Here’s a look at what the Vols will face this upcoming season. Also included is a Difficulty rating from 1 to 5, with 5 being the toughest.
9/5 Western Kentucky (2-10 last season): The season opener provides
the Vols with an excellent chance to get rolling before a tough Pac-10
match-up the following week. The Hilltoppers are definitely in a down
year as many predict a last place finish in the Sun-Belt. The New York
Times Countdown of all the FBS teams from 120 to 1, ranked WKY dead
last for the second straight year.
WKU returns two senior RBs, yet they combined for only around 700
yards last year.
Veteran Linebacker corps
Return all five O-Lineman
Unproven QB who threw only 25 passes total last season.
Young Secondary—could see three sophomores start.
9/12 UCLA (4-8): The season opener from last year proved to be an
ominous sign of what lay ahead for the ’08 Vols as the Bruins’
prevailed in OT, in Rick Neuheisel’s first game back at his alma
mater. Things will be a little different this year as this Bruins’
return 16 starters, and rid themselves of QB Kevin Craft—the gift that
kept on giving to the Vol Defense last year. All Vol fans hope this
series matches the result of Tennessee’s match-up with Cal: home teams
take care of business.
The Bruins return one of the highest numbers of starters among BCS
Solid WR corps.
Redshirt Freshman Kevin Prince steps in to lead the offense. A
redshirt freshman coming into Neyland Stadium for his first road start
at night … hmm, that should be interesting.
The O-Line is still a concern. Throughout the season, the Bruins had
nine different starting line-ups, and still gave up 35 sacks. They
didn’t help the running game either: the RBs managed just 2.6 yard
While there are plenty of targets for Prince, the Bruins still lack a
DC Dwayne Walker moved on to assume the head coaching duties at New Mexico State.
9/19 at Florida Gators: Last May when the SEC held their spring
meetings in Destin, the most anxiously awaited moment was seeing how
the other coaches would react to their first formal meeting with Lane
Kiffin. CBSSport.com’s Dennis Dodd titled his column, “Kiffin faces
music at SEC coaches meeting, doesn’t flinch.” Regardless of your take
on the whole thing, whatever verbal exchanges or scowls that took
place that weekend don’t mean much.
This is the SEC. The only thing that matters is what happens on the
field. And this will be Kiffin’s first serious challenge since the
back-and-forth with Coach Meyer.
The Gators come into this game as not only the reigning Chompion, but
also the consensus No. 1. While UT fans aren’t expecting a miracle,
this contest could give Kiffin the forum to show a preview of coming
attractions from the Vols. If they keep it within 14, it will be spun
as a moral victory.
The Chomps return 17 starters from last year—11 on Defense alone.
Experience at nearly every position.
Heisman-trophy winning QB Tim Tebow will lead the offense, while LB
Brandon Spikes leads a veteran unit on D.
The only spot on the depth chart that has caused concern for Gator
fans is at receiver. Florida lost both Louis Murphy and Percy Harvin.
However, they return TE Aaron Hernandez who stepped up big on more
than one occasion last year. The Gators also have two seniors, Riley Cooper and David Nelson, yet they combined for only 489 yards
receiving and 8 TDs last year.
With Dan Mullen’s move to Starkville, the Gators will be breaking in a
new offensive coordinator.
9/26 Ohio Bobcats (4-8): Many in college football’s fandom (including
yours truly) still scratch their collective heads about Frank Solich’s
dismissal from Nebraska. Solich went 58-19 in six years and took the
Cornhuskers to two BCS games. He won the first, lost the second one (the
2002 National Championship Game) to one of the best teams in the
sport’s history, the '01 Hurricanes. He also won an outright Big-12 title
and two more division titles. But the ‘Huskers weren’t satisfied: They
gave Solich the boot and promptly hired Bill Callahan, who then
proceeded to run the team into the ground for the next four years,
leading the program to a mere 27-22.
Since his arrival at Ohio, Solich’s teams have proved they can be
feisty at times, but have still constantly underperformed on the
whole. Last season the only highlight was a shocking performance in
The Horseshoe, where they led the No. 5 ranked Buckeyes 14-12 in the
fourth quarter before ultimately letting the upset slip through their
fingers, 26-14. Though they lost a few key players on both sides of
the ball, the Bobcats have a good chance of winning their division in
Bobcats return 13 starters: 7 on offense and 6 on defense.
Three returning starters on the D-Line.
