Back-to-back Peach Bowl losses have left a sour taste in the mouth of Big Orange country. The bowl losses and playing bridesmaid to Georgia in the SEC East the past two seasons have forced Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer to take a hard look at his program this offseason.
Fulmer likes what he sees, despite the lack of a proven quarterback.
"So much of what happens to us this season will come from the attitude of the team," Fulmer said. "It's a matter of how they bond and how hard they work. Potentially, it's a real good football team."
Tennessee's situation got even better when All-America candidates Michael Muñoz and Kevin Burnett shunned the NFL to return for their senior seasons.
OffenseThe Vols have big questions at quarterback. Sixth-year senior C.J. Leak enters fall as the starter, yet the only player on the roster to win a game starting at quarterback is James Banks, and he has since moved back to receiver. Junior Rick Clausen and incoming freshmen Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer will push Leak for playing time. Fulmer simplified the offense, asking that his quarterback merely be efficient and avoid turnovers.
UT has its deepest receiving corps in years led by promising redshirt freshman Robert Meachem, gamebreaker Chris Hannon and fearless Tony Brown. Derrick Tinsley is dangerous in open space and is especially effective on screens and reverses.
Senior tailback Cedric Houston hopes to slash for the 1,450 yards he needs to become Tennessee's all-time leading rusher. Junior tailback Gerald Riggs has great upside but has not been consistent. Jabari Davis, a 230-pound bull, specializes in short-yardage situations.
The offensive line is a team strength with Muñoz returning at left tackle. Albert Toeaina, a 350-pound junior college transfer, locks down the right tackle position. The Vols' starting linemen all weigh more than 300 pounds.
Defense"It all starts up front for us," coordinator John Chavis said. "We've got a good group."
The Vols have a six-man rotation at defensive end, led by All-SEC candidate Parys Haralson. UT will play six at defensive tackle as well, benefiting from the addition of junior college transfer Jesse Mahelona.
The linebacking corps is the strongest unit on the team. Burnett is back up to speed at weakside linebacker after he struggled to regain the explosiveness he had prior to 2002's season-ending knee injury. Middle linebacker Kevin Simon, a 5-foot-11, 225-pounder, is chiseled and plays with passion. The strongside job is being contested by speedy Jason Mitchell and sure tackler Omar Gaither.
The secondary will be hard-pressed to replace three departed veterans, but cornerback Jason Allen gives UT a good start. Allen, at 6-2, 200, is one of the most physical corners in the SEC. Jonathan Wade, a world-class sprinter in high school, looks to start at the other corner. Corey Campbell started three games at free safety last season. The strong safety position appears to be a weakness.
SpecialistsConsensus All-American punter Dustin Colquitt returns for his senior campaign, and kicker James Wilhoit is coming off a Freshman All-American season. An abundance of tailbacks and receivers give Fulmer plenty of options for kick and punt return duty.
Final AnalysisTeams have won championships without a dynamic quarterback, and Fulmer hopes the same can hold true for his team.
Tennessee looks to play power football and hit the deep pass often enough to keep the defense honest. A strong offensive line, experienced tailbacks and a handful of breakaway receivers make it a possibility.
Defensively, UT's formidable front seven looks to shut down the run and force opponents into obvious pass situations, allowing Chavis to unleash his arsenal of blitzes. The Vols must contain offenses that utilize multiple receiver formations.