I’ve never heard of the Bulldogs referred to as the Volunteers’ chief rival — for me, Alabama and Florida are the big games for the Vols on a yearly basis. For Lane Kiffin to view Georgia that way, it illustrates how recruiting remains the driving force behind his vision of what the Vols’ program will be.
So here we are, with UT off and half the 2009 season in the books. With six games to go, here are the midterm grades on the Vols in their first year under Kiffin:
RUSHING OFFENSE: A-
Montario Hardesty has to be the Vols’ MVP through six games. While the passing offense has been up and down, Hardesty has been steady, generating at least 85 rushing yards per game.
He might not lead the SEC in rushing anymore (he’s now third), but his tough running style — which often sees him break the first tackle — embodies the rugged mind-set Kiffin has attempted to instill in Knoxville.
Bryce Brown gives a change of pace, but there’s no question who the Vols’ top back is right now. Give credit to the offensive line in this endeavor, too.
PASSING OFFENSE: C-
The Vols were great against Georgia and Western Kentucky, mediocre against Ohio, and awful against UCLA, Florida and Auburn.
A happy and consistent medium sure would be nice.
Quarterback Jonathan Crompton probably locked down the job with his play Saturday. How will that improve his confidence and comfort level in the second half?
Again, the Vols don’t have to be great in the pass game. Just decent.
RUSHING DEFENSE: B
Tennessee is third in the SEC in rushing defense, but Florida and Auburn had significant success running the football against the Vols.
The good thing is that there are no more “tricky” offenses left on the schedule, with the possible exception of Mississippi’s “wildcat” formation. Teams with conventional schemes have struggled mightily to run the ball against Tennessee.
PASSING DEFENSE: B
The Vols have given up yards from time to time, but yielded only three passing TDs all season. There’s less depth than I thought in the secondary, and an obvious drop-off from the starters to the backups.
The big question is pass rush. The Vols hurried Georgia’s Joe Cox but haven’t tallied a sack in three games and you have to wonder how much Chris Walker can really do going forward with a stress fracture in his back.
SPECIAL TEAMS: F
Awful, and regressing every week. Giving up two kickoff returns for touchdowns in a season is inexcusable. The Vols also had a punt blocked by Georgia and had two gaffes on punt returns that they were lucky did not result in turnovers.
Eddie Gran has the track record as a successful special teams guy. The issue is that UT lacks the quality depth to put its backups on coverage teams, and that only taxes the starters playing special teams even more.
The Vols’ losses consist of one everyone saw coming (Florida), one to a team that’s been surprisingly good (Auburn), and one they shouldn’t have lost (UCLA).
A 7-5 season still seems like a best-case scenario.
John Moorehouse covers University of Tennessee football for the Times-News. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.