An early look at UT's 2009 season
UT Coach Lane Kiffin
Staff writer
Posted Jul 6, 2009


Though the Tennessee Volunteers went a forgettable 5-7 last year, the off-season has produced so much intrigue that the entire college football world is eager to see if new Head Coach Lane Kiffin can “walk the walk” since he’s shown he can definitely “talk the talk” and create an excitement and energy that hasn't been seen on Rocky Top in a while.

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.

Strengths:

WKU returns two senior RBs, yet they combined for only around 700 yards last year.

Veteran Linebacker corps

Return all five O-Lineman

Weaknesses:

Unproven QB who threw only 25 passes total last season.

Young Secondary—could see three sophomores start.

Difficulty: 1

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.

Strengths:

The Bruins return one of the highest numbers of starters among BCS conference teams.

Solid WR corps.

Weaknesses:

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 per carry.

While there are plenty of targets for Prince, the Bruins still lack a “deep” threat.

DC Dwayne Walker moved on to assume the head coaching duties at New Mexico State.

Difficulty: 3

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.

Strengths:

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.

Weaknesses:

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.

Difficulty: 5

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 ’09.

Strengths:

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.

Weaknesses:

Bobcats lost three starters on O-Line.

Difficulty: 3

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).

Strengths:

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.

Weaknesses:

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.

Difficulty: 3.5

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.

Strengths:

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.

Weaknesses:

Cox’s ability to get his playmakers the ball is yet to be seen.

Pass-rushing ability.

Lack of experience at WR—outside of Green.

Difficulty: 4.5

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 West.

Strengths:

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 backfield.

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 team.

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.

Weaknesses:

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.

Difficulty: 5

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 pumping gas.

Strengths:

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 one else).

Weaknesses:

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 all).

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 Kenny McKinley.

Difficulty: 3

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.

Strengths:

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.

Weaknesses:

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 to see.)

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.

Difficulty: 3

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 contender.

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.

Strengths:

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.

Weaknesses:

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 division.

Difficulty: 4.5

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 Pennsylvania Ave.

Strengths:

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.

Weaknesses:

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 Ryan Hamilton.

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.

Difficulty: 3

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.

Strengths:

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.

Weaknesses:

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).

Difficulty: 3.5


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