After creating a stir off the field leading up to his first season on the job, Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin got off to a solid start on the field in his first tour through the SEC.
The Vols (7-5, 4-4) were a couple of disappointing home losses away from being a nine-win team. They’d love to have the UCLA and Auburn games back, where they simply didn’t play their best football. Kiffin was probably a little too conservative with his play-calling in the 19-15 loss to the Bruins, and Monte Kiffin’s defense didn’t have a lot of answers for Gus Malzahn’s spread offense in the 26-22 loss to the Tigers after losing middle linebacker Nick Reveiz the week before.
But during the second half of the season, with the notable exception of the 42-17 blowout loss to Ole Miss, Tennessee played its best football and seemed to get better as a team. Never was that more apparent than senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton’s transformation. He looked rattled during the first month of the season and was an interception machine, but settled down and wound up finishing second in the SEC with 26 touchdown passes.
Monte Kiffin’s defense held up well despite a glut of injuries at linebacker. Kicking woes cost the Vols in several games, in particular the 12-10 loss to Alabama. Tennessee had two field goals blocked in that game, including one as time expired that would have won the game.
If there’s such a thing as a quality loss in the SEC, the Vols had two of them this season against Alabama and Florida. Their best win was a 45-19 pasting of Georgia, but they also get a shot at No. 11 Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Offensive MVP: Montario Hardesty, RB. He’d battled injuries previously during his career and was also under-utilized, but Hardesty put together a sensational senior season with 1,306 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns. He carried the ball a league-high 264 times and didn’t lose a single fumble on a rushing attempt.
Defensive MVP: Eric Berry, S. His interception numbers declined, but that’s due mainly to the fact that the Vols used him in a different role than the previous season. Berry played closer to the line of scrimmage, almost like a linebacker, and finished second among SEC defensive backs with 83 tackles. He’s one of the most complete defensive players in the league.
Turning point: The Vols were 2-3 and coming off a home loss to Auburn when Georgia rolled into town the second week of October. Another home loss would have been devastating, but Tennessee delivered its best performance of the season in 45-19 rout of the Bulldogs and only lost twice more the rest of the way.
What’s next: Several of the seniors who were the backbone of this team are gone, and Berry is also probably gone. He’s projected to be one of the top picks in the NFL draft. Kiffin may also have to fight to keep some of his coaches. Eddie Gran and Frank Wilson have already bolted for other jobs, and there are rumblings that others may follow. The schedule only gets harder next season, and the Vols will be playing with a new quarterback. There's some good young talent in the program, but Kiffin has his work cut out.