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What will Tennessee's record be without Justin Hunter?

I'm sure this facial expression means something.
I'm sure this facial expression means something.

In a number of ways, the hard part about assigning value to what we lost in Justin Hunter is that we hadn't even seen what he could really do yet. The guy averaged 26 yards per catch as the deep ball specialist last year, then lit up terrible defenses for 16 catches and 302 yards in his first two games as a starter. But in his first real test, he was lost for the season on Tennessee's first pass play.

But just using the numbers from the first two games, how do you replace eight catches, 150 yards, and a number of spectacular plays per game?

The answer, of course, is we don't.

There isn't another Justin Hunter on the roster. There also isn't the same Da'Rick Rogers when defenses also have to worry about a Justin Hunter. The other Vol receivers will work as a committee, but the committee can't do what #11 could do.

As the Vols can't replace Hunter outright, they'll have to evolve into a slightly different team. As was the case with Janzen Jackson's departure, there's really no way to make an argument that the Vols can be better without Hunter. But the Vols can still be a good football team, provided they move forward in the right direction. Relentless pursuit of continuous improvement, remember?

So we'll take a look at the ways the Vols will try to adjust, and ask you...

The Passing Game: Spread the Wealth

Every defensive coordinator the Vols will see between now and 2012 will start their gameplan by trying to take away Da'Rick Rogers. Rogers is too good to be erased - he still caught five passes for 62 yards and a touchdown against the Gators, and had a couple of drops that should've given him even more - but right now, he's the number one threat on an offense that struggles to identify its number two.

However, Tennessee fans should at least feel confident about Mychal Rivera's ability (five for 71 in Gainesville). Zach Rogers doesn't have big numbers, but has been around much longer than anyone else in this group and the Vols will certainly put him on the field. And DeAnthony Arnett didn't shy away from the moment, becoming UT's leading receiver in The Swamp.

Those four guys give UT a pulse in the passing game, and with Bray that pulse can be strong. That's before we even get into guys like Vincent Dallas, or how to use Rajion Neal more effectively. Tennessee can't run all the same stuff in the passing game without Hunter, can't stretch the field nearly as well, and can't exploit a secondary by putting two elite receivers on either side of the field. But Jim Chaney still has enough talent to work with, especially at quarterback, and a slightly modified passing game can still be plenty effective.

At the moment, Tennessee averages 38 pass plays and 34 run plays per game. For those who'd like to see the Vols chuck it 45+ times per game, Hunter's absence may not get in the way of that. If UT is truly going to develop the committee of guys not named Da'Rick, they'll need to spread the ball around a bunch to make it effective quickly. I'll be fascinated to see what they do against Buffalo, because if you truly believe your best chance to win will come from developing the passing game around the entire receiving corps, you need to go ahead and get started on it right away for the sake of the young guys.

However, I still can't see Derek Dooley forsaking the run, so...

The Running Game: Do Something

I feel like in almost any other year, if we lost an elite wide receiver, we'd simply say, "Okay, we'll run it more." But does anyone feel confident in our ability to do that right now?

Again, the concern isn't just Florida - plenty of UT teams have met with disaster in the ground game against Florida, then gone on to have very capable rushing attacks later in the year. But the performance against Florida combined with the struggles against Montana and Cincinnati make me very concerned with our ability to run on anybody.

I'm in the camp that blames everybody here: the line gets no push and hasn't all season, Tauren Poole still looks more indecisive than he can afford to be, and Marlin Lane (23 carries, 60 yards) is still learning that you can't get away with what worked in high school. Other than what we saw Poole do against Oregon and LSU last season, there is nothing about this ground game that gives me any hope.

It doesn't have to become the bread and butter of the offense, and as long as Bray is playing quarterback it never will be. But it can't be a total liability, which is every bit of what it was after the first carry in the Florida game. There's no point in running play action if a defense has no reason to respect it.

Dallas Thomas said earlier this week that much of the line's problems were mental mistakes. If so, that's at least something that can be corrected and hopefully improve over time, but most of these guys played a lot last year. I know we're not undersized. I know Montario Hardesty was sensational playing behind a line featuring two walk-ons.

Some of Justin Hunter's value can be replaced with improvement in the run game...but right now improvement would look like getting back to the line of scrimmage. Can the Vols find anything productive here, or will Dooley and/or Chaney truly decide to forsake it and have Bray throw 45+ times per game?

