SEC Surprise Teams: SEC East: Tennessee Volunteers
Every year about this time, I’m deep into my college football research, as the preseason magazines have been on the shelf for over a month, and lord knows, I have enough of them. I’m looking at teams that have the ability to do a little better than the experts think. I take into consideration returning players on both sides of the football, particularly along both lines of scrimmage, and also look at the quarterback situation.
I have two teams that look like they could both make some noise in 2012, if they can get a few things to go their way, also the schedule sets up decent for both of these schools. In the SEC, you gotta come to play every Saturday, there are no games off. And if these two teams can secure home field and get a break or two on the road, I think they could exceed all expectations and be in the running in their respective divisions. Over the next two days we’ll preview both teams and tell you how they can surprise in 2012.
SEC East: Tennessee Volunteers:
Derek Dooley enters the 2012 college football season smack dab on the hot seat. In his two seasons on Rocky Top, he has only managed 11 victories. An overall record of 11-14 just isn’t going to get it done, and to make matters worse, Dooley was only 1-7 in 2011 versus SEC opponents. Not to pile on, but Tennessee lost to Kentucky for the first time since 1984.
The 2012 version of the Tennessee Volunteers should be much better. They are bringing in six new coaches, one of which, new defensive coordinator, Sal Sunseri, comes over from Nick Saban’s staff and should inject some more life into a defense that ranked 28th in the nation in yards allowed.
Sunseri will have some talent to work with as he installs his new 3-4 defense. Middle linebacker A.J. Johnson was a Freshman All American in 2011. He had 80 tackles which was second on the team. Johnson had double digit tackles versus LSU, Alabama and South Carolina.
Senior cornerback Prentiss Waggner has great instincts and is an All SEC caliber corner. Last year, Waggner had 48 tackles and two interceptions, which gave him seven total over the past two years.
Tennessee should really be able to open it up offensively, as they have maybe the best quarterback/receiver combination in the SEC.
Junior Tyler Bray returns from a 2011 campaign in which he put up 1,983 yards with 17 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Tennessee also returns four of five starters on the offensive line, which has to make Tyler Bray very happy. Bray also returns two big time elite wide receivers and adds another via the junior college ranks. Da’Rick Rogers returns after catching 67 balls for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011. His sidekick, Justin Hunter, returns from an ACL tear that sidelined him after only three games. They will be joined by Junior College All American Cordarrelle Patterson. At 6’4” and over 200 pounds, Patterson is a huge target that runs well and accelerates quickly and is very dangerous in the open field.
The big question mark on offense is the running game. Tennessee only averaged 90 yards per game in 2011, a number which ranked them 116 out of 120 teams. Sophomore Marlon Lane and Junior Rajion Neal will handle the load, and with four of five offensive linemen returning, there’s no reason why this Volunteer running game shouldn’t improve.
Overall, the schedule is manageable. The Vols open up versus N.C. State in Atlanta. This will be a must win for Tennessee to get the season started on a positive note, as they have lost five games in a row in the Georgia Dome. The next three games will all be at home: Georgia State, Florida and Akron, before traveling to Georgia, then to Starkville to take on the Dawgs after a week off.
Alabama will come calling on October 20, then the next week the Vols hit the road to the “Willy B” as they take on South Carolina. The last month of the season gives the Vols three home games versus Troy, Missouri, then to Vandy before finishing up back in Knoxville versus the Kentucky Wildcats.
Tennessee returns 18 starters overall, a quarterback that will be a year wiser, and the best receiving core in the league. Finding a running game will be critical, but with the offensive line almost back fully intact, no reason why the Vols can’t be in the mix for the SEC East crown come November. Key games on the road versus Georgia and South Carolina will most likely decide the Vols fate.