2011 Season Preview: The Tennessee Volunteers And Some Vengeful Gods

Injuries, coaching changes, transfers, and some incredible, last-second breaks have led to stagnation for Tennessee in recent years. Is 2011 the year they start to find some stability, or are they building for 2012 and beyond? And what will it take for their luck to change a bit?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

To say the least, Tennessee's spiritual credit account has gone south. The program that won at least eight games in 18 of 19 seasons from 1989 to 2007, has managed just an 18-20 record in the last three seasons, going through three coaches (Phil Fulmer, Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley) in that span. To fully get a grasp for the mindset of Vols fans, I decided to chat with everybody's favorite Vols fan (right?), our esteemed college football editor, Holly Anderson.

Bill C.: So since the beginning of the 2010 calendar year, the Tennessee football program has...

a) been ditched by their young, supposed hotshot coach after just one season.
b) suffered two of the most hilarious, horrifying losses in recent memory.
c) lost more middle linebackers to injury than Spinal Tap lost drummers.

They are heading into 2011 with an extremely young and inexperienced squad for seemingly the fourth consecutive season. Exactly what kind of pox did Phil Fulmer cast on UT when he left, and is it worth bringing him on as athletic director just so he will reverse it?

Holly Anderson: The very most Tennessee kind of pox: The Biddy Bind. Fulmer, for all his goodoleboy girth, is a white-gloved church picnic henwife with man parts, and a mere flick of the wrist and a "bless your heart", delivered in a tone normally reserved around Knoxville for atheists and libruls, can cast clouds of misfortune for years. YEARS. As you can tell, it's working. But if there's anything to the campfire scuttlebutt that says Chancellor Jimmy Cheek wants an academics-minded AD to take over for noted goblin Mike Hamilton (he's on a tear to raise UT up a tier as a public university, which is pretty hysterical given that he doesn't have the state resources to pull it off), you won't see Fulmer in the swivel chair, to say nothing of the vocal minority of boosters who still haven't forgiven him for l'affaire Johnny Majors. As a people, we excel in nothing so much as grudgemongering (see: Woodson, Charles).

Bill C.: Give me one reason why Derek Dooley will reverse this incredible surge of bad karma in 2011.

Holly Anderson: The hair. It's like a raven's wing. Feathered and lethal. I don't think we saw young Precious unleash its full potential in Year 1, for fear of driving away balding but deep-pocketed boosters in screaming jealous snits.

Bill C.: In pure sitcom fashion, tell me how Tennessee can one-up itself in the bad luck department this fall. What can go wrong that hasn't already?

Holly Anderson: The only thing left to do that's worse is to lose to Kentucky. The psychic backlash from snapping a quarter-century win streak over Little Blue Brother would kill all alums in a four-state radius. Remember me fondly, y'all.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 6-7 | Adj. Record: 3-10 | Final F/+ Rk**: 58
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep UT-Martin 50-0 W 27.9 - (-4.9) W
11-Sep Oregon 13-48 L 21.7 - 28.9 L
18-Sep Florida 17-31 L 27.8 - 31.2 L
25-Sep UAB 32-29 W 22.4 - 25.9 L
2-Oct at LSU 14-16 L 22.1 - 29.2 L
9-Oct at Georgia 14-41 L 28.2 - 33.5 L
23-Oct Alabama 10-41 L 25.4 - 31.2 L
30-Oct at South Carolina 24-38 L 25.3 - 30.6 L
6-Nov at Memphis 50-14 W 28.0 - 28.3 L
13-Nov Ole Miss 52-14 W 26.9 - 19.8 W
20-Nov at Vanderbilt 24-10 W 26.9 - 29.9 L
27-Nov Kentucky 24-14 W 31.8 - 21.1 W
30-Dec vs North Carolina 27-30 L 23.2 - 24.1 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 27.0 58 25.1 56
Adj. Points Per Game 26.0 70 25.3 43

The general takeaway from Tennessee's 2010 season was that they started cold and finished hot. The first two months of the season netted a 2-6 record, an oh-so-close loss to LSU and a near-miss win over UAB. The Vols got romped by Oregon, Georgia and Alabama and lost by respectable but healthy margins to Florida and South Carolina. Then, as the calendar flipped to November, the Vols won four in a row to somewhat miraculously attain bowl eligibility. I've mentioned before that late-season heat rather reliably carries over to the next season (as long as the team doesn't consist of all seniors) ... but what if the heat was mostly a mirage?

