One of my favorite things about doing the magazine every year is that I generally come away from the process with a list of things that I’m looking forward to when the season finally arrives. I wasn’t sure whether that would happen this year because we were coming off a mixed-bag season that did not end as well as we’d hoped and are also heading into a season for which expectations are lower than last year.
But wonder of wonders, there are reasons to believe Team 121. Here are my Top 4.
I know what you’re thinking, because it’s the same thing I was thinking when we started this year’s edition of the magazine. We just lost six guys to the NFL Draft and a couple more to free agency. And the incoming recruiting class wasn’t quite on the same level as Jones’ early classes. We have to be less talented this year than last.
But here’s the thing. To look only at the outgoing class of NFL prospects and the incoming class of high schoolers is to ignore the classes in the middle. Two of those classes ranked fourth and seventh in the nation at the time, and those guys are upperclassmen. The guys taking the field this year as starters are as talented as anyone.
We’re going to miss Derek Barnett. But we’re going to enjoy Jonathan Kongbo. We’ll miss Cam Sutton, but enjoy Shaq Wiggins. We’ll miss Alvin Kamara, but love John Kelly.
I could do this all day. The guys behind the guys who left are good. Really good.
Thanks to a certain former coach who shall remain nameless, the offensive line at Tennessee has been digging out of a hole for several years. The line was totally neglected for an entire recruiting season, and it created a huge void that hurt the team for a couple of years.
But that’s over now. While putting together the magazine, I compiled a list of games and starts for every returning offensive lineman in the SEC and used that information to rank each team by total number of games and starts currently on the roster. Tennessee’s line for 2017 is second in the SEC in games and starts. Sure, that doesn’t measure the actual level of talent of the guys are who are playing and starting, but it is a measure of experience, and our guys have it. More than they’ve had in years.
But they are, in fact, also talented as well, and the unit is deep to boot. The only real question about who might start along the offensive line this fall is at the tackle positions, and the reason for that is that it’s a competition between a guy with a ton of experience (Brett Kendrick) and two 5-star guys (Drew Richmond and Trey Smith). At least one extremely qualified lineman isn’t going to make the starting lineup this fall, and he’ll have to wait his turn.
There’s experience, talent, and depth along the line this year, and if the offensive line is as underappreciated and undervalued by fans and pundits as I suspect, it could make a world of difference this fall, especially for an offense breaking in a new quarterback.
Here are a few of our Not Favorite Things from last season: Injuries. Conditioning late in the season (maybe). Defensive backs who couldn’t defend deep passes. A defense that didn’t appear in synch.
Jones seems to have addressed each of these areas, and although some of the new coaching hires may have seemed a bit underwhelming at first, the guys all seem solid upon further investigation.
To mitigate the injury problem and to improve both strength and conditioning, Jones hired Rock Gullickson, who’s getting rave reviews already. Even just two or three fewer key injuries would make a huge difference.
In hindsight, it doesn’t make much sense to spend a bunch of money on shiny new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop only to make him fit with your guys. If the defense wasn’t all pulling in the same direction last year, the shakeup in the defensive staff should help. I was surprised to find that the pass defense stats were actually decent last season (notice I said “decent,” not “up to Tennessee’s standards”). What made the pass defense seem so bad was that it was actually terrible at defending the deep ball. The secondary really just needs to fix that one thing without breaking something else, and overall pass defense will be much improved. New defensive backs coach Charlton Warren seems like the right guy for the job. Look up North Carolina’s pass defense last season, and you’ll be convinced. That one small change could produce some very good results.
The bye week
Most all of the good that the team did in September last year came undone in October.
The 2016 season opened with seven consecutive games. The first five were wins, and the sixth was an overtime loss to a Top 10 team on the road despite multiple injuries. The seventh was Alabama dominating a decimated team.
This year begins much the same way, with all-important games against SEC East rivals Florida and Georgia, a neutral-site game against a dangerous team, and a breather against a bad FBS opponent (Ohio last year; UMass this year). The biggest difference in the first five games is that FCS team Indiana State takes the spot occupied by Appalachian State last year.
But things are much different starting Week Six this fall. Instead of two more consecutive weeks against Top 10 teams, followed by an off week and South Carolina, this year starts with what will likely be a welcome bye week. Then comes South Carolina a week before the Alabama game, and the month concludes with Kentucky.
So last year was two more reps against two of your toughest opponents after an already-long stretch, and then a rest. But this year is a rest, then a regular game, and then your toughest test, followed by a relatively easy game.
October always features a tough game against Alabama, but it’s capacity to completely derail Tennessee’s season this year is much less this year than last.
And then November actually provides something new for the Vols this season as well. Usually the month consists of nothing but teams the Vols should beat. There’s generally no real upside in November, only downside.
But this year, LSU comes to town the second-to-last game of the season, and they are looking like they could be a Top 10 team. If so, then that game provides a late opportunity for Tennessee to prove something. If things have not gone well, they get an additional opportunity to redeem themselves, and if things have gone well, they get a chance to prove that they deserve their ranking.