Let’s think about things for just a second. Last season Tennessee was a very mediocre football team. In another conference things could have turned out better, but in the SEC, you don’t get away with struggles like that. Teams make you pay. That’s exactly what happened, and 5-7 will never cut it for the orange-clad faithful.
Before the Florida game last season, Tennessee fans were as excited as they had been in years. One week earlier the Vols had just smashed Big East member Cincinnati 45-23. Tyler Bray had put on a clinic, throwing for over 400 yards and 4 touchdowns (Peyton Manning is the only other Vol to ever throw for over 400 yards in a game). On this particular day, Bray completed 82.9% of his throws (!!!), which is the best single game percentage in school history. Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers both caught 10 passes for over 100 yards. I know, I know SEC fans, that came against Cincinnati. But the Bearcats won 10 games last year. It’s not like I’m talking about Montana or something. I use the Cincinnati game as a reference point only because that’s the one time the country saw this Tennessee offense at full strength against a quality opponent. The result was pretty ferocious. It was as precise of a passing game as I saw anybody have all year in college football. The combination of Da’Rick Rogers, Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray was indeed fun to watch. The next week, Hunter tears his ACL. Just like that, advantage gone.
This is not to say that Tennessee would have steam rolled through their SEC schedule by any means. The Volunteers had plenty of weaknesses throughout their roster, and the SEC elite would have eventually found ways to exploit those weaknesses. Despite their lack of depth on defense, and lack of experience on the offensive line, the biggest strength that Tennessee had (…throwing the ball) gave them a punchers chance in every game. The day that Justin Hunter tore his ACL, the sting from that punch softened. Two games later, when Tyler Bray broke his thumb, that punch was no more painful than a toddlers slap on the leg.
The Vols tried many things after Bray’s injury last season, none of which seemed to worked. The moves started to look desperate at times. When one of the biggest topics among fans during the season is the discussion about whether or not to burn the third string quarterbacks redshirt year, you know things have not gone your way. There is good news though. There’s always next year.
Well, next year has almost arrived, and last years injuries have now healed. Tyler Bray returns, as a junior now, already in 9th place all-time in Tennessee’s career passing yards, despite only having 12 career starts. He is joined again by a dynamic tandem in Hunter and Rogers. Both of whom have put up just plain staggering number through their first two seasons in orange. Also add in the top ranked junior college wide receiver prospect Cordarrelle Patterson, who has been apparently been causing quite a stir so far since his arrival in Knoxville, and things are actually looking up. If last season’s Cincinnati game was any indication of what these offensive pieces that Dooley has assembled are capable of, then the SEC is in for a show. Nobody, besides possibly Arkansas has a higher ceiling this season passing the ball. The potential in Knoxville is sky high at this point. Pun intended.
There are still question marks all over the place for this fallen SEC Eastern division bully. They replaced almost everyone on their coaching staff. The defense is more filled out, but still young and quite inexperienced. The talent coming in on this side of the ball is promising, but again, unproven. The offensive line is full of wily old veterans now, but these veterans still haven’t actually proved anything to anybody on the field. The running game struggled as bad last year as any I have seen as a UT football fan. There are still no established running backs to count on to carry the load.
Have you noticed the theme yet? The talent at Tennessee is back. They are ready to roll. But the truth is, nobody can count on it, and nobody will count on it until they see it play out on the field (including little ole biased me). The only thing we do know, is that the passing game has a chance to be one of the best in the league. We have seen tiny, tiny glimpses of that. Though the question still remains… How good could it be? How far could that carry them? Will the rest of the team play up to their level, or drag them down? This orange team is very interesting. They could finish anywhere from first to, well, right in front of Kentucky in the East.
Gah when is football going to start?