Tennessee Offense (September): 25.0 Adj. PPG
Tennessee Offense (October): 25.3 Adj. PPG
Tennessee Offense (November): 28.4 Adj. PPG

The offense improved a bit as Tyler Bray got his bearings, but this was far from a surge. You see, Tennessee played about the easiest November schedule that you are allowed to play and remain in the SEC. Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky were the three worst teams in the conference not named Tennessee, and Memphis was almost the worst team in the country. That the Vols won those games was more a sign that they simply hadn't fallen apart instead of a serious hint at program momentum. (In fact, the Vols actually had the lowest standard deviation of any offense in the country.) Still, they won the games they were supposed to win, and they advanced to Nashville, where they fell victim to one of the oddest bowl finishes ever.

It is a common thought that making a bowl is as important because of the extra practice as it is because of the game itself, and we perhaps exaggerate that at times. But when your team is as ridiculously young as Tennessee's was in 2010, I do think this was a very good thing. With freshmen in so many key roles, from quarterback to offensive line to the secondary, the extra repetitions and experience were likely quite beneficial. Especially when you throw in another "character-building" loss at the end. (See how I spun that awful finish into a positive?)

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 57 86 43
RUSHING 89 99 73 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 43 69 34 91
Standard Downs 45 74 34 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 81 95 62 108
Redzone 48 86 34
Q1 Rk 17 1st Down Rk 41
Q2 Rk 74 2nd Down Rk 60
Q3 Rk 69 3rd Down Rk 82
Q4 Rk 98

The Tennessee offense may have been mediocre in 2010, but it was aggressively mediocre. Derek Dooley and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney (whose profile picture makes him look much more like a C.P.A. than an O.C.) went for broke often, and it occasionally paid off. The completion rates for both Tyler Bray and his in-season predecessor Matt Simms (he of the stat-hating bloodline) were under 60%, but because of the number of downfield passes they threw, that was not necessarily a bad thing; they both still managed healthy per-pass numbers -- Bray went for 8.3 yards per pass, Simms 7.5. (Bray was just a little bit better than Simms across the board.)

If Bray, in particular, got the pass off, good things often happened. The problem was keeping him upright long enough to throw the ball. Obviously if you are going deep, one would expect a higher sack rate (it's easier to get to a QB if he's waiting on a longer route), but Tennessee's line numbers (91st in Adj. Line Yards, 108th in Adj. Sack Rate) were just plain bad. Of course, there was a reason for that: true freshmen got 26 starts. Guard Zach Fulton had five, center James Stone eight, and tackle Ja'Wuan James a whopping 13. When this is the case, the odds of you producing a good line are minimal. But if everybody stays healthy over time, then things get interesting -- with two juniors (Darin Gooch and Dallas Thomas) rounding out the starting lineup this year, UT should easily pass the 100 career start mark in 2012; expect huge improvement down the line, but the growth might still be slow in 2011.

That Tennessee still managed a Top 50 Passing S&P+ rating despite the sacks would be a wonderfully encouraging sign about the passing game if the Vols' top three targets weren't all gone. Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore and Luke Stocker (combined: 1,994 yards, 8.9 per target, 62% catch rate) were targeted with 59% of Tennessee's passes in 2010, and they leave a void.

Three players who did some nice things as backups return. Zach Rogers (207 yards, 14.8 per catch, 54% catch rate) and Da'Rick Rogers are intriguing options, but there is a serious home run threat in Justin Hunter (415 yards, 25.9 per catch, 37% catch rate, 7 TD). The lanky Hunter was amazingly all-or-nothing as a true freshman -- seven of his 16 receptions went for touchdowns, but passes to him connected less than 40 percent of the time. That he is still so young is an encouraging sign, but it's hard to tell how reliable he might become, and how quickly.

Other tidbits:

  • Tennessee's rushing numbers were far from fantastic, but don't blame Tauren Poole (1,034 yards, 5.1 per carry, +11.9 Adj. POE, 11 TD). The senior-to-be overcame iffy blocking to do some damage. The same cannot necessarily be said about his primary returning backup, Rajion Neal (197 yards, 4.3 per carry, -5.8 Adj. POE), but as long as Poole stays healthy, UT's run game should improve quite a bit as the line's experience level grows.
  • It will be interesting to see if an improved run game changes the Vols' philosophy. They skewed toward the pass on both standard and passing downs last year, and they barely even tried to run in the red zone.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 49 56 48
RUSHING 73 84 66 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 39 44 37 49
Standard Downs 39 50 37 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 64 74 51 76
Redzone 37 55 31
Q1 Rk 61 1st Down Rk 31
Q2 Rk 11 2nd Down Rk 67
Q3 Rk 43 3rd Down Rk 38
Q4 Rk 93

Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox came to Knoxville via Boise State, not everybody was impressed with the hire. But in 2008-09, Boise State had one of the most underrated defenses in the country, ranking sixth and ninth in Def. F/+, respectively. (Granted, they ranked also first in Def. F/+ in 2010 without him.) Boise's line has been its catalyst through the years, but while Tennessee's line wasn't bad in 2010, it wasn't good enough to make up for a lackluster linebacking corps.

With the rankings above, one can begin to zero in on where problems may have originated. Tennessee ranked 49th in Adj. Line Yards but 73rd in Rushing S&P+, suggesting their linebackers were perhaps giving away some of the gains made up front. Meanwhile, their Need for Blitzes figure was incredibly low, suggesting most of UT's mediocre pass rush came from the line. Only one linebacker managed even 5.0 TFL/sacks, which is a low number as well. In all, the linebackers left something to be desired, which is not altogether surprising given the unit's injury history and lack of depth.

In 2011, the depth issue does not improve, as three of the top five linebackers are gone. That said ... the three that left weren't that great. The major issue is with one of the returnees. Herman Lathers (59.5 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks) is by far the most proven linebacker on the roster, but after missing the spring with shoulder issues, he fractured his ankle in early June and will miss at least part of the season. From Rocky Top Talk:

The Vols do have plenty of bodies at linebacker - Austin Johnson and Daryl Vereen were the other two starters coming out of spring practice, and Greg King, Nigel Mitchell-Thornton, John Propst, and Shane Reveiz have all seen meaningful action in the past. Lathers' injury will also speed up the development of incoming freshmen A.J. Johnson and Christian Harris, and may have a thing or two to say about whether Curt Maggitt plays DE or LB.

Bodies or no, there is officially one healthy linebacker on the roster who did anything last year -- former fullback Austin Johnson (33.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks), so it is hard to imagine Tennessee's weakest unit improving much in 2011.

Other tidbits:

  • Quite a few linemen found their way into the rotation last year, and the youth involved makes one optimistic that Wilcox will have some nice toys to play with soon. The Vols lose two decent ends in Chris Walker and Gerald Williams (combined: 70.0 tackles, 13.5 TFL/sacks), plus end Ben Martin will miss his second straight year with a torn Achilles, and tackle Montori Hughes (12.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) unexpectedly left this month ... and that's quite a bit of loss when you list it out like that. But ends Jacques Smith (19.5 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks as a true freshman), Willie Bohannon (7.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks) and Joseph Ayres (9.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks as a redshirt freshman) are young and filled with potential, and senior tackle Malik Jackson (38.5 tackles, 11.0 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU) is a potential star, if a bit of an undersized one (6-foot-5, 270 pounds). The losses are heavy, but so is the depth.
  • The secondary was a strength last year, and it should be again this year. How much of one will depend on the return of Janzen Jackson (54.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 5 INT, 6 PBU). He left the program in February due to "personal battles," and it is as yet unclear whether he will return this fall. If he does, then the Vols have significant depth, anchored by one of the best free safeties in the country. Without them, they have depth with less star power. Fellow safety Prentiss Waggner (47.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 5 INT, 3 FR, 4 PBU) is strong, and there are strong options at cornerback -- Marsalis Teague (37.5 tackles, 8 PBU in 11 games), Eric Gordon (39.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT as a redshirt freshman), Anthony Anderson (21.5 tackles, 2 PBU). Safety Brent Brewer's (25.0 tackles, 3 PBU) status is unclear after he was suspended indefinitely this fall. (Good lord have there been a lot of suspensions/injuries this offseason. Karma hasn't flipped around just yet.)

Tennessee's 2010 Season Set to Music

Evidently, Radiohead's "Karma Police" fits the bill.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 37
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 12
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +4 / +5.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (7, 6)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -1.8

Honestly, it is hard to make any accurate projection of Tennessee's potential until we actually see all the pieces on the field at the same time. That has been difficult over the last couple of seasons. In Tyler Bray, Tauren Poole, Justin Hunter, Malik Jackson, Prentiss Waggner, and perhaps others like Janzen Jackson, Herman Lathers and Jacques Smith, It certainly seems as if they have decent star power all over the field; but youth, injuries and random personal issues have held them back. They are in the 90th percentile in terms of recruiting, but the talent needs to actually get, and stay, on the field. (Transfers -- including high-profile ones like Bryce Brown -- certainly haven't helped in this regard.)

As a whole, the SEC East title is very much up for grabs this year, but it would be even more interesting if Tennessee, or even Kentucky, had their houses more in order. It is not out of the realm of possibility that the Vols surprise this year, but it is hard to predict such a thing just yet; we need proof. Then again ... look at Tennessee's schedule. Five of their first six games (and, incredibly, seven of their first nine) are at home. Whether they are truly an improved team or not, they have enough winnable games early on that we could be seeing some "Is Tennessee for real??" storylines if they are sitting at 4-1 (or, technically, 5-0) when LSU comes to town on October 15. If, by then, Lathers is healthy, Jackson is playing, and a couple of receiving targets have become more consistent, then they just might be for real. Again, we just need a little proof first. Until then, I'm assuming it's another 6-6 or 7-5 season while Dooley builds for 2012.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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