Patrick Brown, the Times Free Press's second-year Tennessee beat writer, breaks down the 2012 Vols.
The Vols' offensive talent has created a level of excitement entering the season. It's probably the biggest reason for optimism entering coach Derek Dooley's make-or-break third season in Knoxville. Coaches and players have talked about the embarrassing season-ending loss to Kentucky last November and the desire to take Tennessee back to a place among the SEC's top programs. The Vols know they have to win games, and after all the talk, it's almost time to go.
Tennessee was picked by the league's media to finish fifth in the SEC East behind Georgia, South Caroilna, Florida and newcomer Missouri. The Vols got three votes in the national preseason coaches' poll, the same as Florida International and seven fewer than Louisiana Tech, Dooley's old program. This did not surprise him one bit. "It's been four years we hadn't been in the Top 25. Why would we get a vote?" he said. "We've got to go out there and prove it."
Winning or losing the opener against North Carolina State in Atlanta won't make or break Tennessee's 2012 season, but recent history says it will be an indicator of what the Vols might do the rest of the fall. In the last three seasons in which Tennessee has lost an early season nonconference game - UCLA in 2008 and 2009 and Oregon in 2010 - the Vols' record was 18-20. Tennessee won 10 games after hammering California in its 2006 opener, and last season's win against Cincinnati created a wave of optimism that was quickly dashed.
Nose tackle Daniel McCullers already has become a household name among Tennessee fans simply because of his immense size (6-foot-6 and 377 pounds). The hype has done the same for junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson before the receiver even has caught a pass. The two most important signees in the Vols' 2012 signing class are expected to have a similar impact on the field.
Tennessee's defensive front has struggled to stop the run at times in practices and scrimmages, and the Vols' pass rush needs to improve. If the same 116th-ranked ground game returns from 2011, Tennessee's offense will become one-dimensional and easier to defend. Can a Vols kicker make a crucial field goal or flip field position at a key moment?
The transitioning defense and re-energized offensive line aside, Tennessee's fate in 2012 likely rests on quarterback Tyler Bray's right arm. He's the Vols' offensive leader, and that side of the ball will go as he goes. His physical tools are unquestioned, but he's yet to complete an entire season or prove he can produce against a big-time SEC defense. Like the rest of his team, Bray begins the 2012 season with something to prove.