Wednesday, August 05, 2009

College Football Preview: Tennessee

Tennessee this year is anybody's guess. They have a completely new coaching staff under Lane Kiffin, who looks like he's 24. Once upon a time he was the the young new hotshot coach of the Oakland Raiders, though he largely didn't pan out, mainly due to conflict with Oakland Raiders' owner, Al Davis.

Kiffin might still be the next new SEC hotshot coach, or he may turn into a flash in the pan flop. Only time will tell. I was somewhat concerned when Tennessee hired him, mainly due to his youth and relative inexperience as a head coach. On the one hand, I was greatly concerned when in his initial press conference he was throwing around a lot of the doublespeak/Raiders jargon and buzzwords that Bill Callahan (another Raiders head coaching flop) used when he took over at Nebraska a few years ago and turned the Huskers' program into a defensive disaster. On the other hand, one can't blame Kiffin for having issues with Al Davis, who is a certifiable, grade A weirdo both on and off the field.

Kiffin and his loud mouth have had a relatively stormy offseason. He did a lot of trash talking at the SEC conference meetings and got into a spat with, amongst others, Florida coach Urban Meyer. I think he's off as a brash, arrogant lightning rod of an individual. I don't care for coaches of the vein, which is why I always liked former coach Phil Fulmer, who was a class act on and off the field. Though Tennessee had been in decline for a while, I think Fulmer got the short end of the stick.

But, all that having been said, I am trying to be open minded about Kiffin. I hope he does well for Tennessee's sake and doesn't turn into Tennessee's version of Bill Callahan. He did bring in his father to be defensive coordinator, a man who developed his own defensive "Tampa 2" system. That's no small achievement. His offensive coordinator was a St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator who had some solid but not excellent success in the pro level.

I am concerned, again primarily because of the Callahan disaster at Nebraska, of having NFL coaches in college. The professional game is just different, and I am not sure if Kiffin is up to adapting it to the college game without some serious roadbumps. These are college kids, not prima donna professionals. It's just a different game with a different coaching atmosphere. Bringing in a bunch of highly technical game schemes and hoping to have 19 and 20 year olds understand it is a tough sell and even harder to implement.

So, let's take a look at the team Kiffin inherited from Phil Fulmer.
The offense was a disaster last year. They never found a QB worth anything. Senior Jonathan Crompton never did much, although in his defense, this will be his fourth offensive coordinator in 5 years. He does have a strong arm and is good sized. Maybe with the right coordinator, he can do something. Tennessee also has a very accurate Junior who made 106 straight passes last year, so there is potential talent in the QB position if the system works.

They do have a strong and fast running back in Montario Hardesty, and Kiffin recruited the No. 1 Running Back, according to S0, Kiffin does have some potential firepower in the RB position if he can use it.

Kiffin inherits a good 6'08" tight end and two good recruits for wide receiver. Other than that, the Wide Receiver crew last year was all butterfingers. In QB Crompton's defense, there were several passes he made last year that hit receivers right in the numbers, and the passes were either dropped or ricocheted into interceptions (which I don't think should be classified as an INT against a QB if he hits the receiver square in the numbers. I mean, what else can he do? To mix sports analogies, that seems to me like charging an error to a pitcher in baseball if the outfielder drops the fly.) Kiffin has his work cut out for him on this front.

The offensive line is strong, especially in the interior with 3 seniors, so they have some experience there. The offensive line did not live up to expectations last year, mainly because the offensive coordinator's schemes were not working. The new offensive coordinator has been vocal about his new Zone offense blocking scheme he is implementing, so we will see where that goes.

Defense under former coordinator John Chavis was the one thing over the past few seasons that has made Tennessee respectable in any way, shape, or form. His defenses were always tough, regardless of all the ineptitude in the offense. Kiffin inherits a good defense, which his father can make some use of in short order.

The defensive line is strong, with two really good junior ends. The linebackers only return one starter from last year, but its All-SEC linebacker Rico McCoy, which is not too shabby.

The defensive backfield does raise some question marks, however. They appear to have talent, but are almost mostly unknowns with little experience thus far. This may actually be a blessing to Monte Kiffin if he wants to install his Tampa 2 defense, as he can model the backfield from the get go and not have to undo previous training by Chavis for his completely different backfield schemes.

Tennessee under Phil Fulmer was notorious for having little emphasis on special teams. In fact, it wasn't until the year they won the national championship that they even employed a Special Teams Coach at all. They have had some good kickers over the years, but the special teams unit as a whole has been atrocious more often than not, as it was simply not a priority to Fulmer, who was more old school on the issue.

Special teams is a work in progress, so I won't venture a guess where Kiffin, who has his work cut out for him on Offense, will place a lot of emphasis this year on special teams or not. Judging by what the Raiders have done over the years, I doubt it, but we shall see.

Date Opponent / Event Location
09/05/09 vs. Western Kentucky TV Knoxville, Tenn.
09/12/09 vs. UCLA TV Knoxville, Tenn.
09/19/09 at Florida * TV Gainesville, Fla.
09/26/09 vs. Ohio Knoxville, Tenn.
10/03/09 vs. Auburn * Knoxville, Tenn.
10/10/09 vs. Georgia * Knoxville, Tenn.
10/24/09 at Alabama * Tuscaloosa, Ala.
10/31/09 vs. South Carolina * Knoxville, Tenn.
11/07/09 vs. Memphis Knoxville, Tenn.
11/14/09 at Mississippi * Oxford, Miss.
11/21/09 vs. Vanderbilt * Knoxville, Tenn.
11/28/09 at Kentucky * Lexington, Ky.

Tennessee always has Florida and Alabama either both at home or both away. This is the both away year, which does not bode well for either of those games, although Alabama is under a few NCAA sanctions. I think Tennessee might be able to get up for the UCLA game which they lost got embarrassed last year against heavy odds, which largely sent them into a death spiral.

Auburn and Georgia are both good teams. The Tennessee-Auburn game is always a close one, so that's a toss up. South Carolina under Spurrier is up and down, so its hard to say. If they can get to November relatively healthy and without a complete Kiffin meltdown, they can probably beat the last 4 teams on the schedule.

There are just so many unknowns with a new coaching regime with a completely new offensive and defensive system. Offense was largely a disaster last year, so anything would be an improvement. Defense was in good shape, so the Tampa 2 defense might work out well. Then again, it may be too complicated a system for college and flop. Who knows.

Realistically, I think they should be able to win the little games. I think the lynchpin will be what they can do against UCLA, as that's probably one of the "star" games that Kiffin has delegated on the big schedule in the locker room. If they can redeem themselves against UCLA, they might do alright. If they loss that one, then it might be a long, long season for the old Volunteers.

7-5 with no wins against a major SEC opponent. If they can beat a major SEC team, it will likely be Auburn or South Carolina.

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