Two wins over mid-majors, a heartbreaking loss to UCLA and a closer-than-expected battle in The Swamp leaves the Lane Kiffin Era with a 2-2 start and a relatively firm foundation, even if there hasn't been a lot of building on it yet. But the Vols will have opportunities throughout the month of October to do just that, as the schedule brings Auburn, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and an open date to the table.
A third of the way through the regular season, we're still trying to figure bits and pieces of this team out, and that's based largely on the schedule: we don't know how good Western Kentucky, Ohio and even UCLA truly are, and we don't fully know exactly how much better Florida is than everyone else. But the Vols will be measured most closely by what they do against their SEC contemporaries, which is exactly what they'll see in the next four games. If this team has as far to go as they've looked at their worst, the Vols will have a long month and will be scrambling for bowl eligibility by the time November gets here. And if this team is as competitive as they've looked at their best, Tennessee will give themselves a chance to win in each of the next four ballgames.
One of the biggest factors in Phillip Fulmer's dismissal was his inability to win any big games last season - when you beat UAB, Northern Illinois, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Kentucky, you lack a signature win - and so the biggest step forward the Lane Kiffin administration can take would be to win one of the next four games.
That's not to say going 1-3 in October would be a success...but I think 2-2 would be.
Getting two of the next four wins would give the Vols an excellent chance to get bowl eligible, would mark significant progress from last season, and could set the stage for a hot finish against a weaker November schedule (including a trip to Oxford to face an Ole Miss team that suddenly looks very beatable) that could give the Vols huge momentum towards recruiting and the next stage of the growth process.
That process starts with getting one win, and since we take them a week at a time, it starts with a fascinating matchup with Auburn this week.
We'll learn everything we need to know about this team, and ultimately judge its season as a success or failure based on what happens in October. But through four games, here's what we have learned for sure thus far:
We're playing Russian Roulette with Jonathan Crompton
It's no longer a matter of if Jonathan Crompton is going to hurt Tennessee each week, it's simply when, and how bad is the wound going to be. That's not to say he isn't capable of doing some good things at times or making some decent throws, as he did last night against Ohio. In fact, his numbers would've been better against the Bobcats if Vol receivers held on to the football.
In his entire Tennessee career, Crompton has now seen significant action in 12 games spanning three seasons. In those 12 games, he's been responsible for 18 turnovers. That's 1.5 per game.
In fact, only twice has Crompton played a turnover-free game: his backup duty performance against Wyoming, where he went 11 of 27 in a Vol loss, and against Kentucky last season, where the Vols passed only eight times.
This is who he is.
Again, it's not to say Nick Stephens should be playing instead, or that he can't make some good throws, or that the Vols can't win when he's under center. You just need to know, and you might as well embrace at this point, that Tennessee's quarterback is going to cost you 1.5 turnovers per game. How the Vols choose to manage these expected mistakes will go a long way in determining how successful the month of October is.
Montario Hardesty is the best back to wear the orange since Travis Stephens
We're a spoiled bunch, because to play tailback at Tennessee for 15 consecutive years from 1987-2001 meant you were playing it very well. The list of starting tailbacks during that run is astounding: Reggie Cobb, Chuck Webb, Tony Thompson, James Stewart, Charlie Garner, Jay Graham, Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry, Travis Stephens. Every single one of those guys was a game-changer.
We've been okay in the backfield since then: Cedric Houston, Gerald Riggs, Arian Foster, plus several others who saw spot duty. But none of them have run the way Montario Hardesty has in the first four games of this season.
Last night, the Vols opened things up in the first half in hopes that Crompton would produce. When it wasn't going as well as we'd hoped, it's no big deal: we'll just give it to #2 and watch him run for 135 yards in the second half.
I don't know if this is Hardesty or Eddie Gran or both, but when that kid gets the handoff, he's already at full speed. There's no waiting for this or that hole, he takes the ball with explosion, and then leaves defenders in the collateral damage. When was the last time you didn't just expect a Tennessee back to break tackles, you got used to it?
Hardesty has 485 yards in 4 games, which includes two tremendously tough performances against great defenses from UCLA and Florida. He's still averaging 5.8 yards per carry. He's 7th nationally and 1st in the SEC in rushing yards (storyline alert: numbers two and three both play for Auburn).
And Hardesty has been here. He's done his time, waited on the depth chart, showed flashes of greatness like that run against Cal way back in 2006. But now, there's no more waiting: #2 is the man. And in this offense, he'll need to be that and then some this month to get the Vols where they want to go. I don't expect him to disappoint.
Veterans still rule the day at WR
...and that's not an entirely great thing.
Tennessee's leading receivers last night against Ohio? Denarius Moore and Brandon Warren. Before them it was Quintin Hancock, and part of me still feels like Gerald Jones is still the team's #1 receiver.
Nu'Keese Richardson is still more style than substance - and he'll get there eventually. Marsalis Teague had bad luck last night, because Crompton overthrew him on a double-move sure touchdown...but still, Teague had six catches against Western Kentucky and has one since.
I go back to the fact that when the game was on the line against UCLA, it was Jones, Hancock and Moore who were in the game. Brandon Warren did look good last night. But I think it's going to continue to be those guys who lead the way the rest of the year - I'm just not sure a total breakthrough is coming from Teague or Nuke in 2009. If it's going to be the vets, they've got to help Crompton and not hurt him, and they've got to catch the ball when it comes their way.
How good is Chris Walker?
He sacked Tim Tebow twice. He gets the rare defensive lineman pick-six on an incredibly savvy play last night. Through four games, he has 5.5 TFLs, 4 sacks, a pick, a forced fumble and a touchdown. When they said he was unblockable in the spring...again, maybe Lane Kiffin really is a man of his word.
Walker is the kind of dominant presence at end the Vols have been sorely missing. He's got better numbers than Robert Ayers and been a bigger presence in the opposition's backfield than anyone we've had in recent memory - like Hardesty, you have to go back to 2001 to find a better DE performance thus far.
Suddenly, I'm worried about this guy turning pro early.
Rico McCoy, Eric Berry and Janzen Jackson are out for blood
Whatever the record is for the number of times the Neyland Stadium crowd goes "OOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHH!" after a big hit on defense, it's going down this year.
Eric Berry is Eric Berry, who leads the team in solo tackles with 20, and the next closest guy (McCoy) has only 12.
Rico McCoy picked a good year to play up to his potential, and in terms of hitting he got even better when Nick Reveiz went down, which was great to see. That guy will bring the pain.
But there's been no bigger headhunter thus far this season than Jackson, who is an impossible combination of tall and fast, and who is making us happy for more than just his hit on Brandon James.
When the ball goes up around #15, you look for bad things to happen to the receiver. This defense is incredibly agressive and makes the other team pay...and again, we're going to need more of the same if the Vols want October to go their way.