HIGHEST OF HIGHS
Sept. 10 — Tennessee 45, Cincinnati 23
Running game? Rush defense? Who needs it when you're throwing it this well?
The Vols looked simply unstoppable through the air in a convincing rout at Neyland Stadium. Tyler Bray completed 34 of 41 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns, making him the first UT quarterback since Peyton Manning to clear 400 in a single game. He peppered the Bearcats from start to finish in the Vols' best game under Derek Dooley.
Even kicker Michael Palardy and the defense showed up when it had to. Palardy executed a perfect, surprise onside kick and the Vols stopped the Bearcats twice on fourth-and-short to prevent them from matching UT touchdown for touchdown.
LOWEST OF LOWS
Nov. 26 — Kentucky 10, Tennessee 7
It began in ugly fashion and it just never got better. By the time Bray's fourth-and-long pass was intercepted by Taledo Smith, the feeling had sunk in for most Vol fans. UT had lost to the Wildcats for the first time since 1984.
Even worse than the game, which featured an anemic UT offensive attack matched against a Kentucky offense that had wide receiver Matt Roark playing quarterback, was the aftermath. A number of UT seniors called out the team's younger players who, in their minds, didn't play with enough effort, were playing for their own personal statistics and weren't interested in making a lower-tier bowl game, among other things.
As Dooley said during the post-game news conference, UT, as a program, had hit rock bottom.
GAME OF THE YEAR
Nov. 19 — Tennessee 27, Vanderbilt 21 (OT)
When Palardy's fourth-quarter field-goal attempt sailed into the backside of center Alex Bullard, all appeared lost. Blessed with a second chance because of a unique penalty call, the Vols made the most of it and rode the momentum to a relatively improbable, relief-filled victory.
On the very next play, Bray connected with wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers, who made a twisting, one-handed catch in the corner of the end zone, to tie the game. The drama only increased, as Prentiss Waggner intercepted a pass in UT territory to force the game into overtime. In the extra period, UT cornerback Eric Gordon emerged as the hero, picking off Jordan Rodgers and running it back 90 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
The play had to be confirmed by a controversial video ruling, but that only further motivated the Vols to celebrate. Video of the team's locker room celebration, which featured Dooley saying the Vols always "beat the — out of Vandy," leaked to the public and, perhaps, lit a flame under this rivalry.
Sept. 17 — Hunter goes down
He was wide open and the throw was on the money. The situation was so promising, Justin Hunter had his mind on bigger things.
Hunter's body twisted awkwardly in the air when he made a 12-yard catch in the first quarter at Florida. The landing was worse, as Hunter immediately clutched his left knee and writhed in pain. He knew immediately that his ACL was torn and X-rays soon revealed the grizzly truth. He was done for the season.
So, too, was the Vols' seemingly unstoppable passing game. It never was quite the same without Hunter, who not only made big plays, but opened up the field for Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera. Other receivers such as Zach Rogers, DeAnthony Arnett and Vincent Dallas failed to fill the massive void left by Hunter and it only got worse when Bray went out for five games with a broken thumb.
Wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers
Love him or hate him, the polarizing sophomore had one of the best seasons by a UT receiver in the program's history.
Rogers led the SEC in receptions (67) and receiving yards (1,040) and was second with nine touchdowns. He was obviously a better receiver with Justin Hunter on the field and was a more consistent player when he had someone else opening things up, but Rogers was still making things happen without Hunter in the lineup.
It's hard for some to wonder just how good UT's offense would have been with both Rogers and Hunter on the field. It's even harder to imagine what it would have looked like without Rogers, too.
Defensive tackle Malik Jackson
Focusing purely on statistics, the senior wasn't as productive in 2011 as he was at the end of last year. In Jackson's case, though, his numbers weren't at all indicative of how important he was to the Vols' defense.
Playing in the middle of a surprisingly effective defensive line, Jackson led the Vols with 11 tackles for loss and was tied for third on the team with 56 tackles. Those strong numbers came about despite him facing constant double- and triple-teams. He also wasn't exactly surrounded by players who could take that burden off his shoulders.
It was certainly a different scene than when Jackson emerged out of nowhere near the end of 2010. Opposing teams knew he was coming and, on most occasions, still couldn't bottle him up.
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
Linebacker A.J. Johnson
Johnson was at a different position than the one he played in high school and he wasn't even involved with the Vols' nickel package during the early part of the season.
It didn't matter. The "dump truck" simply produced, racking up 80 tackles, which was one short of the team lead and easily the most by any freshman in the SEC. Most promising for the Vols was how Johnson performed in big games. During a three-week stretch against LSU, Alabama and South Carolina, Johnson racked up 36 tackles.
