| ||2011 SEASON IN REVIEW:After qualifying for the Music City Bowl the season prior, the Tennessee Volunteers failed to make a bowl game in Derek Dooley's second year as head coach in 2011. |
Although the Vols went a perfect 4-0 in non-conference play, they finished the season a dismal 5-7 overall after winning just one of their eight SEC bouts, finishing last in the Eastern Division. Their lone win against a conference foe came in the second-to-last game of the season, defeating Vanderbilt in overtime, 27-21.
Tennessee was especially bad against elite competition, suffering blowout losses to No. 8 Arkansas (49-7), No. 2 Alabama (37-6) and No. 1 LSU (38-7).
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|A 31 at North Carolina State |
S 8 vs. Georgia State
S 15 vs. Florida
S 22 vs. Akron
S 29 at Georgia
O 13 at Mississippi State
O 20 vs. Alabama
O 27 at South Carolina
N 3 vs. Troy
N 10 vs. Missouri
N 17 at Vanderbilt
N 24 vs. Kentucky
QB Tyler Bray
WR Justin Hunter
WR Da'Rick Rogers
TE Mychal Rivera
OT Ja'Wuan James
OG Dalls Thomas
OG Zach Fulton
C Alex Bullard
DE Jacques Smith
DT Daniel Hood
LB A.J. Johnson
LB Herman Lathers
LB Curt Maggitt
CB Prentiss Waggner
S Brent Brewer
PK Michael Palardy
P Matt Darr
OFFENSE:One of the primary reasons Tennessee struggled so much in 2011 was due to its lackluster offensive attack, which ranked 10th in the conference in points per game (20.3), and ninth in yards per game (332.7).
A healthy Tyler Bray should be a huge lift for the Vols this season. Bray was effective as a sophomore, completing 59.5 percent of his passes for 1,983 yards, 17 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions. He only played in seven games however, missing time with a broken thumb (his replacements combined for just 1 touchdown and 6 picks in his absence). If he can stay on the field, a stronger season in the standings is likely.
Returning one of the conference's best receivers certainly helps Bray's chances at success. Da'Rick Rogers earned First Team All-SEC honors a year ago after logging 67 catches for 1,040 yards and 9 touchdowns. The junior is already considered one of the best in the country, and he hopes to cement that status with another productive season. Tight end Mychal Rivera (29 catches, 344 yards) also returns to the receiving corps.
Marlin Lane takes over as the starting tailback with last year's leading rusher Tauren Poole having graduated. Lane struggled as a freshman, gaining 305 yards on 3.7 yards per carry, but should improve behind a veteran offensive line, which returns four starters.
DEFENSE:Tennessee's defensive unit may not have had the outstanding season that Alabama, LSU or some of the other teams in the SEC had in 2011, but the Vols played solid defense by most people's standards, surrendering 22.6 points per game and ranking fourth in the conference in passing defense (177.8 ypg).
The loss of senior leader Austin Johnson will hurt (81 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 4 interceptions), but the Vols still have plenty of talent at the linebacker position. A.J. Johnson was second on the team a year ago with 80 tackles and picked up 2 fumbles as well, while freshman Curt Maggitt made a splash with 56 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. Herman Lathers also returns to the unit after missing all of last season with an ankle injury.
Safety Brian Randolph was also effective as a rookie last year, finishing fifth on the team with 55 tackles. Prentiss Waggner (48 tackles, 2 interceptions) returns to the secondary as well.
The Vols' three-man defensive line consists of seniors Stephen Fowlkes, Marlon Wells and Maurice Couch.
SPECIAL TEAMS:Placekicker Michael Palardy was inconsistent in 2011. He has a big leg (a long of 52 yards), although he made just 9-of-14 attempts overall. Matt Darr also returns as the team's punter after netting 38.1 ypp in '11
As a freshman, Devrin Young led the team in both kick returns (27) and punt returns (8), and he has breakaway ability.
OUTLOOK:There's no doubt that last season was a huge disappointment for the Volunteers, but things are looking up for a few reasons.
For one, with Bray back under center for what everyone hopes will be a full season, the offense is bound to be better. The chemistry between Bray and Rogers is undeniable, and the two should create fireworks all year long.
"We're certainly deeper than we've been," Dooley said. "It's so important to be deep and talented because you can't allow an injury or two that happens to every team to decimate your season. We're certainly more talented in many ways."
The schedule is still daunting (at Georgia and South Carolina, home versus Alabama and Florida), but there seems to be many more winnable games this season, including non-conference games against NC State, Akron, Georgia State and Troy, and SEC tilts versus Mississippi State, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
"We haven't had the seasons Tennessee's had in the past, but we're going to try to change that," Bray said. "We have great leadership this year and a good offense and a good defense."
With a slight improvement, the Vols should get back to a bowl game, but they still have plenty of work to do to chase down the likes of South Carolina and Georgia in the SEC East.
By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor