Thursday, January 25, 2007

Real Football 365: '07 Volunteers must survive an early-season minefield

The wolves have retreated from Phillip Fulmer's door. For now, at least. A year ago, Fulmer was sifting through the shards of a 5-7 season and wondering what chips he might be able to call in to land on someone else's staff should the axe fall. It's always like that at Tennessee, which bills itself as "The Winningest College Football Program Since 1926."  And Fulmer has won -- repeatedly, and generally consistently. He just doesn't win the national championship every year, and that's a problem with Knoxville's orange horde.  Moreover, Fulmer is an old-style coach in a mediacentric world. He does his job without a lot of flash, and his press conferences are known more for cliches than sound bites. It doesn't matter, as long as he wins. This past season, he did -- 9-4 and a 5-3 Southeastern Conference record before a 20-10 loss to Penn State in the Outback Bowl.  Moreover, the Vols lost to eventual national champion Florida by a point, 21-20, and to Sugar Bowl champion LSU by four, 28-24. Quarterback Erik Ainge, who was wretched in 2005, threw for an eye-popping 2,989 yards and 19 touchdowns, wideout Robert Meachem caught just about everything Ainge threw his way, and the Vols moved the ball against everyone on their schedule.

The only glaring weakness was an inability to stop the run that doomed UT in losses to LSU (231 rushing yards), Arkansas (259) and Penn State (183). Part of that, however, could be blamed on a season-ending injury to stud D-lineman Justin Harrell and nagging injuries to several of his linemates. So what does 2007 look like for Tennessee? The proverbial good news and bad news. Even though the team's top three receivers -- Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith -- are all either graduating (Swain and Smith) or turning pro (Meachem), the Vols return their top three running backs in Arian Foster, Montario Hardesty and LaMarcus Coker. Several young wideouts received significant playing time in 2006, but you might see Ainge throwing a lot more to two of the best tight ends in the SEC, Chris Brown and Brad Cottam. Cottam is 6-foot-6, 280 pounds and can run -- and what's even scarier is that his younger brother, Jeff Cottam, is pretty much a clone. The O-line loses All-American tackle Arron Sears, but has a few other key pieces back. Defense is where the problems may lie. A flock of redshirt freshmen, sophomores and juniors will be asked to step up and fill the holes surrounding DB Jonathan Henfey, T Turk McBride and LB Jarod Mayo, and it would be nice if the Vols had a couple of "gimme" games early on to allow the new mix to season.  Unfortunately, UT's opener is at Berkeley against a Cal team anxious to avenge its 35-18 pounding in Knoxville last year. Like Tennessee, the Golden Bears will take some graduation hits on defense, but an offense led by QB Nate Longshore, RB Justin Forsett and WR DeSean Jackson is still scary. After that, Tennessee has a classic "trap" game against improving Southern Mississippi at home, then plays at Florida.  Beyond that, it really doesn't matter in the SEC. Every year, you get a few tough teams at home and equally tough challenges on the road -- it's just a matter of shuffling the deck. The Vols do get to host Arkansas, a definite plus.  If the Volunteers can win two of their first three games, they should be on the way to another good season. Win all three, and they'll be tearing up Fulmer's contract again. 0-3? Remember those wolves?




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