The Oregon Ducks have a great football team, and this is Oregon vs. Tennessee week in Eugene. For this one rare week, this author has the distinct misfortune of being both an Oregon Ducks football fan and a University of Tennessee (Knoxville) alumnus (twice over). Because I have had a warm place in my heart for both teams over the years, it occurred to me that Ducks fans might enjoy an objective, honest, and reliable personal scouting report on this year’s edition of the Tennessee Volunteers football team.
I live with my family in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which is basically a suburb of Knoxville, and we are very close to the heartbeat of Tennessee football, so the evaluation you get here will be of much better quality than anything you will read in the Eugene area newspapers or see in national media venues. However, I would hasten to add that this scouting report does consist of my own personal opinions about the team, and it will be presented in the following listing format:
Psychological Factors. At the end of the 2012 season, the Tennessee football team had been emotionally devastated by the famous "Lane Kiffin Affair" and three years of very poor coaching and emotional demoralization under the Derek Dooley coaching system. In my opinion, this was something far more than just the normal emotional fallout that would be experienced by any college football team with several bad seasons behind it. This Tennessee football team had emotional problems that ran much more deeply. It had become a true emotional basket case, causing a sudden flight to the NFL by the best offensive players on the team. It was a team that no longer believed in itself and even felt confident that it had no hope of ever rising from the ashes of devastation that surrounded it. Knowing how nice Oregon fans are, I feel certain that some of you would have gladly taken these Tennessee players into your homes as foster children. This is the flavor for how bad it was for college football and college football players in Knoxville by December 2012. Most of those players are on the 2013 football roster. The proper human response here is: "Oh my God---those poor kids---I had no idea."
Quarterbacks. The No. 1 quarterback at Tennessee is Justin Worley, but even he has limited experience on the playing field. He knows the offensive system fairly well and is reasonably good at the bare basics of quarterbacking. Justin has a strong arm for long throws. However, he tends to be an inconsistent passer, and he has a really bad habit of throwing balls slightly behind his receivers, just enough so that the balls cannot be caught. When he gets frustrated, he has a tendency to throw dangerous bullets right into the middle very tight, multiman coverage---passes that are often intercepted. He also tends to overthrow receivers on long balls. Justin also has a bad tendency to be a "three and out man" when he is having a bad day. Unfortunately, he has no good backup quarterbacks to step in if he is having a bad day. All of his subs are relatively young and have very little playing experience. (Quarterback Grade C).
Offensive Line. This is one of the few bright spots for Tennessee. The entire offensive line is considered to be one of the best in the nation (Top 10 or maybe even Top 5). It is a true beast. The biggest man is Daniel McCullers, a 350 lb player (down from about 400 lbs this year) who is surprisingly agile and quite literally a living cross between an M1A1 tank and a tractor trailer rig. Refrigerators do not even come close. That is the good news for Tennessee. The bad news is that the offensive line has almost no depth sitting on the bench to rest players. Almost everyone on the bench is a young and/or inexperienced player with poorly developed line skills. (Offensive Line Grade A+, but backed up by D+).
Running Backs. Marlin Lane and Raijon Neal are the lead running bucks. Lane tends to be the power runner type that can make his own holes if he really tries hard. Underline that "if." Neal tends to be more of a finesse back that depends on the O-line to make all of his holes for him. The great Tennessee offensive line should be of some help to both runners. However, and I think this is the key thing at the moment, neither runner has proven himself to be more than just an average, run-of-the-mill running back (a 500 yard or less per season type). They too have little in the way of backup help. (Running Back Grade C+).
Wide Receivers. For many years, Tennessee was known throughout the nation by the name "Wide Receiver U." Tennessee had two great ones last year, but they left for the NFL. The younger and much less experienced players at this position today are real question marks. Some may be highly talented, but they have not "stepped up" to show it so far. (Wide Receivers Grade C- for inexperience)
Tight Ends. All Tennessee fans have seen so far is blocking ability on offense. Their receiving capabilities remain a question mark. (Tight Ends Grade C+)
Defense. Coach Robert Neyland was one of the most famous coaches in college football history (a man Knute Rockne personally cited as the best coach in the game), and he spent most of his career at Tennessee. Neyland had a philosophy that saw a total football team divided into three parts: Special Teams, the Offensive Team, and the Offensive Team. No. That last one was not a typographical error on my part.
Today the philosophical purpose of the defensive team is to stop the other team’s offense as quickly as possible so your own offensive team can get the ball back and score. It is neatly sliced and pigeonholed. Although stopping the offensive team was certainly important to Neyland, he viewed the defensive team as a scoring team (a Second Offense). The primary job of the defense was to grab the ball any way it could and directly score with it. This sort of defensive philosophy went into hibernation at Tennessee and in much of the rest of college football in the late decades of the 20th century and over the past 13 years. Stripping a ball or jumping on a fumble were seen as rare, opportunistic events provided as gifts from on high by the ethereal mysteries of the universe. As a defensive player, you scored only if a rare opportunity presented itself---but you did not go out onto the football field with that being the primary thing on your mind. The primary thing today is: "Stop them." Neyland would have instead said, "Be aggressive, grab the ball, and score on defense."