Return three of the team’s top tacklers’ from ’08.
Both possible starting QB’s have game experience. Whether it’s Boo Jackson or Theo Scott, the Bobcats should get solid play from whoever
is under center.
Bobcats lost three starters on O-Line.
10/3 Auburn Tigers (5-7): This team has a lot to prove, or, more
accurately, new Head Coach Gene Chizik does. Somehow Chizik was able
to parlay two awful seasons at Iowa State (5-19) into a first rate job
in the SEC mega-conference. Regardless, one thing is certain:
Chizik can coach defense. Some of his finest hours took place at his
present stop. During his time as Auburn’s DC, the Tigers ranked 5th in
the nation for total defense for both the ’03 and ’04 seasons—the
Tigers went undefeated in 2004, but were left out of the title game.
Chizik kept his winning streak alive in 2005 when he bolted for
Austin, TX and helped the Longhorns go 13-0, and defeat two-time
reigning champion USC Trojans in a Rose Bowl Thriller (RIP MJ).
Last year, the 2008 Tigers and the 2008 Vols had similar seasons: both
went 5-7; both had decent defensive performances, but were decimated
by a lack of offensive production, and both saw the dismissal of their
veteran head coaches. To combat the struggles on offense, Chizik has
brought in Gus Malzahn—whose offense ranked No. 1 in the nation last
year at Tulsa.
In short, both Auburn and Tennessee will once again be asking
themselves the same question: Can the offense produce? (Should be fun
to watch either way).
Defense: While the Line has a few gaps to fill, the linebackers and
secondary should be solid. The team's leading tacklers, safeties Zac Etheridge and Mike McNeil, both return.
Running backs should be good, and will probably be asked to carry the
offense until they get into a rhythm.
The quarterback position continues to be cause for concern as neither
Kodi Burns nor Neil Caudle has been able to “turn the corner” at QB.
If recent history is any indication, Malzahn’s arrival should be a
step in the right direction. And if he cannot get the offense flowing
under either player, true freshman Tyrik Rollison could get some
playing time, if things get bad enough.
O-Line consistency is still an issue, especially since Malzahn’s
no-huddle offense mirrored what former OC Tony Franklin tried to
implement before he was run off. Malzahn’s been quoted as saying, “Our
guys are going to recover quickly. They’re going to mentally and
physically recover. Our offensive line will run more than any
offensive line in the country.” With uncertainty at QB, Tiger fans
better hope the O-Line gets on the right track fast.
The receiving corps also struggled last year, the most experienced WR
returning this year only had under 300 yards total.
10/10 Georgia Bulldogs (10-3): When it comes to this series, Volunteer
fans undoubtedly miss the '90s, when they defeated the ‘Dawgs eight
straight times from 1992-1999. But with Mark Richt’s arrival in
Athens, things have not been the same: the Vols have only won three
contests since 2000.
Folks have been quick to repeatedly cite the ’05 QB transition from
David Greene to D.J. Shockley where the Bulldogs surprisingly went on
to nab the SEC title as a possible outcome for the Matthew
Stafford-Joe Cox transition. Yeah, I’m laughing too.
What I’m not laughing about is that talent this team has at
practically every position.
One of the most talented O-Lines in the country—if they're all healthy.
Caleb Smith leads a stable of RBs that will keep production high on
the ground in spite of Knowshon Moreno’s departure.
Last season’s star freshman WR A.J. Green, who caught 56 passes for
963 yards and nabbed 8 TD’s returns, and more than Tarot cards say
Green will suddenly become Cox’s new best friend.
Experienced LB corps and secondary.
D-Line interior should be stout and will be led by sure 2010
first-rounder DT Geno Atkins.
Cox’s ability to get his playmakers the ball is yet to be seen.
Lack of experience at WR—outside of Green.
10/24 at Alabama Crimson Tide (12-2): Despite the lackluster
performance in last year’s Sugar Bowl, the ’08 Crimson Tide was a
force to reckon with. St. Nick returns 13 starters and should still
have a very competitive squad. The Tide will ultimately depend on the
defense to get them through the season, as they anxiously wait to see
if the offense can rebound after losing so many starters. Everyone
has a crush on the Rebels this year, but if Bama’s offense doesn’t dig
them in too deep a hole, they have a great chance of winning the SEC
Defense will be the reason Bama contends this year. On the line, the
Tide returns Mt. Cody — all 370-pounds of him — and DE Brandon Deaderick.
