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The Tennessee Volunteers finished the 2009 season 7-6. They weren't able to cap off their campaign with a victory over Virginia Tech in the bowl season, but it was still a nice year considering 2008 ended without a bowl game. It is also encouraging that three of Tennessee's losses came by four of fewer points. In fact, Tennessee played national champion Alabama as tough as anyone all season. All in all, Lane Kiffin's first season at Tennessee was a success in my book. But Kiffin has now left for USC, and the program has been put in the hands of Derek Dooley. Dooley is a good hire, but his first season on the job could be a very trying one. The Volunteers open the 2010 season by playing the likes of Oregon, Florida, LSU, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina in six of their first eight games. If the Vols can't find a way to win any of those contests, getting back to a bowl game could be a very difficult task.
Offense: Tennessee's offense was better than expected in 2009 when it averaged 29.3 points. The Vols were able to do most of their damage through the air. They ranked No. 3 in the SEC with 226.3 passing yards per game. Unfortunately, the offense could take a step back this season. Junior college transfer Matt Simms is the early favorite to land the starting job, and he certainly has the pedigree. He is the son of Super Bowl MVP Phil Simms. However, the horse with the best pedigree doesn't always win the race. Simms is very much unproven, and he will be working behind an offensive line that only returns one player with starting experience in league play. The good news for Simms is that he has a talented stable of receivers to work with. Wide receivers Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore have big play ability, and Luke Stocker is heralded as one of the best tight ends in the country. The Vols are also excited about incoming freshman Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter. The running game doesn't inspire much confidence either when you consider that neither Tauren Poole or David Oku have broken the century mark for a season.
Defense: Tennessee really struggled to stop the run last season. It ranked No. 8 in the SEC in run defense, giving up 149.5 rushing yards per game. The defensive line is small outside Montori Hughes, and that means that run defense could be an issue again. Plus, the Vols are really going to miss All-American safety Eric Berry. The guy was a hard-hitting, lock down defender, who could fill quickly against the run. The Vols have a talented performer in Janzen Jackson ready to step in, but he's no Berry yet. Up front, the guy to watch is defensive end Chris Walker. He recorded six sacks and picked off two passes last season. He is the Vols' top returning performer in both of those categories.
Prediction - 4th SEC East - It can be done, but it will be very difficult for Dooley to get the Vols to a bowl game considering how inexperienced this team is and how tough the schedule is. The defense has enough talent to remain a solid unit, but right now the offense looks like it will need time to jell. And time isn't exactly on Tennessee's side with all the tough games in September and October.
Make sure you check out my 2010 SEC football predictions to see how I have the rest of the conference shaping up.
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