NCAA Football 2009 Preview – Tennessee
It is that time of year once again. As baseball enters the home stretch to September and the playoffs, basketball is still a distant memory, and soccer continues to be boring and irrelevant; pigs everywhere are running in fear of their lives as we prepare once again for Football Time in (insert your state of residence/allegiance here)!
This off season at The University of Tennessee has been the most tumultuous in recent memory. Only the equally disastrous 2005 season (where the Vols went 5-6 under eerily similar circumstances) can compare. This time around, it ended with the terrible ouster of beloved coach Philip Fulmer and the hiring of firebrand Lane Kiffin. Fulmer’s choice of Dave Clawson to replace the great David Cutcliffe as offensive coordinator was, unquestionably, the wrong move, and that is what cost him his job. The off season, as I’ve just said, was a study in patience.
I make no bones about it – I don’t like Lane Kiffin. I’ve Tweeted and Facebooked derisive monikers as “Lame Kiddin” or “Lame Kiffin” from Day 1. I greatly fear we have hired another Bill Callahan (for those who don’t know what I mean, look at how he utterly destroyed Nebraska football and you’ll know then what I mean). I fully admit that my insulation from nearly all things Tennessee football that comes from living in Louisville, KY may have semi-permanently removed my Orange and White blinders and made me far more jaded about the 2009 prospects for success. Especially as reports I get from “back home” (Chattanooga area and Knoxville) are almost unanimous in their utter fawning over the Boy Wonder. But if I could put up with 7 years of Clausens in Knoxville (Casey and Rick), I am certainly willing to put up with Kiffin for however long he was signed on to coach – 5 years, I believe.
I have also deliberately not kept up with news out of Knoxville except in cases where Kiffin ran his mouth, and then I had no choice but to pay attention to those – they were plastered all over the national news. The only real attention I’ve given to Tennessee this off season was to watch National Signing Day. That day I felt vindicated in my defense of coach Fulmer – he had a top 5 class ready to sign that very day! But it was a class that, at the end of the day, came only to #15 as defections to other schools was the norm. Yes, yes, I know: Kiffin has since brought that ranking up with sensational recruiting steals, but that isn’t my point.
This season will be full of question marks. What kind of team will Tennessee be? Can Monte Kiffin keep the great defensive tradition started by John Chavis (another coach I feel should have been retained)? Can the offense finally return to the punishing ground game that allows the quarterbacks to fire at will? You know, the kind of running game so strong and reliable that Peyton Manning had no problem whatsoever checking off to running plays at the line of scrimmage? The kind of running game that basically won the 1998 national championship? The kind that put Tennessee in multiple SEC Championship games? Are the big-name coaches Kiffin hired really that good? Will Kiffin and Co. turn out to be legitimate or full of fluff?
This makes for excitement and uncertainty all rolled into one. No one, not the opponents nor the fans, know what to expect. Kiffin has an advantage here: he can only go up. But keep losing, and he’ll be out of here faster than you can sing Rocky Top. And so will athletic director Mike Hamilton for hiring another Bill Callahan.
For a far more enlightening look at Tennessee personnel-wise, look at my friend Ryan’s take here. His summary assessment:
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.
REGULAR SEASON PREDICTION:
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.
So with no further ado, let’s take a look at the 2009 schedule.
Sept. 5 vs. Western Kentucky Knoxville, Tenn.
Sept. 12 vs. UCLA Knoxville, Tenn.
Sept. 19 at Florida Gainesville, Fla.
Sept. 26 vs. Ohio Knoxville, Tenn.
Oct. 3 vs. Auburn Knoxville, Tenn.
Oct. 10 vs. Georgia Knoxville, Tenn.
Oct. 24 at Alabama Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Oct. 31 vs. South Carolina Knoxville, Tenn.
Nov. 7 vs. Memphis Knoxville, Tenn.
Nov. 14 at Mississippi Oxford, Miss.
Nov. 21 vs. Vanderbilt Knoxville, Tenn.
Nov. 28 at Kentucky Lexington, Ky.
That is a LONG stretch of football, and unless I’m missing something, they are only getting one week off right smack in the middle of the season, after the Georgia game.
The Wins: Western Kentucky, UCLA, Ohio, Auburn, Memphis, Kentucky. I think these are “gimmes” for Kiffin & Co. Obviously, Tennessee is expected to beat Western Kentucky, Ohio, and Memphis. I think the team will be out for revenge on UCLA, as that game largely set the tone for the 2008 season. Setting the tone will be important right out of the gate. Auburn is probably a game that could go either way, depending on how new coach Gene Chizik has the Tigers performing. But I think a safer bet is to say they will lose. Kentucky will have to endure yet another year of futility against the Vols.
The Losses: Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi. I think the first three are no-brainers. Florida basically got everyone back from last year’s national champion and I don’t think they can be beat, unless they beat themselves. Add to that Kiffin’s stupid antagonizing of the swamp reptiles, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Georgia is just a class above the Vols right now. Alabama is probably going to start another streak until Kiffin gets the team together or he is replaced by someone who knows what he’s doing. I think Houston Nutt will take care of the Vols, but it will be a close game.
Either Way: South Carolina, Vanderbilt. South Carolina has been decidedly bi-polar, schizophrenic, (insert psychological disorder of choice here) since hiring Steve Spurrier. One week they are fantastic, the next week you wonder if they belong in the SEC. A Vols win depends on which team shows up for this game. Vanderbilt is no longer a “gimme” game. They are tough as nails over the past few years. Coming off a bowl win, Tennessee will have to fight hard if they want to win, and it will depend on how much Kiffin has impressed his system on the talent he has assembled and how well they execute it.
Prediction: 7-5. I agree with Ryan in suggesting this result for 2009. I think Tennessee will win the games I’ve said they will, lose the ones I’ve said they will, and split the ones that could go either way. I don’t know if that will translate into a bowl game, but expect a December bowl of low prestige at minimum. 6-5 is not out of the realm of possibility and possibly is more realistic. But either way, we have an improvement over last year. If we have a losing record, I expect the howls in Knoxville to be heard all the way to Mars. But don’t say I didn’t warn you, cause I won’t be saying “I told you so.”
Tomorrow: NCAA 2009 Top 10.