Selective reading could give Tennessee fans an altogether different perspective on their next football team.
You want to feel better about the upcoming season? Then follow this two-step plan.
Read every preseason football magazine’s evaluation of UT’s offensive line.
Throw the magazines in the trash.
One preseason magazine ranks UT’s line No. 2. Not in the SEC. In the country.
Lindy’s puts Tennessee’s bunch right behind Stanford’s. Its ranking of the top-10 offensive lines reads like a list of national championship contenders.
UT is between Stanford and Oklahoma. Alabama is fourth. Ohio State, fifth. Oregon, eighth.
Nine of the teams on the list won nine or more games last season. One won five.
Offensive linemen usually stand out because of their size. Tennessee’s offensive linemen stand out because of their ranking.
Despite three consecutive seven-loss seasons, UT has somehow managed to assemble an exceptional offensive line. The contradiction is glaring.
This offensive line looks as though it came off the 1990s assembly line. Back then, the Vols seemingly never lacked an accomplished group of blockers, and they were surrounded by similarly competent players in almost every area.
The current offensive line is surrounded by uncertainty.
The Vols don’t know who their next quarterback is. They do know he isn’t Peyton Manning, Heath Shuler, or Tee Martin.
The wide receivers are even more questionable. Running back is short on stars and depth.
But the offensive line lacks neither talent nor experience. And its most recent experiences have been good.
The Vols allowed 10 fewer sacks than any other team in the SEC last season. They also rushed for an average of 4.7 yards per carry. Only Alabama, Texas A&M and Georgia did better.
Too bad for Tennessee that football isn’t like college track. The Vols could qualify their starting offensive line for the national championship game.
So don’t try to tell new offensive line coach Don Mahoney about the enormous rebuilding job that lies ahead. He might as well have gone from Cincinnati to Ohio State.
Names are in order.
Senior tackle Ja’Wuan James has started 37 games. Junior tackle Antonio Richardson is being mentioned as a possible early-out to the NFL. Senior guard Zach Fulton has started 28 games, one more than senior center James Stone. Senior guard Alex Bullard served as a backup last season, but started 11 games in 2011. Junior guard Marcus Jackson, who played as a backup last season, will compete with Bullard for a starting position.
There’s a drop-off after that. However, think how many teams would love to have that much experience
at positions in which experience means so much.
These guys haven’t just played a lot. They have played a lot together.
There’s no tougher league than the SEC for breaking in a quarterback. Whether Justin Worley or Nathan Peterman wins the starting job, a difficult job will be made easier by the offensive line.
Even if it plays up to its preseason ranking, no one should expect a Heisman Trophy candidate to emerge in the backfield. But if it’s really the second-best line in the country, it could lift an entire offense above preseason expectations.