesting. Until then, though, watch out.
Honestly -- aren't you guys now kind of glad you got rid of Lane Kiffin?
Joel: Yeah, actually. For the record, I stand by the things I said about the guy, most of which were favorable. A fan's tendency is to support his team, and I never figured out how to support the team without supporting the coach, so I, like I think most fans would, defaulted to trusting Kiffin. (Yikes, those two words are close together!) He turned the program on its head, but, and I may be in the minority here, I thought at the time that his always aggressive and sometimes reckless proclivities could have worked. I thought he had succeeded in turning the aircraft carrier around and that it would start chugging in the right direction in 2010. That he'd completely remodeled the house to do it was fine if it got results.
But you don't renovate a place you're renting, because it just upsets the landlord. Kiffin's gone, and now we've got to get the place back to the way it was. And now, lo and behold, even Phillip Fulmer is back in the fold only one year after being fired. If a transition is necessary, I'd rather take the pint of castor oil in one season instead of prolonging the agony for nearly ten seasons like Alabama did.
I didn't hate Lane Kiffin while he was here. I don't like how he left, especially after how he changed everything and then took off, but now that he's gone, yeah, I think we're better off.
Thanks again to Joel and Will, and remember to check Rocky Top Talk for Tennessee news and commentary during the season.