I think it's pretty safe to say that those two plays haunt the burnt orange bunch. UT has had a long summer. Probably the longest in memory. They've shaken off the academic fraud scandal. They lost top wide-out Dontae Stallworth to the NFL. They've had to face up to life without their brick wall defensive line. To say there's always a silver lining would certainly be appropriate for the Vols, because Steve Spurrier has left town. Their old nemesis and most hated rival has left the SEC and it's there for the Vol's taking. To say that they won't be ready would be foolish.
The Volunteers should be the best the SEC has to offer! They have strength and talent at every position. The have some holes to fill, just like everybody else. It's just that they have a higher caliber of replacements.
The love/hate relationship the fans have had with Casey Clausen was love nearly all season a year ago. Clausen struggled a bit against Syracuse and Arkansas, but still managed to find a way to win. The next week he set school records with breakthrough player Kelley Washington against LSU. He was a little up and down, but mostly up thanks in part to having the SEC's leading rusher lined up behind him. Clausen won't have that luxury this year. He must step into the huddle looking to be the playmaker. In year's past they've cautioned Clausen about trying to do to much. This year he'll have to do more if the Vols look to capture the brass ring.
Clausen returns with his favorite target from a year ago, Kelley Washington. Washington almost bolted for the NFL, but decided to stay and make a run at a national title. Washington surprised the nation a year ago, but he won't sneak up on anybody this year as more balls come his way as a focal part of the offense. Speedster Leonard Scott will take the spot vacated by Stallworth. It is time for Scott to realize his potential or he'll be relegated to kick returns again as super sophomore Montrell Jones takes center stage. Jones was the cream of last year's bumper recruiting crop and is poised to shine with more chances on offense.
Travis Stephens made the most of his chance a year ago. It is now time for the talented committee of understudies to take to the main stage. Jabari Davis, arguably the best RB in the country out of high school a year ago, should get his number called quite often, but he currently sits 2nd on the depth chart to Cedric Houston. Houston is a step faster and is a little more shifty than the Earl Campbellesque Davis. Both will get plenty of reps as the Vols levy a balanced attack.
The offensive line needs some work, but the talent is there. Only two starters return from a year ago. Will Ofenheusle is an NFL prototype tackle. He will be paired with Michael Munoz who is recovering from an injury that sidelined him all of last season. Munoz rehabbed well and should be 100%. Jason Whitten returns at tight end, but he could double as an O-lineman. He is a great run blocker and has soft hands in the flat when called upon. The right side of the line should be ready to go come opening day, but guards on both sides are new to the lineup. I suspect all will be well by week three when the Gators come calling.
The Vols defense should be deeper in every unit, but the D-line. The regulars saw action last season, but you don't replace the likes of Haynesworth, Henderson, and Overstreet easily. 4 seniors will start across the front, but the 2nd teamers are unseasoned. Big Aubrayo Franklin should give interior linemen fits. Look for Omari Hand to have a strong year from his end position. If Hand can keep most runs contained to the interior line, this group has a chance to be really good. They must pressure the QB even in non-blitzing situations if this defense is to be great.
Three backers complete the 4-3 Vol spread and they have three very good ones to man those positions. Kenyon Whiteside should be a rock on the inside. He is a great pursurer and can throw off an initial block as well as anybody. Eddie Moore and Kevin Burnett will be the outside backers, but the smaller Moore should hope his assignments include less pass coverage as he tends to get caught napping on occasion.
Three starters return to a secondary that has a chance to be special. Julian Battle highlights a hard hitting group that may be the best secondary in the country. Jabari Greer will be All-SEC preseason and post-season. He is a Champ Bailey-type player who can take over a game if need be. He won't get many chances as most QB's will look to avoid him. Willie Miles is the only new starter, but Miles, a senior, has tons of gametime experience. There will be no need for an adjustment period.
@ South Carolina
@ Mississippi State
Well eight home games certainly help the Volunteer's chances. If you count the Vandy game, it's essentially nine home games. With the exception of one, all of the home games should be wins. One of the Florida teams may beat them; my money is on Miami. They won't be intimidated by Neyland Stadium. The table is set for Tennessee to have a special season. They have to go on the road to face both sets of Dawgs, but USC and Vandy haven't been much trouble for the Volunteer's in recent seasons. I like where we are on the schedule, at home the week after the slugfest with the Hurricanes. I'm not saying we will win, but I think it helps our chances following Miami.
If the SEC is to have a national title contender, it will be Tennessee. They are a safe pick and they have always been media darlings. In years past they could actually stay in the top 8 with a loss to Florida the week before. This year the Gators shouldn't be the same foes the Vols are used to and they get them in Knoxville. The Georgia Bulldogs have won two in a row and you can bet the Vols will be up for the blood letting in Athens. This one may be the conference game of the year. Even with a close loss to Miami or Georgia, UT should make a BCS game. If they win those, it'll be a BCS game for all the marbles. If UT makes it back to Atlanta my guess is they'll bring home the trophy regardless of opponents. The Vols have the chance to be that good. They have almost all their tough games at home and they have a cake-walk in the early non-conference. They should start no worse than 6-1 or 7-0. If that's the case, a BCS game is assured. It'll be tough picking against the Vols especially if the D line is decent. Look for a lot of close games with UT pulling a 10-win or better season behind the strength of that young stable of tailbacks.
Until next time,
Steve Robertson is a free-lance correspondent who writes The Robertson Report for the premium site portion of Gene's Page. Steve's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.