Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Random Thoughts - Tuesday January 22

Bring on the snow!

Yep, we're still starting with Tennessee Football
With the NFL Draft deadline behind us and recruiting ahead, and with the Vols having finalized their new offensive coaching staff - Dave Clawson got a semi-standing ovation at Thompson-Boling over the weekend, and Fulmer got the most positive reception I've heard for him in over a year - we can finally start looking ahead with some realistic idea of what things are going to look like in 2008. Which would begin, roughly, with something like this:

QB Jonathan Crompton
RB Arian Foster - Montario Hardesty - Lennon Creer
WR Lucas Taylor - Josh Briscoe - Denarius Moore
WR Austin Rogers - Quentin Hancock - Gerald Jones
TE Jeff Cottam
TE Luke Stocker - Brandon Warren
OT Chris Scott
OT Ramone Johnson
OG Anthony Parker - Jacques McClendon
OG Ramon Foster - Vladimir Richard
C Josh McNeil

DE Robert Ayers
DE Ben Martin - Wes Brown
DT Demonte' Bolden
DT Dan Williams
LB Rico McCoy
LB Ellix Wilson - Nevin McKenzie - Savion Frazier
LB Adam Myers-White - Chris Donald - Dorian Davis
CB Brent Vinson - Ricardo Kemp
CB DeAngelo Willingham - Marsalous Johnson - Dennis Rogan
FS Antonio Wardlow
SS Eric Berry - Demetrice Morley

K Daniel Lincoln
P Britton Colquitt
KR Dennis Rogan

Questions? Jonathan Crompton will actually be the most experienced new starting quarterback the Vols have had going into the season since Jerry Colquitt in 1994 - so you haven't seen a whole lot and the Vols didn't win either of the two games he played in in 2006, but what you have seen is more than what you're used to, and Crompton has plenty of upside to be excited about. Perhaps the better news is that, while we'll see how much of the production of guys like Lucas Taylor was a result of Cutcliffe/Trooper, that's really the only personnel question. The RBs, WRs, and OL are all battle tested and good to begin with. And I promise you, if Brandon Warren gets in, he's a weapon.

So the biggest offensive question really isn't Crompton, it's Clawson. And that's an unanswerable question until the fall and the on field result. But boy, we'll have fun trying to solve it between now and then, I'm sure.

Defensively, it's a mixed bag. The line play was questionable at best last year, though it did improve as the year went on. So you get the middle back in Bolden and Williams, who I'm comfortable with. I like what I've heard about Ben Martin's potential, and I love Robert Ayers' motor (go back and watch film of the Arkansas game - no one up front got more contact on McFadden than Ayers). The ability to get to the quarterback will once again be front and center in making an average defense good.

It's hard to type "making a good defense great" without Jerod Mayo - and not just because of his talent alone, but because where exactly are we going to replace him? Rico McCoy is solid. Ellix Wilson will pass. Who's the third linebacker? I mean, look at that list up there - the most attractive option to me is Nevin McKenzie, who's playing at safety weight right now. For all the other young guys, a golden opportunity awaits...but who can replace Mayo and Ryan Karl, who both struggled early, but came on later and made huge differences? This is the largest question mark going in.

A question mark of a different sort will be finding the names and placements of the four best bodies in the secondary. We know Eric Berry will be somewhere. We know Demetrice Morley will be back. And there's a wealth of young experience at corner from this season. It'll be up to the coaching staff to figure out which four make up the best combination - but this could be a nasty secondary. Throw in Dennis Rogan's work on special teams and the return of both kickers...and I like it. See how much easier this is when you win the bowl game?

So it's these guys against this:

08/30 - vs UAB
09/06 - at UCLA
09/13 - off week
09/20 - vs Florida
09/27 - at Auburn
10/04 - vs Northern Illinois
10/11 - at Georgia
10/18 - vs Mississippi State
10/25 - vs Alabama
11/01 - at South Carolina
11/08 - vs Wyoming
11/15 - off week
11/22 - at Vanderbilt
11/29 - vs Kentucky

Kids, today's word is "top heavy".

