It’s pretty early to start talking about next college football season considering this one hasn’t even ended for most teams yet, but with yesterday’s news of Tennessee QB Tyler Bray turning pro, I’ve decided to give an early outlook on next season.
First let’s start with some positives. The offensive line will be dominant. Tennessee will have, perhaps, the best offensive line in the country next season. This will be huge for the new starting quarterback as well as the running backs going in to next year. A great offensive line makes everything easier. Another positive is that the worst defense in the history of football will likely be pretty improved next season; the question is, how much? Tennessee returns nine starters on defense, and switching back the four man front helps the current personnel on the roster. For instance, Maurice Couch and Darrington Sentimore were awful off the edge last season, but could be pretty disruptive in the middle, where they truly belong. The Vols will also be helped out at linebacker, where they aren’t deep enough to run with four, but have a pretty solid top three. Suddenly, the front seven, when positioned how they should be, doesn’t seem so miserable. The problem though, will come in the secondary where Tennessee still won’t have the speed, or the pure coverage skills to be successful. In the SEC, you need speed in the secondary, and Tennessee simply doesn’t have it. Rising sophomore corner Deion Bonner is the only one with true SEC speed, and its unknown if he’ll even be around next year due to off the field issues. As for the safeties, they can’t get any worse. The only way to go is up. I’ll leave it at that.
On the offensive side of the ball, the first question is obviously on the quarterback. Tennessee will have a few options here. I think the most likely option is that redshirt Freshman Nathan Peterman gets the nod. He fits the new system the best, and was pursued by Coach Jones and his staff when at Cincinnati. The other options will be Junior Justin Worley, or true freshman Riley Ferguson. Worley hasn’t shown much promise in his brief playing time on the hill, but could get the nod if he out performs Peterman in the spring. It’s a long shot that Ferguson starts year one, but this is a kid who has great potential. Watching his film, he can make any throw on the football field, and also takes care of the football. As a junior, Ferguson posted 48 touchdown passes with ZERO interceptions, yep, zero interceptions. He received offers from Alabama, LSU, and Michigan among others before committing to Tennessee.
What worries me most about Tennessee’s quarterback situation is the guys they will be throwing the ball to. With Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson also leaving for the NFL, Tennessee will be very unproven at wide receiver. The Vols have talent at wide out, don’t get me wrong, but virtually none of them have really played at all. There’s Vincent Dallas, Alton (Pig) Howard, Drae Bowles, Jason Croom, etc., but the leading receiver next season will be tailback Rajon Neal. So you’d think the plan is simple, run the ball behind your dominant offensive line, chew clock, and try your best to win low scoring games. The only problem is, that is the completely opposite of what Tennessee will be doing in their new system under offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. Tennessee will run an up tempo, no huddle offense, and will be playing as fast as possible. Sure, they could still run the ball, but running the ball in a no huddle offense, doesn’t melt the clock like it does in a pro-style offense. Therefore, Tennessee’s offense is going to have to produce points, and maybe a lot of them, to win football games next season. I think that’s pretty unlikely.
With road games at Oregon, Florida, and Alabama, along with the rest of the SEC schedule, Tennessee fans should be happy with a bowl game next year. 6-6 would be a solid start for Butch Jones. 6-6 would likely put the Vols at 3-5 in the SEC, which isn’t good, but it’s a major step up from the past two seasons. I think that Butch Jones, if given time, will do fine at Tennessee, but it will take time.
Tennessee is seriously lacking quality depth at almost every position and it will take time to fix that. The key is here being patient. Unless Butch Jones turns out to be Derek Dooley 2.0, which I don’t think he will, Tennessee football will be just fine in the long run, but don’t expect much change right away.