One of the first things new Coach Butch Jones did when he came to Tennessee this year was to research the deep traditions of Tennessee football. You cannot do that without eventually encountering the unique but long lost Neyland defensive philosophy. It appears that Jones found it, understood it, took it to heart, and actually found a way to start integrating it into the modern defensive scheme at Tennessee.
The Tennessee defense is fairly good this year. However, it has some question marks. Pass coverage is one of them. Apparently, a big part of the defensive secondary is comprised of "walk-on players" rather than the normal scholarship athlete. This and their lack of experience are a real concern. It appears to me that the defense has some trouble stopping the running game of their opponents. In addition, and perhaps most important of all, the Tennessee defense has little to no quality backup help sitting on the bench to provide rest for the first team players. Once again, as with the offense, the bench is made up mostly of young and inexperienced players. (Defense Grade B-)
Special Teams. Special teams play at Tennessee has not been particularly bad over the past several years (See Item No. 1 above). The kicking game was particularly bad: missed extra points, missed short field goals, shanked punts that went only 20 yards, and blocked punts. At the center of this picture was Michael Palardy, whose play became the butt of private jokes by fans sitting in front of their televisions at home and in bars: "Oh no, Palardy’s up. We’re done for now." Rumor had it that he was great in practice but had a psychological penchant for buckling with butterflies in the stomach in front of a huge crowd. I have no idea if the butterfly rumors were really true. So far this year, Palardy has been a different man with what looks like a stronger, more confident, and much capable kicking leg.
Tennessee’s primary kick-off and punt return man (Devrin Young) is out with a broken hand. However, that may be a blessing because his backup appears to be doing a bit better job on returns. (Special Teams Grade B).
Coaching. New football coach Butch Jones has been a badly needed breathe of fresh air at Tennessee since he took over as Head Coach in early 2013. Every new coach tries to put his best foot forward with a new team and fan base. That almost goes without saying, but Jones has gone several thousand positive miles beyond what the average new coach would have done. He immediately recognized the poor coaching and horrible emotional demoralization that the Tennessee players had undergone and immediately set about the task of fixing it. In fact, he started employing many of the unusual approaches (like the Gettysburg Battlefield run) that the Denzel Washington character implemented in the movie "Remember the Titans." It has all worked amazingly well. The team is back together again. The players do not feel emotionally abused anymore. Indeed, they now know that they have a coach who respects them, loves them, and trusts them---and the feeling is mutual. Win or lose, playing football at Tennessee is fun again. That is what the players are saying, and the positive interpersonal chemistry among the players is just as wonderful as what you saw at the end of "Remember the Titans." Butch Jones, as it turned out, is a lot like Chip Kelly in both coaching ability and working with his players. (Coaching Grade A++)
Tennessee Fan Base. I exchanged some email messages with our old friend Rob Mosely back during the summer. He mentioned to me that Tennessee is bringing to Eugene one of the largest groups of fans that has ever visited there for a game. In other words, a huge crowd of Tennessee fans is headed to Eugene, a bowl-season-sized travel crowd. Considering the traveling distance, that was a surprise even to me at first, but I then recalled that Tennessee has always had a very mobile fan base.
Tennessee fans are hoping for a win. All fans, even those of the worst teams, always hope for a win. If you have watched college football for 50+ years like me, you know that the best teams can have very bad days and the worst teams can have very good days and (magically---but only rarely) both types of days sometimes show up at the same time on the same field. However, as a practical matter, Tennessee fans are aware that Oregon is one of the best teams in college football today, and they have no delusions about the probable outcome of the game in Oregon’s favor. I can also add that I have never---not even in private conservation---heard a single Tennessee fan say anything disrespectful or unkind about the Oregon team, players, or fans. You guys truly are respected and for all the right reasons. Therefore, I doubt that Oregon fans will experience much in the way of classic SEC trash talk from Tennessee fans. Most of that is usually generated by the drunken "knuckle-walkers" at Alabama, LSU, Florida, Auburn, and Georgia. Sorry, I know that sounds bad, but it is nonetheless true.
Win or lose, Tennessee fans will be expecting only one two things: Friendly interactions with Duck fans and local restaurants and bars that stay open very late on Saturday evening and into the morning hours on Sunday. Hey, what else would you expect from the people that invented Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7? It is not bourbon. In the world of official liquor classification and judging, "Tennessee Whisky" is a unique category all by its lonesome.
Game Prediction. Ducks 42-Tennessee 10
Most likely, unless some miracle occurs, Tennessee will be about on par with the Virginia team that the Ducks played last week. Be prepared to hear "Rocky Top" a lot. Above all Ducks fans, please try to remember the truly awful and demoralizing emotional experiences the Tennessee players, their families, and fans have been through over the past 5 years---starting with the "Lane Kiffin Affair." This old Traveling Wilbury’s song could be the Tennessee fight song just as easily as Rocky Top: