Joel from Rocky Top Talk took some time to answer a few questions for us about the upcoming season for the Vols, so without further ado:
Well, as much as it pains me to compliment a ‘Bama fan, I’d have to say that I really didn’t see anything begging correction. Excellent research and insight.
That said, I do have to quibble with the very first line you wrote. You started the week by saying that "The 2005 season is a distant memory for most Vol Fans . . . ."
No, the memory of 2005 is not nearly distant enough. For too many Vol fans, good memories are like vapors vanishing into the air and the bad ones latch on like a tick in just the wrong place. You’d think that last season’s nine wins was enough to drive the stake through the cold, undead heart of 2005, but the Outback Bowl loss left open the possibility of a sequel. Still, although some Vol fans remain skittish, I think we’re much closer to another SEC Championship than we are to another Season of Which We Do Not Speak.
One other thing. You have Tennessee and Georgia competing to represent the East in the SEC Championship Game. I wouldn't rule out Florida. The thought of Meyer running Meyer’s offense with Meyer’s players, especially his hand-picked baby rhino, frightens me. And then there’s South Carolina, now known on Rocky Top simply as Steve Spurrier (or even more simply, The Devil), and, well, we shouldn’t have to explain that. There is a different nightmare at every turn, and the East is really a too-close-to-call four-way race. Heck, even Phil Steele can’t make up his mind, as he has Georgia and South Carolina tied for first in the East and Florida and Tennessee tied for third. He might as well have had Vandy and Kentucky tied for fifth.
2. Some have suggested that this year could be Fulmer's last if he doesn't bring home an SEC title. Is his seat really that hot? If so, has he built up enough good will among the administration and fans (or does he at least have enough incriminating photos of important people) to survive another "bad" season?
Fulmer has many friends in high places with fat wallets, so I don’t think he needs an SEC Championship this year to keep his job. His seat is extremely volatile, though, and I’d bet that another season like 2005 would have his biscuits burning. The forecast, though, is probably several more years of 8-10 win seasons, leaving his seat too warm for comfort, but too cool for change.
3. What are your particular feelings about Coach Fulmer? Is it time for change in Knoxville, or are you content with the current staff so long as they keep up the current (excluding, of course, 2005) level of success in Knoxville?
I like Fulmer. I think he's a good guy and, honestly, I think he’s a very under-appreciated coach. I admire his CEO approach to coaching because it capitalizes on his ability to bring in and retain the right people (mostly – see below) in the right positions (both staff and players) and, in addition, shows that he understands his strengths and his relative weaknesses. Sure, he’s made some errors along the way, but nobody rallies his troops from adversity like Fulmer, and if he can improve the team’s ability to handle the role of the favorite, he’ll be just fine.
4. What is the bare minimum that would have to happen for this season to be considered successful?
Hmm. It's difficult to identify a minimum expectation of success not knowing what unanticipated factors may come into play, but I'd say with that caveat that nine wins, in whatever combination it takes to get to the SEC Championship game, would be a success. Second place in the East or worse would probably be viewed by most Vol fans as a disappointment. Most want to see an improvement over last season.
5. What do you see as the biggest area of concern for the Vol offense in the coming season?
It’s a tie between the receiving corps and the offensive line. Last year, the focus was on David Cutcliffe’s Reanimation of Erik Ainge. This season will be about receivers coach Trooper Taylor. Upon arriving on campus several years ago, Taylor rejuvenated an underachieving stable of running backs, and last season, he repeated the feat with the receivers. His challenge this year is a bit different in that he doesn’t need to coach up players discouraged by setbacks as much as he needs to develop highly touted recruits from the ground up.
So Taylor will basically be starting from scratch. On the shelf are returning receivers (who have seen very limited playing time) Quintin Hancock and Lucas Taylor (no relation), and newcomers Brent Vinson, Kenny O’Neal, Ahmad Paige, Gerald Jones, Todd Campbell, Darnius Moore, and Tyler Maples. Don’t be surprised if Hancock and Taylor give way to some of the new blood. Vinson and O'Neal, in particular, are candidates for starting, as they are JUCO guys with experience (O'Neal played at Florida State for a year, too).
The offensive line is as much of a concern as the receiving corps, though, in my mind. Several years ago, Fulmer hired an offensive line coach from Florida, and (surprise!) we ended up with a bunch of pass blockers and pass blocking schemes. With the termination of that o-line coach and the return of Cutcliffe, we’ve been refocusing on run blocking, and the transition is not yet complete. We’ll need the run game to be clicking for the receiving game to flourish.
One other thing. You seem to have LaMarcus Coker pegged as the starting tailback, but most of the local media types are saying that Arian Foster will most likely start. I think a lot of fans would rather see Coker ahead of Foster. He's fast, fast, fast, and very exciting, but he can't seem to stay on Fulmer's good side. If he gets his act together, he may in fact start, but if not, the very capable Foster will. Shoot, Foster may, in fact, be better anyway. And don't forget about Montario Hardesty. He's very underrated.
6. And the defense?
Secondary. No question. Jonathan Hefney will start, but the other three spots will most likely be occupied by Eric Berry, Nevin McKenzie, and some combination of DeAngelo Willingham, Art Evans, and C.J.Fleming. McKenzie and Willingham are JUCO guys that are new to Tennessee this year, and the rest of them were finishing up high school last month. Yikes.
7. What do you think is the biggest trap game on the upcoming schedule, and what about that particular team worries you?
As you know, SEC schedules are so difficult that it’s hard to label many games potential trap games, but I guess it's a toss up between Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Vandy, for all of the reasons you stated last week, and Kentucky because they really seem to be improving, and I think Randy Sanders (an under-appreciated coach when he was here) is doing a fantastic job with Andre’ Woodson.
8. Unlike a lot of SEC teams, the Vols have played some big name OOC opponents over the past few years (Notre Dame in '01, '04 and '05, Miami in '03, and Cal in '06 and '07). If you were in charge of scheduling, what is the one team you'd most want to play a series with and why?
I would love to play Texas. UT v. UT. Mud Orange v. Don't-Shoot-Me-I'm-Not-A-Deer Orange. Tradition v. Tradition and Talent v. Talent, all with capital Ts. Fulmer v. Brown, two coaches who I think are remarkably similar -- good recruiters who had to overcome rivals that had dominated them to get to a national championship. It just sounds like great fun to me.
And speaking of great fun, thanks for the questions and the discussion. Enjoyed it. See you in October. Bums.
See you in October indeed: