By Frank Gale
The countdown to kickoff is about to reach three weeks and the Big Orange Nation is getting restless. For now, all they have is the daily reports coming out of Haslam Field. That news, at least as reported by Butch Jones, has been encouraging.
Fans have been told not to set their sights too high this season while Coach Jones works to get this program headed back to the top. With that in mind, I decided this week to at least talk about a few of the reasons why Team #117 could exceed expectations.
Success in the SEC starts by winning the line of scrimmage. This year Coach Jones is blessed with one of the best offensive lines in the SEC plus a senior laden defensive line that has depth.
The schedule is a concern especially when you realize that five of the top ten programs in the preseason poll are on the Vols' schedule this season. The good news is that No. 5 Georgia and No. 7 South Carolina come to Neyland Stadium this season. They have not been real dominant in their most recent visits to Rocky Top. It has been a long time since the Vols upset anyone. Could this be the year?
The biggest reason this team could surprise is the change in attitude that starts with the head coach and has filtered down to the returning players. In a close contest, which the Vols will certainly be a part of this season, that intangible could put them over the top.
Take away the five games against top 10 teams and the Vols should not be outmanned in any of the remaining seven games. After the past three years, a team that lays it on the line every week with a positive attitude will win the hearts of a Big Orange fan base that is ready to explode. The united fan base in the stands could be huge this coming season!
The defense looks to be more comfortable in the 4-3 alignment and with experienced depth; the Vols will be able to rest players with a better rotation this season. That alone will make a difference as long as the injury bug goes elsewhere this season. Remember, it all starts up front on defense and putting pressure on the opposing quarterback will help mask deficiencies in a much maligned secondary. That equates to more turnovers and good field position for the offense.
The offense is still looking for a few playmakers at receiver; however, with a little help from the incoming freshmen, this position has the potential to be a pleasant surprise. Also, don’t overlook the tight ends. Jones’ prior teams have all had tight ends that played significant rolls in his offense.
By the time that the back end of the schedule rolls around, the Vols should be in the hunt for a bowl game. That is not great news for my friend Jim Butler whose Vandy team makes a late November appearance at Neyland Stadium. Let the rivalry continue!
So, for UT fans that see the glass as half full, keep those positive thoughts. Those that tend to be more cautious or see the glass half empty, we’ll save you a spot on the Big Orange Bandwagon — you might be aboard sooner than you thought. Go Vols!
(Frank Gale is a Chronicle correspondent and his column appears regularly.)