In the first half of the schedule, the Vols will play three Top 15 teams, plus travel to UCLA. Florida and Georgia will probably both be in the Top 5. The turnaround from Florida to Jordan-Hare will be brutal. And for Dave Clawson's offense, it'll be minimal talking and maximum walking early, which will either be the best or the worst thing that could happen to him.

However, the schedule takes a nose dive in November, with both Vandy and Kentucky down in 2008. I hope that when this time of year actually roles around, we can complain about how boring it is instead of worrying who we're going to lose to next.

It's way too early for predictions here, but I will say that once again, Tennessee is one of those select elite programs that's capable of winning every game they play. That's been true here for almost 20 years, and will continue to be true in 2008. And it'll also be true that the SEC will once again be the gauntlet, which could field as many as seven teams in the preseason Top 25.

Speaking of which, CollegeFootballNews.com has their 2008 Pre-Preseason Rankings up, which finds the Vols at a healthy #12 (and Ohio State at #1, because apparently they enjoy getting email). Hey, only seven and a half months between now and then.

Ah, but the good part about that these days is this...

Let the streets of Lexington run blue with the blood of the UK faithful!
I hate Kentucky Basketball.

I hate them. And I always forget exactly how much until right around this time each year, when it comes time for the orange and the blue to be together under one roof. So we're thankful for Bruce Pearl for making things competitive (2-2 the last two seasons), and we're excited about the fact that the Vols are 16-1, 3-0 in the SEC, and ranked #3 for the first time in school history.

Beating Kentucky anytime is great. Beating them in Rupp has happened twice in my lifetime (1999, and under Pearl in 2006). Last year sans-Lofton, the Vols were run out of the building in a 19 point loss, the worst in the Pearl administration. And Kentucky - though they're 7-9 - is supposed to be coming around. They're healthy, they beat Vanderbilt before anyone else and they were right there in two tough road tests at Starkville and Gainesville.

But look, okay...that idea that we're touting Kentucky as being "a team that was competitive on the road in the SEC" should show you what we're dealing with this season. Kentucky hasn't been "Kentucky" at all this season, though tonight they could take a step in that direction. But not only are the Vols favored, tonight they've got a rare opportunity to do something I've never seen.

We've been here before. In 2001, the Vols started the season 16-1, 3-0 in the SEC and were ranked #4 nationally (sound familiar?). Kentucky was unranked and struggling at the time. And when we went to Rupp, I was looking not just for the W, but for blood.

Instead, the Cats won by 10 and jump started their season, and that began the most painful sports stretch in my young lifetime - the Vols went from 16-1 to 18-9, and ultimately were bounced from the Dance in the first round - and we haven't been back to such heights since.

So here we are today, and the circumstances are incredibly similar except for the two head coaches. And I'm willing to bet that that makes all the difference. So under Pearl, again tonight, I don't want just the win. I want blood. I want violence. I want something to make my childhood of watching Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer and the rest of them dunk on everyone in an orange jersey, and listening to a throng of blue faithful drown out the home crowd in Thompson-Boling...I want something to make that a little bit better. I want to be the ones who put the dagger in Kentucky's season. And we're good enough to do it.

I'll take 50-49 or 100-99. But I want something definitive. I've never seen Tennessee do what it's capable of doing to Kentucky tonight. And there's no one I'd rather see them do it to. So in a little less than three hours, when the ball goes up at 9:00 on ESPN from Rupp Arena, Tennessee has their greatest chance this season (so far) to cement themselves in the hearts and minds of the orange faithful. If we win tonight, there will have been more impressive looking resume wins. But there won't have been any more satisfying. We almost never win at Rupp. We never dominate. Now is the time.

By the way, you can also read an excellent article about Tyler Smith, his dad, and Bruce Pearl in the latest ESPN The Magazine (not available for free online except to Insider subscribers at ESPN.com). And that article ends with "Admit it, a Vols title run would be the feel-good story of the season."

