It could change on any given Saturday, so let's take this moment to point out, while we still can, that Tennessee's next three opponents are a combined 14-0 and are ranked 20th, 1st, and 6th. Two of them are on the road, and the other is #1 Alabama. It has never been more important for Derek Dooley to win, and as has always been the case during his time in Knoxville, the road will not be easy in October.
We've figured out quite a bit about who we can trust on this team thus far - several of the offensive linemen have been really good, Cordarrelle Patterson is clearly a stud, and A.J. Johnson has been extraordinarily valuable on both sides of the ball.
So this isn't a list of UT's best players. These are the guys that are most crucial to Tennessee's success in this next stretch of the season, players who have to produce for the Vols to get where they want to be:
So, this is a lot of pressure for a freshman safety. What I'm writing into this and you're reading into it is that McNeil will cut out all the problems our secondary has been having, he'll never miss tackles, and no team will bust us for a play of 70+ yards again.
In reality, McNeil is just one guy and still has plenty to learn on his own. But there's really very little exaggeration in saying that it can't get any worse with the back end of this defense. And McNeil certainly seems both more ready to play than his other freshman DB counterparts, and more needed than what the Vols have at corner. Prentiss Waggner isn't the perfect fit for Sal Sunseri's defense, but he has certainly had some strong moments for the Vols. The same can be said for Eric Gordon in the nickel. But Brent Brewer has simply been slower coming off the ACL surgery, his angles have been noticeably bad, and hopefully he can bounce back next season. McNeil's time appears to be now, and it comes against teams the Vols cannot afford to miss tackles against. All baptisms in the SEC are by fire.
4. Zach Rogers
The Vol senior had 14 catches in 2010 and 14 catches in 2011. In five games this year, he has 14 catches for 249 yards and a pair of touchdowns. That puts Rogers in the Top 10 in the SEC in yards per catch, as #83 has made himself be accounted for on the football field. If other defenses follow Georgia's blueprint and play deep coverage with an emphasis on Justin Hunter and CP, it falls to Rogers (and Mychal Rivera, who isn't on this list simply because he's doing what we thought he would do) to get the job done. 44% of Tyler Bray's completions have gone to Hunter and Patterson, which still leaves plenty of opportunity for Rogers. If he can continue to be a viable option for this team, he will cap off his UT career in style and ensure the Vol passing attack can't be contained by taking away the two guys on the outside.
3. Dan McCullers
How close are we to the summit of Mt. McCullers? Because I think he's still got a ton of growing yet to do...and he's already a beast in there. The more this guy is on the field, the better Tennessee's defense is going to be, plain and simple. He's a bit of a novelty act right now - not many people are talking about him unless they're playing Tennessee that week, and he just hasn't had the snap count or the one really big highlight play he needs to break into regular conversation. But this kid is truly a weapon for us, and certainly appears that he's only going to get better. How much better this season? The more the merrier for Sal Sunseri and Derek Dooley.
2. Rajion Neal
Here's what I've heard a lot of this week: "Rajion Neal isn't really a good running back, but...". The most testy we've seen Dooley get with the media came on the heels of a question about improvement in the run game. Dooley says it's been there all year. I'd point out that the running backs were just decent against NC State while CP got all the big yards. But we said at the time that Rajion got all the yards that were available to him against the Gators, and at Georgia Neal was a tremendous asset. The Vols have clearly hitched their wagon to #20: Rajion leads the SEC with 103 carries. That's eleven more than Lattimore in second place. The Vols were able to touch Georgia up for 44 points because they were able to be legitimately balanced: you had to respect the Vol run game, and in large part thanks to Neal and the offensive line. Now the question becomes, can we see it on a consistent basis against SEC defenses? If Neal can run that well against Mississippi State, South Carolina, and, gasp, Alabama? Tennessee's chances go way up. I don't know if you think he's a good running back or not, but if he keeps this up, we'll have no debate in a few weeks.
1. Tyler Bray
This really means something different than it used to because of the off-the-field issues with pseudo-retirement, but Tyler Bray has got some serious Brett Favre in him. He can do so many good things for you. And he will, in the course of trying to do those good things, occasionally try to do too much and burn you. Let me again point out that Bray is way, way, way more part of the solution than part of the problem: 14th nationally in passing yards per game, 5th in touchdowns. Of course, we all know neither of those stats will really matter until they translate to victories over meaningful opponents. And what we all hope is that Tyler learned a very, very valuable lesson in defeat Saturday in Athens. Remember, he had a hand in huge fourth quarter drives before, one against North Carolina as a freshman and one against Vanderbilt last year. He's gotten the job done in the fourth quarter before, just never against a team like Georgia in part because the Vols haven't really been there against a team like Georgia much during his time in Knoxville. But Bray, by his own admission (which I always love to hear quarterbacks make), tried to make winning plays himself instead of realizing it's on the whole team and living to play the next down. The Vols didn't have to have that pass to CP that resulted in the interception, and Bray could've thrown it away before coughing it up on the next drive. He lost. Now, what will he learn? Bray is so close to being a great quarterback. The last step will be the most meaningful for quarterback, head coach, and program. As has always been the case, the majority of Derek Dooley's fate rests on the arm of #8. For Tennessee to take the next step, Bray must take the next step. Not by trying to make every play himself, but by leading his team to victory.
Who did we leave out?