Top Ten Reasons

Tennessee has had just two losing seasons in the past 25 seasons. The Vols haven't gone below .500 in back-to-back years since 1910-11 under coaches Alex Stone and Z.G. Clevenger. Remember them?

Phillip Fulmer would prefer avoiding their company. One losing season has created enough heat on the coach's seat. A second would likely lead to a $4.3 million buyout.

Given a schedule that includes California, Florida, Georgia, Alabama and LSU, a second consecutive losing season is possible, if Tennessee doesn't make major improvements in a number of areas.

We're convinced UT won't have two losing seasons in a row. We're convinced the Vols have enough talent to post a 10-win season. We're convinced the addition of offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe will make a difference of almost 10 points per game.

The schedule is tough, but not as difficult as last year. The Vols could start 5-0 or 4-1, thus gaining some confidence before heading into the meat of the SEC schedule.

UT opens with California, Air Force, Florida, Marshall and Memphis. Anything short of a 4-1 start could lead to another disappointing season - and anything short of eight wins would be a big disappointment. If you can't start 4-1, what makes you think you'll have success against Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas?

We've pointed out numerous reasons why the Vols stumbled to a 5-6 season. Here are the top 10 reasons Tennessee will bounce back and be bowl eligible in 2006.

10. More big plays. The Vols had 28 plays of at least 30 yards in 2004 on the way to scoring 50 touchdowns. That number was seven this past season. The average length of a UT's 19 offensive touchdowns scored before the Kentucky game was only 7.2 yards.

9. Better offense in the red zone. The Vols lost end-zone fumbles against South Carolina and Alabama, costing the Vols two wins. UT struggled in other games to punch it into the end zone. A better short-yardage run game will help in this area, as will a more experienced Arian Foster, who rushed for 879 yards while making just five starts.

8. Close game victories. This has been a Fulmer trademark. His teams have usually found a way to win games decided by a touchdown or less. In 2004, the Vols set an SEC record with six wins by six or fewer points. In 2005, the Vols lost close encounters to Alabama, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

7. Improved leadership. The defense had solid leadership. The offense did not. Guard Rob Smith was a captain, but he needed help and didn't get it. Rick Clausen, also a captain, talked of quitting the week of the LSU game and said later he didn't care if he played or not. That type indifference is not good leadership.

6. Fewer injuries. The Vols have had more than 100 surgeries in the past five years. They've had 35 surgeries since August 2004, including 22 during the offseason before last year. Four running backs had offseason surgery and won't participate in spring drills. At some point, the injury bug has to stop. By law of averages, UT should be a healthier team in 2006.

5. Improved special teams play. Special teams blunders were costly against Florida Georgia and Notre Dame. The Vols showed improvement down the stretch, but that was against inferior competition. Punter Britton Colquitt and kicker James Wilhoit will be one of the two best combinations in the SEC. Return game and coverage can't be any worse.

4. Wide receivers will emerge. Robert Meachem was a wasted talent last season. Combined with Jayson Swain and Bret Smith and Josh Briscoe, this has to be one of the two most improved areas of the team. UT's new receivers coach must be more demanding and teach the fundamentals of receiving, route running, beating press coverage and blocking.

3. Improved turnover ratio. The Vols ranked in the 100s nationally in turnover margin. They had 24 turnovers and just 16 takeaways. If UT had been even in this category, they would have won at least three more games. A more disciplined offense and better special teams will turn this number around.

2. More discipline on and off the field. Fulmer admitted he's been too patient with some players. Whether it's practice, a trip to the movie theater, the Vol Walk or game-day performance, UT must be more disciplined. Lack of discipline affected the offense, not the defense. It won't affect the offense with Cutcliffe taking charge.

1. Improved quarterback play. It can't get any worse. Only Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Arkansas were worse at quarterback in the SEC than Tennessee. Erik Ainge was a 41 percent passer before hitting 17 of 25 against Kentucky to improve his season mark to 45 percent. Ainge should make huge strides under Cutcliffe, but if he isn't the answer, UT will turn to redshirt freshman Jonathan Crompton.

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