The LB corps looks solid with Rolando McClain leading the way and
though they lost S Rashad Johnson in the secondary, CB/PR Javier Arenas looks poised to step up and emerge as the new leader in the
Coach Saban. No matter how much you hate him, it’s undeniable that he
always finds a way to get bring out the best from every player on his
WR’s Julio Jones and Mike McCoy, as well as a deep pool of RB’s led by
Mark Ingram should keep the offense competitive, and make it easier
for first-year starter QB Greg McElroy to find his rhythm.
O-Line lost three starters, most notably OT Andre Smith and C Antoine Caldwell, who were taken 6th overall and in the third round of last
spring’s NFL Draft, respectively.
QB Greg McElroy will step in and take over for three-year starter John Parker Wilson. No player will have as much on his shoulders as
McElroy, as his success at getting the ball to the Tide’s playmakers
will likely define the season.
10/31 South Carolina (7-6): On Halloween, Spurrier returns to Neyland
Stadium and will attempt to haunt the Tennessee faithful once again.
However, things have not been the same for the Ol' Ball Coach since
leaving the Gators in 2001, as his arrival in Columbia has yielded an
unremarkable record of just 28-21 in four seasons. This is another
game that will have a little added spice, given the Kiffin-Spurrier
exchanges on matters ranging from recruiting tests to the art of
The defensive front seven should be okay, and star LB Eric Norwood
passed up the NFL for another year.
The Gamecock’s should finally see some consistency under center with
Stephen Garcia taking every snap this year (in part because there’s no
Consistency. Few teams have shot themselves in the foot more often in
the SEC with the Gamecocks receiving more than their share of
mistakes, turnovers, and missed opportunities.
The offense clearly doesn’t look like it belongs to a Steve Spurrier
coached team. For whatever reason they have not been able to get on
track (insert your theory) and questions still abound at whether or
not the O-Line will decide to block for Garcia and give him the time
he needs, or keep with the status quo and let pocket collapse as usual
(the Gamecock’s gave up a ridiculous number of sacks last year, 39 in
The No.2 ranked pass defense in the country lost two of its
best, Captain Munnerlyn and Emanuel Cook.
Uncertainty with a running game that was ranked 112th out of 120 teams
in ’08. (Note: QB Garcia was the team’s second leading rusher last
year … yeah, it was that bad.)
Receiving corps must replace the program’s all-time leading receiver
11/7 Memphis Tigers (6-7): The cross-state rivals make a trip to
Knoxville looking to pull another ’96 shocker and knock off the
state’s big dog. Since 1990, they’ve got close on a number of
occasions’92 (26-21); ’94 (24-13); ’99 (17-16); ’00 (19-17) and ’05
(20-16). And though there has been the occasional blowouts — ’91, ’01
and ’06 — the Tigers always seem ready for a good scrap when they play
the Vols, and this year should be no different.
The Tigers return their top 4 offensive playmakers: Dual-threat QB
Arkelon Hall, who completed 57% of his passes last season and threw
for over 2,200 yards; RB Curtis Steele, a senior who racked up over
1,200 yards last season and 7 TD’s; and WR’s Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton (6-feet-8, 220-pounds…wow) who together combined for over
100 receptions and nearly 1,300 yards total.
The linebackers and secondary will be the strength of the defense: the
LB’s all return and the secondary returns 3 starters, including last
year’s leading team tackler, senior S Altar Starr.
O-Line only returns one starter. (Note: No surprise, but this more
than anything, will keep the Tigers at bay for most of the season, and
force QB Hall to scramble around more than Coach Tommy West would care
Same problem up-front on defense as the Line also only returns one starter.
Last year’s DC Tim Watson was lured back to the NFL only after one
season in Memphis.
11/14 at Ole Miss Rebels (9-4): Expectations are stratospheric for the
Rebels as they will likely open the season ranked in the top ten. And
though Houston Nutt’s arrival in Oxford has been a resounding success
so far, not everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid, just yet.
Sure, they were they only team to beat the National Champion Gators
last year, and yes, they also steamrolled a Texas Tech team that went
12-1 in the Cotton Bowl. And yes, Jevan Snead could be a Heisman
But did you know they also lost to Vanderbilt and South Carolina?
Though it’s a welcome site to see someone other than Alabama, Auburn
or LSU contending for the SEC West crown, until the Rebels prove it on
the field, the verdict is still out.
