Tennessee Volunteer fans endured five years of misery under Derek Dooley and Lane Kiffin. A proud program that claims 13 SEC Championships, six national titles and over 800 wins, they suffered through the worst five-year stretch of football in the school’s history with the slick-talking Kiffin and the overmatched Dooley grimacing cluelessly on the sidelines, 28-34 with one only winning season, four years with seven or more losses.
Kiffin emptied the cupboard in his brief stint, and his successor left dirty dishes in the sink. The Vols were 0-15 against Top 25 teams under Dooley, who wore custom-made orange pants but couldn’t get the goal line defense lined up in crucial situations.
In 2010 his demoralized Volunteer squad led 13-3 early but lost 48-13 to Oregon in Neyland Stadium. After a lightning delay in the first quarter the Ducks brought lightning of their own, scoring the last 45 points of the game in an cloudburst that included a a 72-run cutback run by LaMichael James, a 76-yard interception return by Cliff Harris and an 80-yard punt return by Kenjon Barner, all for sudden tds.
Getting a push towards a new era: guard Alex Bullard (6-2, 302) gives tailback Rajion Neal a helpful shove towards the goal line in the Vols 52-20 win over Western Kentucky. A big offensive line and two productive tailbacks make new coach Butch Jones’ first Tennessee team a bigger challenge than the hapless, hopeless bunch Oregon dominated in 2010.
Crowds dwindled. The Volunteers used to fill Neyland Stadium, 102,000 strong forming a sea of orange, but it got so bad under Dooley that they drew just 87,821 for the home opener last year. Back-to-back seven-loss seasons will do that. In 2012 the Vols went 1-7 in the SEC, and didn’t gain over 290 yards in any conference game. They lost 44-13 to Alabama and 41-18 to Vanderbilt. Athletic Director Dave Hart fired Dooley before Thanksgiving, an act many fans included in their prayers over the turkey.
There’s new enthusiasm, or at least cautious optimism, under Jones, who came over from the Cincinnati Bearcats after leading that program to consecutive 9-win seasons, tying for first in the Big East each time. Jones already has led a resurgence in Tennessee recruiting, and on the field, the team has a 2-0 start after lopsided wins over Austin Peay and Western Kentucky.
Behind a mammoth offensive line that features tackles Antonio “Tiny” Richardson (6-6, 327) and Ja’Juan James (6-6, 318), the twin tailback committee of Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane has rushed for 340 yards and seven touchdowns in the two wins, each averaging over 6 yards a carry.
Linebacker A.J. Johnson, 6-2, 243, leads the vastly improved defense, which has 9 turnovers in the first two games. After 80 tackles as a freshman and a slobberknocking 138 as a sophomore, SEC coaches picked the junior to the preseason All-SEC first team this summer.
In the secondary, Justin Coleman and Cameron Sutton returned interceptions for touchdowns against W. Kentucky, and Brian Randolph picked off two passes in the end zone. In all the Vols stole five aerials in the game, adding two fumbles to spearhead a 52-20 victory.
After two wins, strong safety LaDarrell McNeil leads all tacklers with 11. He was named to the Freshman All-SEC Team last season. Senior tackle Daniel McCullers anchors the 4-3 defensive front, an imposing challenge to block at 6-8, 351, a week after the Ducks had trouble running inside against Virginia’s big, strong defensive line.
The trip to Oregon begins a murderous stretch for the newly-optimistic Volunteers and their fans. Over the the next five weeks they’ll face #18 Florida, South Alabama, #9 Georgia, #13 South Carolina before visiting #1 Alabama on Oct. 26.
Neal told Steve Magaree of govolsextra.com, “The real tests are starting to come. That’s where we’re really going to be able to take strides and see where we are.”
For the Ducks, too, it’s time to see where they are after a pair of easy wins.
Among the Tennessee offensive linemen, the years of famine and humiliation have brought resolve and perspective. James told Chase Goodbread of nfl.com “We’ve talked about OLP — O-Line Pride — since we were freshmen. It just shows how hard we’ve worked. In 2011, when I wasn’t playing, they said we were one of the worst offensive lines in the country. Now they’re saying ‘Y’all are the best in the country.’ We take it as, ‘Praise and blame, it’s all the same.’ But we do see ourselves as the best offensive line in the country.”
Jones has put the joy back in Rocky Top. Duck fans have to know that this isn’t the same plodding and poorly-coached team that the Webfoots steamrolled in their home stadium three seasons ago. It isn’t like hosting Alabama, LSU or Georgia, but Jones’ 2012 squad is far better organized and more athletic, and starting to believe in itself.