Johnson's future may see him move back to middle linebacker, a position he's probably better suited for considering his 245-pound frame. No matter what, though, Johnson has instilled enough confidence to believe he'll succeed wherever he's put.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Linebackers coach Peter Sirmon
One of the lowest-paid among Dooley's assistants, the first-year coach earned every last dollar in 2011.
Sirmon supervised a linebacking corps that was without its leading returning tackler (Herman Lathers), featured a senior who hadn't started playing the position until 2010 (Austin Johnson) and was littered with youth, inexperience and an overall lack of talent. In the end, UT's linebackers were one of the pleasant surprises in an otherwise disappointing season.
The emergence of freshmen Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson had a lot to do with their respective levels of talent, but Sirmon also should be credited for how he groomed them and maintained their production from start to finish. Sirmon, meanwhile, has also been one of the Vols' top recruiters. UT likely will have to pony up more cash if it hopes to keep Sirmon away from a number of other programs.
The offensive line
The pass blocking improved. That was a positive. The rest, however, was one big negative, as the unit seemed to regress for unknown reasons in 2011.
It's hard to pinpoint what exactly went wrong with the line, which featured one junior and four sophomores. Some of the players cited communication issues, but those were resoundingly dismissed by Dooley. Some ex-Vols called out the players for an overall lack of toughness and nastiness.
Whatever it was, it will have to be better in 2012. The Vols can't expect to be any better than five wins if they can't finish higher than 117th in the nation in rush offense.
The front seven
The secondary, bolstered with an injection of bodies and talent, was supposed to carry the Vols' defense in 2011. Less than a few games into the season, however, it became clear that the rest of the defense would be the one carrying the secondary.
The defensive line didn't generate enough pressure to pick up a bunch of sacks, but it held its own and improved as the season unfolded. Running backs Isaiah Crowell, Spencer Ware and Trent Richardson were all held in check against the Vols. The linebacking corps also was better than expected, as the freshman tandem of Maggitt and A.J. Johnson piled up tackles while senior Austin Johnson led the team in both tackles (81) an interceptions (four).
The Vols' defense as a whole finished with significantly higher marks defensively, ranking 12th in pass defense and 28th in total defense. The front end can take pride in the fact that it had a major hand in both.
Defensive tackle Maurice Couch
Expectations were understandably high for the junior-college transfer. He was the only player in UT's signing class to garner five stars from one of the many scouting services, after all. So, it was fair for those to consider the first half of Couch's first season at UT to be a disappointment.
The second half was the exact opposite, as Couch played exactly like many envisioned he would from the moment he moved to Knoxville. Cracking the starting rotation by November, Couch picked up five of his six tackles for loss and 27 of his 37 tackles in the final six games of the year.
Like most junior-college transfers, Couch was out of shape when he arrived at UT. It took some time to get back into playing shape and it also took a while before he became acclimated to a climate that isn't friendly to those afflicted with asthma. That shouldn't be a problem as he heads into 2012 as one of the key cogs in UT's defense.
Running back Marlin Lane
There were flashes of brilliance, but there were more moments of hesitation and trepidation.
Lane didn't have the impact that a number of freshman running backs have had recently in the SEC, but he wasn't bad, either. He finished with 441 yards of offense and four touchdowns, often flashing better moves and speed when he was catching passes out of the backfield.
Not all running backs have the ability to adapt to the college game immediately like South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore, so it's far too early to make any conclusions on Lane's future with the Vols.
But the Vols are in desperate need of a playmaking running back. It's not something anyone can take lightly. Lane's progress will be closely monitored throughout the offseason. If he doesn't have what it takes, the Vols will have to keep looking for "the guy" on the recruiting trail.
The SEC has yet to unveil its revamped 2012 schedule, but the Vols are safe to expect an easier trek.
They'll just be tested early in the season rather than the middle.
Bowl-bound North Carolina State, a Jekyll and Hyde team in 2011, is locked in as UT's opening opponent in conjunction with the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta. In all likelihood, Florida will remain the Vols' first SEC opponent of the season. According to Georgia's 2011 media guide, the Bulldogs were originally set to host the Vols on Sept. 29 rather than early October, but that's subject to change.
An October date with arch rival Alabama and non-conference matchups with Akron (Sept. 22) and Troy (Nov. 3) are the only other games that appear to be locked in. The usual suspects in the SEC East will be sprinkled somewhere on the schedule and likely will be joined by Missouri.
The million-dollar question remains to be what the SEC will do with the Vols' other matchup with an SEC West opponent. Will the Vols have to ditch their expected home date with Arkansas or their road trip to Mississippi State? Or will both be off the schedule and replaced with a trip to Texas A&M?
Seemingly everything remains possible, though it would be hard to imagine that the Vols play five teams that finish in the BCS top 15 like they did in 2011.