Tennessee's worst teams under coach Phillip Fulmer produced some of its best defenses. That's one of the statistical oddities of the Fulmer era.
His three teams that lost five or more games all ranked in the top 10 defensively. The 2008 team that cost him his job ranked third nationally.
Don't expect the trend to continue in Lane Kiffin's first season.
It wouldn't be surprising if Kiffin's first team lost at least five games. It would be surprising if his defense ranked in the top 10.
I realize that assessment might differ from the head coach's.
"We think we have a very unique first-unit defense," Kiffin said at the SEC football media days last week. "I think we have a great defensive staff coaching them up.
"They have a special look about them in the huddle. Barring injuries, this could be a special group."
The defense has obvious strengths. Strong safety Eric Berry is an All-American, defensive end Chris Walker is an emerging star based on his play in the spring, linebacker Rico McCoy is a second-team All-SEC pick in preseason, and tackle Dan Williams has proved himself in the middle of the line.
However, the shortcomings are just as apparent. The front four lacks depth, the linebacking corps is the smallest in the league, and the secondary will lack game experience in at least one position.
In the spring, freshman defensive tackle Montori Hughes had an immediate impact. And perhaps Marlon Walls, a former linebacker who has grown into a down lineman, can do the same in preseason camp. But depth still will be a concern with that unit.
You also have to wonder how UT's linebackers will hold up over the course of a season. Its three starters average 6-feet, 220 pounds.
Ole Miss has the next lightest group of linebackers. Its starters average 6-2, 222. Auburn's linebackers average 6-1, 227.
Most of the best teams in the SEC feature bigger linebackers. Florida's linebackers average 6-2, 239; Alabama's 6-4, 243; and LSU's 6-3, 237.
Just because those units are bigger, that doesn't mean they're slower. Regardless of size, you don't see many slow linebackers in the SEC. For example, remember Florida's 258-pound Brandon Spikes running down UT running back Arian Foster from behind last season?
McCoy should be improved this season, and Nick Reveiz is a heavy hitter, even though he's listed at only 5-11, 220. But their durability will be as significant as their ability.
The secondary is considered the strength of the defense, but that's mainly because of Berry. One of the most misguided rankings I've seen this preseason was in Athlon's national college preview. It ranked UT's secondary third in the country. At best, the Vols might have the third best secondary in the conference.
You can count on defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin maximizing what talent he has. You can hope that a heralded recruiting class contributes from the get-go. And maybe Lane Kiffin's commitment to running the ball will mean more rest for the defense. But you can't assume this defense will be as fortunate as last year's when it comes to injuries, especially since teams will have only one open date in a 12-game schedule.
When you think about the rebuilding job ahead for UT's first-year staff, offense first comes to mind. But there's work to be done on defense, too.
The extent of that rebuilding will become obvious if there's significant attrition.
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or email@example.com.