Rating the Vols

Tennessee is eight days away from opening the season against a top 15 opponent. California brings a Heisman Trophy candidate at running back, standout receivers, a hybrid offense and a nationally ranked front four into Neyland Stadium.

California brings a hot head coach, an offensive coordinator skilled in the spread option, a linebacking crew with NFL prospects, and a desire to wrestle the Pac-10 title away from Southern Cal.

What does Tennessee bring? Hope. Hope that the Vols can re-establish home-field advantage. Hope that David Cutcliffe can rejuvenate a stagnant offense. Hope that Erik Ainge will live up to his potential. Hope that the offensive line and wide receivers won't underachieve as they did a year ago. Hope that the front seven can withstand losing six starters. Hope that a veteran secondary will make more big plays than it allows. Hope that special teams will be a weapon, not a whipping boy.

On Sept. 2, Tennessee hopes to erase the memory of 5-6 – the worst season at UT since 1988. It hopes to prove 2005 was an aberration, not a trend.

Those hopes will ride on the decision making of a head coach whose new-found discipline surely will pay dividends – on and off the field.

Coach Phillip Fulmer is entering a critical year. If he has another losing record, he likely will be fired. If he goes 6-6, it's 50-50 whether he hangs on to his $2.05 million a year job. If he goes 7-5, he'll keep his job, but the heat will be turned up in 2007.

For Tennessee to rebound, it must improve in every offensive area and in special teams play, and it must maintain what it did on defense last year. Any slipup can turn promise into problems.

Here's a look at each unit of the Tennessee team with my preseason 1-10 grade and how I think that unit ranks in the SEC. A grade of 10 means national championship level, a 5 means average.

Offensive line: Starters Arron Sears, Eric Young, David Ligon, Anthony Parker and Michael Frogg can develop into a solid unit. Josh McNeil, Ramon Foster and Steve Jones are the top backups. A more fit, more mobile line should help. The key will be the ability to get a push in short-yardage, to pass protect and to block on the perimeter – something missing the past few seasons. Grade: 6. SEC rank: 6.

Receivers: Jayson Swain is the leader, Robert Meachem is the most talented, and Lucas Taylor and Bret Smith can make big plays. No reason this unit shouldn't be the most improved on the team. The talent is there. The discipline is, too, finally. The drops have decreased. The route running is more precise. The downfield blocking has been a point of emphasis. Grade: 8. SEC rank: 4.

Running backs: Arian Foster averaged almost 150 yards in his five starts. Montario Hardesty showed flashes of brilliance in scrimmages. If he's fully recovered from a torn ACL, he'll push Foster. LaMarcus Coker is finally in shape. David Yancey and Ja'Kouri Williams are average SEC backs. Grade: 7.5. SEC rank: 5.

Quarterbacks: Erik Ainge has the keys. Will he keep the car on the road or wreck in a ditch? Only time will tell. Ainge appears more comfortable and confident. He is not consistently accurate and I'm still not sure about his mental toughness. His best throws in scrimmages have been intermediate outs and slants. Jonathan Crompton is mentally tough. He is a bright prospect who might be ready to take the reigns if Ainge falters. My confidence in Cutcliffe convinces me UT's quarterback play will be solid. I'm just not sure which one it will be. Grade: 6. SEC rank: 5.

Defensive line: Justin Harrell and Turk McBride might be as good as any twosome in the league. But the Vols will start a former walk-on at one tackle, Matt McGlothlin, and an unproven end coming off surgery, Antonio Reynolds. J.T. Mapu, Xavier Mitchell, Demonte Bolden, Dan Williams, Robert Ayers and Wes Brown provide depth. Grade: 7. SEC rank: 5.

Linebackers: Marvin Mitchell, Jerod Mayo and Ryan Karl will start, but they aren't much better than Rico McCoy, Adam Myers-White and Ellix Wilson. The Vols have great depth, but little starting experience, which could be crucial in early games against California and Florida, where play recognition against the spread option is crucial. Grade: 8. SEC rank: 7.

Secondary: Not counting Jason Allen (injured at mid-year) all four starters return. Demetrice Morley is the best athlete on the team. Jonathan Hefney made preseason second-team All-SEC. Jonathan Wade and Inky Johnson might be the best cornerback combo in the league. Only concern: lack of depth at corner. Grade 9. SEC rank: 2.

Special teams: James Wilhoit is the SEC's leading active scorer. Britton Colquitt has averaged about 45 yards per punt in scrimmages. The return game should get a boost from Morley or Johnson or Lucas Taylor or Austin Rogers. Punt coverage was horrible last year, but should be much improved. Grade: 7. SEC rank: 4.

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