With so much uncertainty on offense outside of Bray and Da'Rick, we turn to the other side of the ball for the biggest way the Vols can help Hunter's absence:

The Defense: Less Exciting Shootouts

Coming into the year, we figured the Vols would have to win some games in the high 30s or even the 40s. Playing against offenses like South Carolina and Arkansas, the assumption was our young defense would get beat up all year, but we had the firepower to compete.

But without one of our major offensive weapons, I would submit to you that the most likely way Tennessee is going to make up for Hunter's absence is with an improving defense. If Hunter's performance cannot be replaced and his production will be difficult to duplicate by committee or by a currently non-existent running game, there's only one solution left: Tennessee is going to have to start giving up fewer points. And we did see some positive signs in that direction on Saturday.

Don't just take my word for it, or anyone wearing orange-tinted glasses. From the brilliant Bill Connelly's new weekly feature at SB Nation, The Numerical:

30: Advantage, in yards, of Florida's average starting field position (as compared to Tennessee's) in the first half of the Gators' 33-23 win over the Vols in Gainesville. In building an early cushion, Florida started their drives at their 47-yard line. Tennessee started at their 17. Throw in a devastating injury to star Tennessee receiver Justin Hunter and a killer performance from Chris Rainey (108 rushing yards, 104 receiving yards), and it's actually rather impressive that Tennessee lost by only 10.

Usually when a defense does a lot of bending without breaking, we assume the worst in the future: they can't keep this up, they're eventually going to break. But can a defense do it long enough that we eventually start to expect the best from them in the future: we may give up yards, but we're going to do a good job keeping you out of the end zone.

The Vols have allowed opposing offenses inside the 20 nine times in three games this season. Only five of those times has a team come away with a touchdown. We saw the Vols turn away Cincinnati once at the goal line, and the Gators three times in the first half with excellent starting field position.

It's something last year's team was good at too. The Vol defense was 31st nationally in touchdown percentage in the red zone 2010, allowing 48 trips but only 25 TDs. Both this and last season, some of that is assisted by giving up big plays that come from outside the red zone, which has happened once in all three of UT's game this year. But two of those three were the direct responsibility of true freshmen, something I know is going to get better.

Last year the Vols gave up a ton of yards, but in many cases their points allowed didn't match up:

  • UAB: 544 yards, 29 points (23 in regulation)
  • LSU: 434 yards, 16 points (insert final play comment here)
  • South Carolina: 435 yards, 31 points (plus pick six)
  • Kentucky: 390 yards, 14 points
I'm quite sure Justin Wilcox doesn't want his calling card to be bending without breaking. But with this defense still growing up and dealing with a ton of inexperience, right now it's not a bad way to be. And if the Vols can build on what was really a better performance than many of us are in the mood to give them credit for, perhaps they can be a truly positive factor this year, instead of just the guys who are out there while Tyler Bray is catching his breath.

If the Vols could score 40 points a game with Justin Hunter, perhaps now the defense can hold up their end well enough for the Vols to still have a chance to win with a lesser offensive output. It feels like our most realistic hope right now.

The Record: Back Where We Began

I don't feel any different about the end result for this Tennessee team than I did in August. I still believe this is a team that will have a chance to win eight games - if Georgia loses to Mississippi State next week, odds are the Vols will be favored to win that game in Knoxville. That's a game Tennessee can absolutely win. And against softer front sevens against the Gamecocks and the Razorbacks, seeing what I've seen from Tyler Bray, I still believe the Vols can get in a shootout with those two teams and have a chance to win. Splitting those two would get you eight.

I do believe that if the Vols don't find either a run game or a reliable short passing game between now and mid-October, the defenses of LSU and Alabama will absolutely suffocate us, and Tennessee will have no chance in those games. There's little shame in saying that about two of the very best teams in the nation.

But what we lost with Justin Hunter was the hope that things could truly get back right away. The confidence many of us had going into Gainesville was that the Vols could not only beat Florida, but give themselves a chance to beat anybody on their schedule. We weren't expecting National Championships, but it felt like suddenly nine wins were on the table, and you were going to have a chance every single week.

But eight wins would still be a good year for this team, and I don't think eight wins is now off the table without Hunter. If something isn't done on offense, it will be. But if the defense can keep growing up and continue to improve, we'll need less on offense to help along the way.

Tennessee cannot replace Justin Hunter. But it can continue to improve in all other areas, especially on defense, so that Hunter's loss isn't felt so strongly, the season isn't lost, and this can very much still be a good year.