One thing at a time.

Do you care about the Super Bowl?
It's an interesting question. If you like football at all, you do simply because the Patriots are 18-0 and history is on the line. But for the casual fan, can you get behind this New York/New England drama?

It's not a natural rivalry like Yanks/Sox or even Celtics/Knicks. The Jets are New England's big rival up there, not the Giants. But even if it doesn't have the national draw, you have to tune in. And maybe the Super Bowl will really deliver, before the game and in the game itself, for the first time since John Elway beat Brett Favre.

At least you know the Giants have a chance, based on Week 17. SI's Dr. Z is already picking the G-Men. And with Eli involved, Vol fans like me can once again invoke the name of Manning in an attempt to take down the Patriots. Which would be unfair to Donte' Stallworth...if Gibril Wilson wasn't playing for the Giants.

More on this later...cause God knows we've got time.

Blood on the streets of Lexington, panic on the streets of Boston...
Well, less so now that the Celtics have gotten it back together, but that stretch where the C's went from 29-3 to 30-6 was uncomfortable. Still, Boston now sits at 33-6 and comfortably ahead of everyone else in the standings.

What's good to see too is, outside of a string of unfortunate injuries, the rest of the NBA is generally playing competitive basketball. And what I mean by that is, Detroit and Boston appear on a collision course for an enjoyable, epic old school Eastern Conference Finals and LeBronBron is still interesting in the East...and out West, you might have the most competitive playoffs of all time.

Right now, if the playoffs started today, here's how it would look out West:

1. Phoenix
2. New Orleans
3. LA Lakers
4. Dallas
5. Portland
6. San Antonio
7. Denver
8. Golden State

This means that Utah and Houston, both playing above .500 ball, are home. And the difference between Phoenix and Golden State? Five games.

In the East, Boston and Detroit are clearly on top of the world. But if the playoffs started today, two sub .500 teams would be in. So the top of the East is better, if not best. But the rest of it still has a ways to go. Still, all of this makes for exciting, interesting basketball.

It's also getting close to All-Star time - voting closed on Sunday, starters are announced Thursday, and we already got the good news today that both Gerald Green and Dwight Howard are going to return to the Slam Dunk contest (flashbacks here). So these are my picks for the 08 All Star starters:

G Jason Kidd, Nets
G Paul Pierce, Celtics
F LeBron James, Cavs
F Kevin Garnett, Celtics
C Dwight Howard, Magic

G Steve Nash, Suns
G Kobe Bryant, Lakers
F Carmelo Anthony, Nuggets
F Carlos Boozer, Jazz
C Yao Ming, Rockets

Also, you can check out a good catch-up piece from ESPN.com's NBA writers roundtable as we approach the halfway point.

Picking a winner in the Royal Rumble
So Sunday, you've got Randy Orton vs. Jeff Hardy for the Raw belt, and Edge vs. Rey Mysterio for the SmackDown belt. This year's rules mean that the winner of the Rumble goes to WrestleMania to take on that brand's champion, while the #1 contender at WrestleMania from the other brand will be determined at No Way Out next month in a six-man Elimination Chamber match.

So here's basic wrestling logic: what's a bigger draw, an Elimination Chamber match from Raw, or SmackDown? And since there's a reason all the big talent is on Raw, that's the bigger draw, which means someone from SmackDown is winning the Rumble, in my mind. And since the only two real WrestleMania headliner options are Batista and Undertaker, and Taker becomes twice the draw at WrestleMania because he's never lost there, I'll take Edge vs. Undertaker for the World Heavyweight Championship in two months at 'Mania. Which means - for the second year in a row - I'll take Undertaker to win the Royal Rumble. As much as it pains me. We're still heavy on the Shawn Michaels bandwagon, but I'd probably rather see him in the chamber anyway, which on possibility alone threatens to get my money next month, before WrestleMania takes it for sure.

Oh, and as a wild card Rumble pick...watch out for Ric Flair. WOOOOOOOOOO!

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