Today, we grade the last of the three SEC teams that didn’t make it to a bowl game, the Tennessee Volunteers:
The Vols couldn’t, wouldn’t and didn’t run the football this season. Granted, they were set up to be more of a passing team before receiver Justin Hunter went down with a season-ending knee injury in the third game. And then losing quarterback Tyler Bray to a broken thumb two games later only made matters worse. Still, there was never much of a commitment to run the football, as evidenced by the fact the Vols finished 116th nationally in rushing offense. An even bigger problem was their inability to put any points on the board after halftime. Tennessee went five straight games and didn’t score a point after halftime, starting with the LSU loss and extending through the Arkansas loss. In fact, the Vols were held to a single touchdown or less in six of their last seven SEC games.
Starting three true freshmen much of the season, the Vols played above their heads on defense. Had it not been for a key play on defense in overtime of the Vanderbilt game, Eric Gordon’s 90-yard interception return for a touchdown, this might have gone down as the worst season in the modern era of Tennessee football. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and his staff did an admirable job of keeping the Vols in games. After all, Tennessee held Georgia to 20 points, South Carolina to 14 points and Kentucky to 10 points and lost all three games. The Vols finished the season ranked 28th in total defense and were able to stand their ground despite being just so-so in the defensive front. They finished 11th in the league with 16 sacks in 12 games.
Special teams: C-
It was a little bit of a mixed bag on special teams for the Vols. They improved their return game some, and freshman Devrin Young looks like he’s a keeper. They also improved their overall coverage units, at least until Arkansas’ Joe Adams popped a 60-yard return for a touchdown on them. At last count, the Vols missed about eight tackles on the play. The kicking part of it wasn’t pretty for the Vols. They finished last in the league in net punting (34.4 yards) and last in punting average (37.8 yards). They couldn’t find anybody to consistently kick the ball into the end zone on kickoffs and were 10-of-15 on field goals, with two of those being blocked.
This probably wouldn't have been an F considering the injuries the Vols incurred and the job Wilcox did on defense, but then came the Kentucky debacle. As first-year Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said, it was a performance that was unacceptable. It was also a performance that magnified the disconnect that formulated between coach Derek Dooley and his team. That’s Dooley’s challenge this offseason, to get his team back and see to it that the right kind of leadership emerges in the locker room. Dooley walked into a tough situation, no doubt. But the Vols took a step backward in 2011, losing seven SEC games for the first time ever. The good news is that there’s some promising young talent in the program. The bad news, at least for Dooley, is that he may not be around to coach that talent much longer if the Vols don’t show marked improvement next season.