A season in review.
• The Expectations. As intriguing as it must have been to watch a bunch of freshmen play a major role in pulling a 2-6 season from the brink of oblivion last November, the big-picture equation heading into the fall was the same: The Vols are green, man.
Coming out of the spring, the starting quarterback, starting fullback, two starting wide receivers, four of five starting offensive linemen, three starting defensive linemen and at least one (and potentially as many as three) regular members of the secondary were freshmen or sophomores. Only four seniors were penciled in as starters on either side of the ball, fewest in the nation outside of attrition-ravaged Auburn.
Most of the optimism for a leap forward rested on the arm of a sophomore quarterback, Tyler Bray, who wrested the starting job from Matt Simms as a true freshman, went well over 300 yards passing in four of five starts and connected on multiple touchdown passes in all five. (He also came within one second in the bowl game of winning all five.) Two of his targets, fellow sophomores Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, arrived with NFL bodies and blue-chip, and seemed poised for a breakthrough after combining for 21.5 yards per catch and nine touchdowns as true freshmen.
• The Facts. After a fast start outside of the conference, Tennessee literally couldn't string together two touchdowns against SEC defenses: In eight league games, they were held to a single touchdown or less in six of them. During one midseason stretch, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina combined to keep UT out of the end zone for ten consecutive quarters.
Altogether, the Vols came in 103rd nationally in total offense, 106th in scoring and 116th in rushing, dead last in the SEC on a miserable 2.8 yards per carry. They lost six conference games with 12 points or less on the board — including a 10-7 loss at Kentucky, snapping a 26-year winning streak against the Wildcats — and picked up their only conference win (at Vanderbilt) on a defensive touchdown in overtime. Their seven conference losses for the year are the most in school history.
• Positive Spin. For starters, it doesn't help when your October schedule — featuring Georgia, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina in consecutive weeks — doubles as a list of the top four defenses in the nation. When your lineup is decimated by injuries during the same stretch, you don't stand a chance.
The first man down was Justin Hunter, who dominated the first two games (16 catches, 302 yards, 2 TDs) before going out for the season with a torn ACL on his first catch against Florida. Then there was Bray, who missed five games — four of them against top-10 teams — with a broken hand, leaving backup Matt Simms and true freshman Justin Worley at the mercy of the gauntlet. Tailback Tauren Poole played in every game but was plagued by back and hamstring problems and came nowhere near his 1,000-yard campaign in 2010. The only player with any preseason buzz who managed to stay healthy, Da'Rick Rogers, finished with six 100-yard games, nine touchdown catches and enough to emerge as a first-team All-SEC pick in his first season as a starter.
Even if the Vols were inherently doomed by the schedule, the absence of two of their emerging stars for most of the year kept them from even feigning competitiveness. At full strength, a passing game featuring a healthy Bray dropping bombs to a healthy Hunter and Rogers could have been the most lethal long-ball attack in the conference — at the very least, they could have kept some of the lopsided scores within reason, and turned at least one of the closer games into a bowl-clinching win — and still can be in 2012.
• Negative Spin. The atrocious numbers speak for themselves, and the injuries can only explain so much. The offensive line, for example, remained astonishingly intact: Four of the five positions up front were manned by returning starters Zach Fulton, Dallas Thomas and Ju'Wuan James and Notre Dame transfer Alex Bullard in every single game. The fifth spot remained in flux not because of injury, but because sophomore James Stone was demoted at midseason in favor of true freshman Marcus Jackson. That group remained together all year, most of them for the second year in a row, and still produced by far the worst rushing attack in the league.
The quarterbacks don't get a pass, either. Big numbers against Montana, Cincinnati and Buffalo notwithstanding, Bray struggled against Florida and Georgia before the broken hand, and was downright awful following his triumphant return. Against Vanderbilt and Kentucky, he completed well below 50 percent of his passes with four interceptions and a dismal efficiency rating of 94.1 — a full 50 points below his average for the season. In four SEC games, Bray's rating was 106.6.
And that still made him look like Peyton Manning compared to Simms, a senior with eight starts under his belt in 2010 who suddenly looked like he'd never stepped on a field before. There was no reason Worley should have been thrown to the dogs in the middle of a redshirt year, but between the nonexistent running game and Simms' implosion, there wasn't much choice.
• The Takeaway. The combination of youth and a brutal schedule commanded patience, and that was before the crippling injuries to Hunter and Bray erased the faint hope of a respectable finish. By the final gun, though, even the apologists had run out of patience: With Bray back in the lineup and a bowl game on the line against their traditional November whipping boys, the Vols barely survived at Vanderbilt and lost to Kentucky with seven points on the board. No set of circumstances — youth, injuries or otherwise — will excuse a last-place finish at Tennessee.
2012 is a make-or-break season for coach Derek Dooley in a lot of ways, and not only because it's Year Three — Bray, Hunter and Rogers will be juniors with the NFL in their sights, the offensive line will return intact and the running game can't possibly be worse. Neither can the injuries. There's a new athletic director. If the Vols are going to return to the top half of the SEC on Dooley's watch, it's now or never. But where the potential in the passing game offered hope around this time last year that the answer was right around the corner, the actual results are tilting toward "never."