October 8, 2011
Overall Record: 17-21-2
Last 10 Meetings: 6-4
Richt vs. Tennessee: 6-4
If there is a dark horse in the SEC East race it is Tennessee. The problem for the Vols is the difficult schedule they play, which includes three of the better teams in the SEC West – LSU, Arkansas and Alabama. The Vols had several close calls last season – painful losses to LSU and North Carolina overshadowed games where they were only competitive for a half – Georgia, Alabama and Oregon.
Still, Tennessee ended the season on a roll – winning three of their five final games by more than ten points before falling to the Tar Heels in the bowl game. They also found their quarterback – Tyler Bray. How he plays in his sophomore season could dictate if the Vols jump up to challenge in the East.
Tennessee gets Georgia and South Carolina at home. To win the East they will probably have to win at least one if not both of those games. The contest at Florida looms large, but the Gators are going though as much turnover as the Vols these days, so Florida might only be a slight favorite in that one.
Derek Dooley has done a good job of stopping the bleeding that was the two years before him in Knoxville. If he can move the Vols to the eight-win mark many in Rocky Top could start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It has been a long time since the Vols have been where they would like to be – on top of the SEC. Of the major powers in the conference only Tennessee has been without a conference title since 2002. In that time the Vols have watched as hated rivals Alabama and Florida have captured three national titles. In a way the Vols and Dawgs have a lot in common – they have stood while others in the conference have had national success.
Time has proven that it is very difficult for Georgia and Tennessee do be good at the same time. The last two years have proven that they both are capable of having bad seasons at the same time. Bad play coming out of Athens and Knoxville won't last forever.
Volunteer to watch:
There were good times for Tyler Bray in 2010. He threw 18 touchdowns while seeing time in only eight games as a true freshman. He led the Vols to four straight regular season victories and nearly pulled the upset against North Carolina in the Music City Bowl. But there were some bad times, too. Bray was sacked 16 times and threw 10 interceptions as Tennessee finished with a 6-7 record. While Bray grew as a young passer, Tennessee, too, was forced to grow on the fly during Derek Dooley's first seasons as coach. In 2011, Bray will look to progress and take the next, consistent step. If he does, Tennessee could take a step up, too.
What the Dawgs must do:
Start winning on the road again. Georgia hasn't won in Knoxville since D.J. Shockley and company won the SEC in 2005. Winning on the road used to be a trademark of Mark Richt-coached teams, but since 2009 the Bulldogs have struggled on the road – going 4-6 over the last two seasons. Georgia was 8-1 on the road the two years before that. Winning on the road is always a challenge in a conference as big as the SEC. Georgia needs to get back on the winning track on the road, but Neyland Stadium is a difficult place to play.
Inside the numbers:
In Tennessee's five SEC losses the Vols struggled to score. They averaged 15.8 points a contest against Georgia, Florida, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina. Also, in four of their five losses the Vols allowed more than 30 points on defense.
Hard to tell. Dooley is not Lane Kiffin on the recruiting trail, but he's going to have to be some sort of force for top-level players in Georgia if he wants to get the Vols back to the top of the SEC. Tennessee is particularly strong when they recruit well in the Atlanta area, but that's not happened of late. Georgia can't seed any more power in the recruiting game in state… they are going to have to keep the Vols at bay.
Last year's prediction:
Most of Tennessee's talent is young, so, with a new coach, it shouldn't be so insulting to predict that the Vols will have a rebuilding year. Still, it seems like Tennessee has been rebuilding since the end of the 2007 season.
Dooley got the Vols pointed in the right direction, but they suffered some difficult losses during the year. The blowout losses to Oregon, Alabama and Georgia were pretty bad, too.