Most of the skill players on offense return. Jevan Snead will look
early and often to WR’s Dexter McCluster and Shay Hodge. While losing
WR Mike Wallace to the NFL was unpleasant, sophomores Markeith Summers
and Lionel Breaux could make his absence less noticeable.
The Rebels return 16 starters (8 defense, 8 offense).
Overall, the defense looks fairly solid, and will be anchored by the
three returning starters on the Line. DT Peria Jerry will be missed,
but this Line ranked No. 1 in the SEC last year with number of sacks
and No. 4 in the nation on rush defense. It will be paramount that they
keep pressure on opposing QB’s if the Rebels are determined to contend
for the conference crown.
O-Line and D-Line will have to replace their best players: first-round
draft picks, OT Michael Oher and DT Peria Jerry.
Questions still remain about the LB corps and secondary. Though the
Rebels welcome back S Kendrick Lewis, he cannot be expected to carry
the entire unit if this team has SEC Championship Game aspirations.
(Note: Last season Ole Miss gave up more passing yards than any other
team in the conference.)
Playing in the SEC West. Last year the Rebels were a dark horse that
surprised nearly everyone. This year? Not so much. The bull’s eye is
squarely on Coach Nutt & Co., and they better be ready to play from
day one if they’re serious about remaining a contender in their
7/21 Vanderbilt Commodores(7-6): Last season was a wild ride for
Vandy: they won their first five games—climbing all the way up to a
No. 13 ranking in the AP Poll—before dropping their next four. However,
the season still ended on a high note with Head Coach Bobby Johnson
nabbing “SEC Coach of the Year” honors and the Commodores claiming
their first bowl win since Dwight D. Eisenhower was residing at 1600
Vandy returns 17 starters (nine on defense and eight on offense).
The defensive front seven remain intact and looks to improve upon last
season’s No. 30 national ranking for total defense.
Momentum. Vanderbilt built up an impressive amount of it last year
before they got derailed in mid-season. It was a huge psychological
victory achieved with that bowl win. This team is not a laughing stock
anymore as they intend to go bowling once again.
The secondary lost two quality starters: CB D.J. Moore and SS Reshard Langford. But, 2008 All-SEC CB Myron Lewis should staunch some of the
bleeding, as well as safeties Sean Richardson and four-year starter
The quarterback situation is still up in the air with senior Mackenzi Adams looking to stave off a charge from sophomore Larry Smith. Both
saw action last year: Adams started three games last season and led
the Commodores to an upset victory against Auburn—where they came back
from a 13-point deficit. While Smith started the Music City Bowl
against Boston College.
11/28 at Kentucky Wildcats (7-6): In Tennessee’s final regular season
game, they take a trip up the I-75 where Rich Brook’s squad will be
waiting to greet them. This season will probably be the best chance
the Wildcats have of upsetting a losing streak that is poised to span
a quarter of a century. Coach Brooks has led the Wildcats to three
straight bowl victories and has made the basketball-crazed Kentucky
faithful take notice of his emerging program.
Experienced stable of RBs return to take some pressure off QB Mike Hartline.
Former Knoxville area stand-out WR Randall Cobb is far and away UK’s
most exciting athlete. Coach Brooks and OC Joker Phillips know getting
the ball to Cobb is absolutely indispensible for this offense. Look
for Cobb to line up at more than one position on the field this fall.
Linebacker corps and secondary get a huge, huge boost with the return
of First-Team All-SEC MLB Micah Johnson and CB Trevard Lindley, who
some argue might be the best corner in FBS.
As with almost every SEC team this season, the quarterback position is
not with a little controversy. A lot has changed in a short time for
the Wildcat’s QB depth. With Cobb’s move to wide out, it looked like
Mike Hartline was in the catbird’s seat at QB, but now with the
arrival of Morgan Newton, 6-foot-4, 220-pound true freshman with a
rocket arm and Ryan Mossakowski, another 6-foot-4, 200-pounder,
Hartline’s room for error just got a lot shorter.
The defense lost several key starters: Both DT Myron Pryor
and DE Ventrell Jenkins are gone. To make matters worse, DE Jeremy Jarmon was ruled ineligible for the season after a drug test revealed a banned substance.
Also gone are linebackers Braxton Kelley and Johnny Williams.
D-Line will have to rely on one proven starter: T Corey Peters. A
sophomore, red-shirt freshman and a JC transfer will try to plug the
gap up front (good luck with that one, Steve Brown).