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.
[Follow The Duck Stops Here on Twitter @DSH_Newton.]
Great column, as usual Dale. Now I'm skeered uh that big line of them Volunteeers. Hopefully Nick Aliotti and Scott Frost's play calling will be up to the challenge. Oh, and hope the Ducks play well too.
Hey Dale, after reading this site for a while I finally got my account to be able to comment. I love your articles and objective yet Oregon leaning writing style. There are so many amateurs out there that purely favor one side but don't have the skills and objectivity to pull it off. Yours is a breath of fresh air. looking forward to this wknd at Autzen. Go Ducks!!
Even though Tennessee has been down they are still an SEC team and lots of people will be watching to see how the Ducks stack up. This is the Ducks chance to make a huge impression on the rest of the nation. How the Ducks perform in this game could go along way towards deciding who plays in the national championship game if the Ducks and 2 other teams all go undefeated.
An article from last year on Mount McCullers, when he showed up post JC at over 380.
We all know when a team truly believes in themselves and gains confidence they become very dangerous. We will have to be on our toes for this game. Maybe our OC will call something other than 3 in a row through the A/B gap.
We will find out where we stand as a team with this game.
Go Ducks WTD
I'm not much of a commenter, but I've been following this blog for a few years. What used to be a once a week click, has now become a daily. There are other sites who have teams of writers, but none beat The Duck Stops Here. Thank you for the in-depth and insightful articles Dale. Keep up the good work and Go Ducks!
@goducks58 The big lines are something the Ducks have to prepare for, particularly as Oregon is not getting a push up front in the running game (they've beat Virginia on the edges) and Mariota is being chased out of the pocket. Tennessee, at least on paper, has the size and mobility to attempt the Nick Fairley/Stanford formula for frustrating the Oregon offense.
@ducksninersgiants DNG, I appreciate it. Thank you for reading and commenting. I'm going to Eugene for the Tennessee game and I'll be at the Duck Sports Authority tailgate, DYS Parking Lot Space 223 near the grass field. Stop by and say hello if you get time.
@theduckforpresident Very true that this game weighs heavily in the national perception of the Ducks, although SEC fans will quickly discount the result if Oregon wins, pointing to the Vols recent lack of success in conference.
@Duckbill Another week that requires patience and preparation.
@Duckbill Agree. Here's a nice read about the Ducks D and O lines. Good thing for Hroniss that Jones has them playing a 4-3 so mount McCullers isn't directly over him play after play. Ducks will have to wear these big boys out with fresh bodies and tempo.
@rgyle He's massive, and very athletic for a big guy. Oregon guard Mana Grieg is 5-11, 287. Hamani Stevens at the other guard 6-3, 312 and Grasu 6-3, 297.
@hoboduck The second series of the Virginia game was uninspiring, with poor execution to boot.
@hoboduck I wondered if the early, and sometimes often, testing of the middle didn't serve two purposes. The first to see if we could open holes in the middle and the second as a Helfirch "mind game" to draw UVA into focusing on the middle which is their strength. IMO that focus on running up the middle early improved the success of the running to the edge later. Once the edge runs had success, the middle opened up more and I'm sure fatigue also helped create opportunities up the middle in the fourth quarter.
@DrakeMallard Ha! No wonder they can't find him in the northwest, until this weekend.
@Autzen Buddhist AB, I appreciate that very much. We keep trying to do better work, and the Ducks are a compelling subject.
Unfortunately we are in a real 'no win' situation here, other than to win.
If we win in a blowout, the rest of the country (SEC mostly) will talk about how Tennessee is terrible and the bottom dweller of the SEC.
If we 'only' win by 20 then it's going to be talked about about how we weren't dominant, especially at home.
If it is closer than that, well then they are going to talk about how we don't belong in the top ten.
And if we lose, oh boy... then it spells doom for our entire conference especially if we win out.
That being said, who the heck cares what others think. All we can do is win and Helfrich and co will control what they can control, and that's all that really matters.
6-8, 351? Not sure what to think of that. At that height McCullers is likely not just a fatboy. Which two Ducks will be blocking him? Speed, technique and rotations may do the trick - turning him into a sluggish heap. Does their D blitz a lot? MM might have to scramble for another 100+ yards. Maybe keep DAT on the edges in space?
@theduckforpresident @ducksninersgiants The one argument for the current system was one I've heard voiced by Rece Davis of ESPN with all its flaws the BCS system with the polls gives college football the most talked about regular season in sports.
You are certainly right that perception equals reality in the current system.
@ducksninersgiants While I do agree with everything you said the fact is in the flawed system that college football currently is without a playoff system you do have to worry about what others think of you. Public perception can mean the difference between playing for a national championship or going to the Fiesta bowl again. While I agree the Oregon team should not be focusing on what others think of them and just winning the day, us fans can look at the big picture more. Case in point, I find myself wanting every pac - 12 team to win the non conference games to help the Ducks strength of schedule (yes even the puppies and rodents usually) In the NFL I am a 49ers fan and I never root for the Seahawks to win a game because a playoff system is in place and perception doesn't matter. I guess the moral to my rant is I can't wait for the day when college has a real playoff!!
@ducksninersgiants The last sentence of your comment is the rubber meeting the road. All the Ducks ultimately care about is winning and improving. The rest of it is just stuff for media, fans and analysts to argue about.