To say that the last half a decade or so has been cruel to the Tennessee Volunteers would be a massive understatement. Since the dawn of the 2005 season the Vols have done some good things and some bad things. On the good side there was the Division Crown in 2007 and three bowl games, two of them on New Years Day. On the negative side are three losing seasons in six. To give you an idea of how rare an occurence that is in the Anals of Voldum you have to go way back in to to find a remotely similar stretch. In fact way back to the stretch from 1962-64 when the Vols went 4-6, 5-5, 4-5-1 under three different head coaches. To say that the current six year stretch is not normal is to put it mildly, very mildly.
After the turmoil of the late Phil Fulmer era and the tempestuous one year affair with Lane Kiffin the Vols appear to have found some stability in the coaching ranks with Derek Dooley who was plucked from relative obscurity in rustic Rustin Louisiana where he was the head coach for Louisiana Tech. Though not everyone seems to be a huge fan of Dooley. My twitter feed occasionally fills with references to a "DOOLANDER" during Tennessee games and/or press conferences. And I get the impression that there is a vocal minority, possibly even a majority, of Tennessee fans who can't wait to see Dooley walk out the door quoting Shakespeare all the way home. But at least he isn't going to leave the program in a lurch which really sucks from experience.
Tennessee is one of those teams that never seems to change in terms of a style of play. Kind of like how until the Rich Rodriguez experience Michigan teams always looked the same year to year. Coaches come and go, and the players with them as always. But since Phil Fulmer took over from Johnny Majors the offense has been basically the same. Big, tall pocket bound passer at QB. Solid between the tackles thumper in the backfield running behind a technically sound if not Wisconsin size offensive line. Solid TE and two tall rangy deep threats on the outside. balanced play calling with an emphasis on pushing vertical on play action.
Dooley hasn't really deviated from that particular norm this year. Tyler Bray is that prototypical pocket passer standing 6'6" with an NFL arm. Tauren Poole is that between the tackles runner. and out wide Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunters are both big time deep threats who both reeled in 40 yard+ TD catches in last weeks game against Montana. The main deviation from the formula is up front this year. The Vols start 4 Sophomores and a junior on the offensive line. They are all talented guys, James Stone and Ju'wuan James in particular, but this isn't the type of offensive line that can grab a game by the neck and control it. That group allowed 3 sacks and 5 TFL's against Montana and averaged just 2.8 yards per rush.
Schematically Tennessee is pretty simple. They run a pretty prototypical west coast passing scheme. Lots of 3 and 5 step drops for the QB. Some concepts that you will see Saturday will be mesh, stick, all curls ect. Those make up the base of the offense. But the Vols are no stranger to pushing the ball deep and their favorite concept to use doing so is probably smash. I would also look for the Vols to try to exploit the seams this week. As we all know UC runs a ton of zone and the primary coverages are cover 3 and cover 4, both of which are vulnerable at the seams. In the run game Tennessee is a zone team. They will run the inside zone or the outside zone the overwhelming majority of the time. When they do change it up it will be power or counter trey.
As ever the Tennessee defense is a 4-3 group. They are talented up front as ever, but make no mistake this is a very, very young defense. Of the 25 players listed on the depth chart for the Montana game just six of them are Seniors. That's not quite as bad as the two that UC posted in its defensive depth chart last season, but there is no escaping the youth on that side of the ball. Three true Freshmen started the Montana game Curt Maggitt, A.J. Johnson and Justin Coleman.
All three game to Knoxville with loads of recruiting hype. Given the circumstances from what I saw in watching a bit of the game was three players who are loaded with potential, but that are True Freshman. As such they are prone to vacillating wildly from making great plays one down and catastrophic mistakes the next.
Up front Tennessee really looks like a typical Tennessee defensive line. Big. Talented. Deep. Ben Martin and Malik Jackson are the only Seniors in the two deep. But there is no shortage of talented youngsters. I watched the first quarter and a little bit more than half of the second and I counted a 7 man rotation.
If there is a bonafied weakness to this Tennessee team it is in the secondary (some would argue that its on the sideline Boom! roasted). The best player in the secondary, and arguably the team as a whole, Janzen Jackson was dismissed in early August. The Vols secondary wasn't particularly stellar last season and basically had to begin again without it's best player. Tennessee will be going against UC's offense with just one player among the starters with double digit starts to his name, and that is Prentiss Waggner
Tennessee usually has solid, if unspectacular special teams. That appears to be the case again this year. On kickoffs they send back some combination of Rogers, Poole and Hunter. With the occasional cameo from Marlin Lane, a talented running back who backs up Poole. Collectively they averaged 25 yards on kick off returns and a little under 5 on punt returns. Neither number is spectacular, more like workable. Matt Darr handles the punting duties and Michael Palardy handles the kicking. Both are redshirt freshmen and both were among the best in the country has high schoolers.
The Final Word
In many respects these teams are mirror images of each other. Both are trying to pull back the glory days of yesteryear. In both cases yesteryear wasn't that long ago at all. Both endured tempestuous coaching changes following the 2009 season. Both had very impressive streaks of terrible luck throughout the 2010 season. Both return the bulk of their skill position talent offensively and should have no problem putting yards and points up in bunches in 2011. And both have massive Burj Khalifa sized question marks menacing over their secondaries. When you take a step back and throw of the labels of Tennessee and Cincinnati you see two teams that have many similarities. I have no idea who will wind up winning this game because both teams have match ups that tilt heavily in their favor. I'll tell you what though. This game is flying under the radar from a national perspective but this should be a very good game. And one that I am eagerly anticipating.