Tennessee Volunteers (2000: 8-4)
The following team preview is provided by Blue Ribbon. For the nation's most comprehensive look at this and all Division I-A teams, be sure to order the 2001 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, on sale now at 1-800-775-2518.
Coach and programOnly three short years ago, Tennessee reached the pinnacle in college football with its first national championship in nearly 50 years. The talent was there to certainly contend for another one, maybe even two. But the Vols contracted a bad case of NFL-itis in 1999 and put on a clinic in how to underachieve.
Then last season, hamstrung by early defections to the NFL, coach Phillip Fulmer took a young team in what was clearly a rebuilding year and managed to win eight games. Of course, all anybody remembers was the deflating finish. Tennessee suffered a 35-21 Cotton Bowl whipping at the hands of Kansas State, a loss that put a serious damper on a second consecutive season.
The Vols are talented enough to jump back into the national title chase, but serious questions persist. And with the schedule, it's entirely possible that Tennessee could be a better football team this season and have the same record.
But senior defensive end Will Overstreet (6-4, 260) said he and his mates are committed to steering the Big Orange back into the limelight, and more importantly, back onto the path most observers thought the Vols were headed coming off the 1998 national championship.
"You remember the whole season, people tearing down goal posts and junk like that and people rushing the field on you," Overstreet said. "This year, our motto is going to be: We're not going to let anybody tear the goal posts down on us. ... "We're going out there to win, going out there to take names and going out there to play like Tennessee ought to play."
OffenseThe Vols will count on a host of freshman running backs and receivers this fall, never an ideal situation in the SEC. Gone is all-time leading rusher Travis Henry, and the receiving corps was average at best during spring practice.
Senior Travis Stephens (5-9, 185) will get first crack at Henry's tailback job. Stephens played a reserve role last season with 359 yards and seven touchdowns.
Help is on the way in the form of Parade All-America running backs Jabari Davis (6-0, 230) of Stone Mountain, Ga., and Cedric Houston (6-0, 205) of Clarendon, Ark. Also arriving are multi-purpose threat Derrick Tinsley (6-0, 180) of Marietta, Ga., and highly acclaimed receiving prospect Montrell Jones (6-2, 185) of Louisville, Ky.
There was also a gift of sorts last December when minor league baseball player Kelley Washington (6-3, 220) decided he wanted to play football again and walked on at Tennessee. The 21-year-old freshman was the hit of spring practice. He started out at quarterback, where he threw and ran for touchdowns, and then showed his versatility by catching a few touchdown passes at receiver. Suffice to say he's going to be on the field somewhere.
"He reminds me of another No. 15 who used to be around here," said Fulmer, referring to former Vols' great Carl Pickens.
This time last year, the Vols were going in blind at the quarterback position. None of the combatants had any significant college experience. It didn't take long for sophomore Casey Clausen (6-4, 210) to make his presence felt. He came to school early last year and went through spring practice and burst onto the scene as a starter against Alabama.
The Northridge, Calif., product completed 62 percent of his passes for a Tennessee freshman record 1,473 yards and 15 touchdowns. He led the Vols to six straight wins to close the regular season, although he bombed in the Cotton Bowl loss to Kansas State.
With questions hovering around the skill positions, the experience and depth on the offensive line has helped to ease those concerns. Even without Michael Munoz, the sophomore offensive tackle who underwent his second knee surgery in six weeks and will sit out this season, this has a chance to be one of the better offensive lines in the league.
Back are five players who started at some point last season, including senior left guard Fred Weary (6-4, 301). He's the Vols' best offensive lineman and a potential All-SEC performer.
Defense and special teamsThe strength of Tennessee's team will be on the defensive line. Three of the four starters return, and one of those is being displaced.
Junior defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (6-6, 310) had a great spring and will team with Outland Trophy winner John Henderson to give the Vols the SEC's most imposing one-two punch in the middle.
The Vols led the SEC with 50 sacks last season. Henderson was the league's individual leader with 12.
The Vols lost a pair of big-play performers at outside linebacker in Eric Westmoreland and Anthony Sessions. They were the two leading tacklers on the team last season and combined for 14 1/2 sacks.
But sophomore Kevin Burnett (6-3, 230) has All-American written all over him. He played last season as a true freshman and looms as a bigger version of former Tennessee linebacker Raynoch Thompson.
The Vols caught a break when senior cornerback Andre Lott (5-11, 185) decided to return for another season after getting an additional year of eligibility for graduating in four years.
The place kicking job was wide open heading into last season, but junior Alex Walls (6-1, 190) burst onto the scene and had a dream season. A walk-on when the season began, Walls hit on 18-of-20 field goals and was selected one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award as the top place-kicker in the country.
Bottom lineClausen's development will be key. He needs to take another big step and make the people around him better if the Vols' offense is going to fully evolve.
Ultimately, though, if the Vols are going to climb back into the Top 10, they will have to do it with their defense.
Given the schedule, a BCS bowl might be a stretch -- but not as far-fetched as winning at Florida.