Chaos erupted in Knoxville on Jan. 12 when first-year head coach Lane Kiffin bolted town for sunny Southern California, paving the way for former Louisiana Tech head coach Derek Dooley to take the Vols job three days later. Dooley, son of legendary Georgia head coach Vince Dooley and nephew of former UNC head coach Bill Dooley, wasn’t the type of hire that immediately calmed the waters in eastern Tennessee, due to a 17-20 record in three years at Louisiana Tech. Arguably the most impressive mark on his resume was his five-year stint as an assistant coach under Nick Saban at LSU and Miami.
Dooley’s initial season began as though he may not be around to finish the effort, losing his first six games to BCS-level opponents by an average of 20.5 points, needing victories over Tennessee-Martin and UAB to post a 2-6 record heading into November. But it’s worth noting that the Volunteers played five ranked opponents in its first eight games, and Tennessee took advantage of its softer closing stretch to claim four straight victories – Memphis, Mississippi, Vanderbilt and Kentucky – on its way to a Music City Bowl bid.
Sixteen true freshmen have played for Tennessee (6-6, 3-5 SEC) in ’10, and seven of those of those rookies started against Memphis, including upstart quarterback Tyler Bray. The Volunteers churned out 365.8 yards per game (74th nationally) while allowing 381.9 yards per outing (69th), but still managed to score more points (27.0, 61st nationally) than their opponents (24.7, 55th).
“We’re playing a great opponent, as talented a team as I’ve seen all year on film. They went through a lot of adversity that affected their results but they've done a great job of overcoming it. So give their coaching staff credit for the job it has done this year in keeping them focused through a lot of distraction." – Dooley on UNC
“Tennessee is a hot football team. They’ve won their last four football games. They always have great athletes.” – UNC head coach Butch Davis
"Honestly, I don't even know names on their team; I just know they've got a lot of good players. They have a good pro-style offense and a good quarterback. They do a lot of shifts, a lot of motion, a lot of things to try to confuse you a lot. It's going to be key for us to be disciplined, run our alignments; know what we need to do to react to it." -- UT linebacker Nick Reveiz
Matchups to Watch
Tennessee’s Tyler Bray vs. UNC’s Pass Defense
The Volunteers’ season turned on the arm of a true freshman. Tyler Bray, a 6-foot-6, 200-pounder hailing from Kingsburg, Calif., ripped the quarterback job away from starter Matt Simms with a solid second-half performance against South Carolina, completing 9-of-15 passes for 159 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in a losing effort.
Bray (98-of-179 passing, 1,527 yards, 14 TD, 7 INT) then ignited Tennessee’s late-season rally, completing 73 of his 132 passes for 1,234 yards, 12 touchdowns and four interceptions during the Vols’ four-game winning streak.
“I think that he instills confidence in the other players,” Dooley said of Bray. “I always say one of the most important qualities a quarterback can have is when he steps in the huddle, the other 10 guys believe in him. ‘That’s our guy, we can score points with him and win games.’ He does command that; now you have to produce on the field. That’s a real key to it, so as long as you keep producing, then it becomes contagious.”
While those statistics are impressive, it’s important to note that South Carolina, Memphis, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt all failed to crack the top-75 nationally in pass defense during the regular season, and Kentucky capitalized on a weak non-conference slate, holding its four opponents to an average of 114.5 passing yards per game.
North Carolina counters with the nation’s No. 38-ranked pass defense, giving up 204.7 yards per game and 19 touchdowns through the air this fall. The Tar Heels tied for 21st nationally with 16 interceptions, led by strong safety Da’Norris Searcy’s four picks. Ten different Tar Heels intercepted a pass this season, highlighting the defense’s knack for making plays.
But while Tennessee’s passing game elevated its play during the month of November, North Carolina’s pass defense cannot say the same. UNC’s final four opponents averaged 234.8 passing yards per game and combined for eight touchdowns against just three interceptions.
The Tar Heels did improve their ability to put pressure on the quarterback during that span, however, collecting 13 of their season-long 25 sacks. Those statistics may not bode well for a Tennessee offensive line that boasts 28 freshman starts at four different positions.
UNC’s Running Game vs. Tennessee’s Front Seven
UNC announced on Monday that running back Anthony Elzy would not play in the Music City Bowl due to not meeting “his obligations as a student-athlete,” adding yet another cross-out on the forever-changing depth chart in the offensive backfield.
The senior tandem of Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston were expected to provide one of the ACC’s top rushing attacks in ’10, but both players were caught up in the NCAA investigation that started in late July. Houston sat out the first five ball games and then elected to red-shirt the remainder of the year to preserve his eligibility in ’11. Draughn only missed the season opener against LSU, but fifth-year senior Johnny White had already stepped into the void and grabbed the starting spot, at least until a fractured collarbone sidelined him during the victory over Florida State on Nov. 6.
Then Elzy rose to the occasion, amassing 531 total yards of offense and three touchdowns during the final three weeks of the season as a dual-threat back. But now that Elzy is out for the bowl game, the starting position finally returns to Draughn, who has totaled 477 yards and five touchdowns on a 4.5 yards-per-carry average for a Tar Heel rushing attack that ranks 95th nationally (123.6 ypg). Reserve tailback Hunter Furr (29 yards on five carries) will serve as Draughn’s backup.
The Volunteers’ run defense stands 63rd nationally, giving up 152.7 yards per contest. That unit tightened up during its late winning streak, however, allowing just 122.3 yards per game in November.
The importance for the Tar Heel rushing attack is in maintaining an offensive balance against a Tennessee defense that averaged 3.3 sacks and 2.5 interceptions per game over its last four games. Without a legitimate ground game, T.J. Yates’ reliance on the play-action pass will lose its effectiveness.