Post-Spring Previews: Tennessee Volunteers

After hosting Vanderbilt the week before, the Gamecocks travel to Knoxville to take on Lane Kiffin's Tennessee Volunteers. (Remember last time we went there? Yeah, I didn't want to think about that, either. I'd rather remember blowing them out last year. It's still hard to believe that happened. And perhaps even harder to believe that it didn't seem to mean very much.) The Vols, in my estimation, are one of the hardest teams to call this year. For one thing, of course, they have a brand new coaching staff. Personally, I tend to believe that there are lots of indications that Kifin and company, for all their strange antics, will be at least mildly successful in Knoxville. Why not? Kiffin has put together an all-star cast of coaches and managed to bring in a very impressive recruiting class with limited time. Will it be enough to get back to late-90s / early-2000s levels? That's still to be seen. However, I don't see many more 5-7 seasons in store for the Vols. The turnaround may not come immediately, though.

The new coaching staff isn't the only reason this team confuses me. The 2008 version, quite frankly, looked better on paper than it played on the field. Hell, Jonathan Crompton, one of the centers of criticism, was once considered one of the best prep quarterbacks in the country and a sure-fire bluechip prospect. Were the problems the program encountered last year simply owing to misuse of talent by Phil Fulmer and his staff (notably maligned offensive coordinator David Clawson), or were there deeper talent-evaluation issues involved? Perhaps we'll find out this year.

All of this is to say that you can take these comparisons with a grain of salt. I have no idea how good the Vols will be this year, but the following is an indication of how good I think they will be based on somewhat confusing evidence. Let's take a look at the offense first.

Offense

The Vols aim to go back to a more traditional offense after the failed experiment with Dave Clawson's offensive "system" this past season. That should work well for the Vols, who have a backfield built for success running the ball. The passing game, though, still has some questions, as the Vols return embattled quarterbacks Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens and an unproven if talented receiving corps.

Quarterbacks

After having a good spring, Jonathan Crompton appears to be ready to take the starting role he lost midway through last year. Needless to say, 2008 was a disaster for Crompton. He threw for an abysmal 98.13 rating, more INTs than TDs, and he generally looked lost in a number of notable games, such as when he went 8-23 in an offensive clunk-fest loss against Auburn. Crompton did redeem himself somewhat in the season finale against Kentucky. Talent is not the issue for Crompton, who was once one of the nation's most highly sought  recruits and who has shown flashes of brilliance at times in his career. Crompton has a cannon of an arm, and you can expect to see the Vols use that to their advantage by occasionally going deep. If Crompton fails, expect for the Vols to go back to Nick Stephens, who was somewhat effective at times in Crompton's relief midway through last year. Some previews I've seeen think Stephens is the guy the Vols should go with, but I'd have to disagree. I'd have to imagine that Vols fans are hoping the Mountain Messiah comes through; Crompton appears to be the better player, and the fact that Stephens didn't really play better than Crompton suggests that the problem may have been as much the system as the players, which would in turn suggest that Crompton might be able to show off his considerable skills if he gets in the right system.

I'm going to give Stephen Garcia the slightest of edges in this one. Garcia had a slightly better 2008 than Crompton. However, although the two have different skill sets, they both had similar 2008s: lots of promise followed by lots of disappointment. It will be interesting to see what kind of year these two are having when the game rolls around; my guess is that both will surprise and be in the top half of the quarterbacks in the SEC. It is worth noting that the Vols, who project to have a strong running game and problems at receiver, will probably try to pound the ball most of the time. Even still, I expect Crompton be much better statistically this year.

Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina

Running Backs

The Vols finished 88th in the nation in rushing offense last season, good for ninth in the SEC. That's not going to happen again. Arian Foster is gone, but the Vols have a solid group of experienced backs, including Montario Hardesty and Taureen Poole. However, the big names in this group are the newcomers: Bryce Brown, 2009's top prep prospect by most measures, and David Oku, a top multi-purpose back. These two could form an impressive thunder and lightening duo for years to come. (Actually, it doesn't really make sense to call Brown "thunder" considering that he can really do just about anything--he's 219 and runs a 4.4.) All in all, the Vols have a lot of options in the backfield. If Brown and Oku can learn to produce quickly--and that is an "if" when it comes to freshmen--this could be one of the best backfields in the conference.

I give Tennessee a slight to strong advantage here. Neither of these teams had great running games last year, but both recruited some good players in their recruiting classes and should be much better this year. The Vols, though, brought in the biggest fish of them all in Brown, who, athletically at least, looks like the prototype of the classic SEC back. Tennessee could very well have a Bo Jackson- / Herschel Walker-type on their hands.

Verdict: Slight to Strong advantage Tennessee

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

Wide receiver was another sore spot for the Tennessee offense last year. Tennessee graduates top receiver Lucas Taylor and hopes that Gerald Jones, who caught for over 300 yards a year ago, can step up and become the go-to guy. Jones is very talented and could be poised for a breakout year. The Vols hope that Denarius Moore can be the deep-ball threat. (Moore will be out early in the season but should be back for our game.) Austin Rogers, who was supposed to be part of the rotation, is out for the year with a knee injury. It's also possible that star recruit Nu'Keese Richardson might see time on the field, but Richardson's small stature may prohibit him from making an impact until he puts on some weight.

I give us a slight advantage here. Both teams are looking for identity at receiver, but Jason Barnes, Moe Brown, Dion LeCorn, and Weslye Saunders have shown a bit more than UT's group.

Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina

Offensive Line

Tennessee needs better play out of its line if it wants to take advantage of all the talent in the backfield. The interior looks solid with Jacques McClendon and Vlad Richard at guards and Josh McNeil at center. However, tackle is a bigger question mark, with uncertainty at both positions. The left tackle will be either Chris Scott or Dallas Thomas. I have no idea who the right tackle will be.

This is a push. Both teams are looking for better line play and will probably get it, but question marks linger. Both teams also have to be worrying about injuries that could reveal depth issues.

Verdict: Push

Let's look at the defense after the jump.

Defense

While I'd say we overall look a bit better on offense than the Vols, they may have the advantage over us on defense. Moreover, Kiffin brings in his pops Monte, one of the NFL's all-time great defensive coordinators. The Vols will run Kiffin senior's famed 4-3 Tampa 2 defense. (The meeting between Kiffin senior and Ellis Johnson will certainly be a battle between two of the SEC's best defensive minds.) Despite the atrocious record, Tennessee's defense was very good last year, and it will probably be good this year despite losing some star power at line and linebacker.

Defensive Line

Tennessee graduates star end Robert Ayers to the NFL. However, this should still be a very good unit for Tennessee. The Vols have two speedy ends in Chris Walker and Ben Martin, both of whom will rack up a number of sacks this year. They also have depth at the position, so expect to see frequent rotation to keep everyone fresh. There's some concern about the effectiveness of the inside linemen; Dan Williams appears to be a solid, but Wes Brown looks a little small for the position. Kiffin is high on freshman Montori Hughes, who may take Brown's spot sooner than later.

I'm going to call this a push. Defensive line should be our strength on defense this year, and I think our starters may be a little better and more seasoned than UT's. However, the Vols have depth on their side, whereas we could be in trouble by this point in the season if we have multiple guys go down.

Verdict: Push

Linebackers

The Vols have one of the conference's better outside linebackers in Rico McCoy. After McCoy, though, they have some more question marks. Nick Reveiz, LaMarcus Thompson, Savion Frazier, and a group of freshmen will likely fill the other positions. This group has the talent to be good but has a lot to prove.

I give us a slight advantage here. We have an All-SEC linebacker in Eric Norwood, an experienced talent in Rodney Paulk, and a group of younger guys that at least have some experience. The Vols, while talented, will have to hope their guys can grow up really fast.

Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina

Secondary

Tennessee boasts the nation's best safety in Eric Berry. Hell, Berry might very well be the best defensive player in the country, period. He's getting some Heisman hype, a rarity for a defensive player. Berry can do it all; he can knock you silly with a bone-rattling hit, he can come down with a tough interception and then take it to the house, whatever you want. He's essentially a one-man wrecking crew. What's more, Berry has been vocal about believing that his skills will be maximized in Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 scheme. I don't doubt he's right; this guy knows when to be confident. Highly regarded freshman Darren Myles appears to be the other starter at safety. Tennessee will start Dennis Rogan at one of the corners but is uncertain about the other. However, they have plenty of talented options. This should be a good secondary once the coaching staff figures out how to work the rotation.

Strong advantage Tennessee here. I have serious doubts about our secondary this year (although signing Darrell Givens would ease those a bit). While Tennessee does have some questions of their own, they're mostly the "good" sort of questions: too much talent to know what to do with. And Eric Berry just scares me. You never know when he's going to take one of your guys out of the game or pull in a pick six.

Verdict: Strong advantage Tennessee

Special Teams

Junior Daniel Lincoln returns hoping to improve on his 2008 campaign. Lincoln was one of the conference's best kickers in 2007 (Gamecocks fans know this) but struggled last year. Star punter Britton Colquitt graduates, but Chad Cunningham played well while Colquitt was injured last year and should be a serviceable replacement. The coverage units look solid. The Vols have a number of potential contributors in the return game. Dennis Rogan was a good kickoff returner last year, and freshmen David Oku and Nu'Keese Richardson have the speed to play right away as well.

I'll give the Vols a slight advantage here. Lincoln, who along with Auburn's Wes Byrum stangely got much worse in 2008 after stellar freshmen campaigns, is a cause for concern. However, we also have questions in that department with Ryan Succop gone, and the Vols' talent in the return game is scary.

Verdict: Slight advantage Tennessee

Head Coaches

How good can Lane Kiffin be in the SEC? That's the question that's on many minds around the SEC coming into this year. While some are predicting Kiffin will either achieve great success right away or will bust, I think we'll see something in between for the Vols this year. While the true believers on Rocky Top might not be happy with an eight-win season, in actuality that would be a success for this team. The problem, of course, is that the Vols don't project to have the kind of passing game they'll need to compete with Florida and 'Bama this year. That's not Kiffin's fault, though; if he can get this team on the right track, the quality skill-position players will come. I think Kiffin is capable of getting those eight or nine wins, and if he does that, he'll have proven that he has the potential to bring Tennessee back to the conference's upper echelon. He's already proven that he can do two important things: recruit and compete in the brutal SEC assistant-coaches arms race.

That said, though, Kiffin has yet to prove that he can do those things. Steve Spurrier, on the other hand, has, even if his star has been fading a bit over the past couple of years.

Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina

Overall

These are fairly evenly matched teams, a notion confirmed by the fact that most previews I've looked at see both teams going anywhere between 5-7 to 9-3. This game, of course, is one of the toss ups the previews point to. A lot is going to come down to how far along both teams have gotten in terms of answering the questions on offense. Injuries could also be a problem for both teams; offensive injuries in general could devastate Tennessee, whereas injuries to (heaven forbid) Garcia or someone in the secondary could be rough for us. All of this points to a game that's almost impossible to call right now. One thing I do like is that our strengths would seem to play to theirs; we project to have a strong rushing defense this year, they plan to run the ball, we'll probably run more than in years past, whereas their defensive strengths are in the secondary. I'm going to go with a close Carolina victory here, but again, I'm not sure about this one. Tennessee is a wild card; they could be a team that's average, or they could end up being a nine-or-so win team. We'll have to wait and see.

Prediction: Three-point victory USC

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