The college football season is a couple of months away, but the countdown to 2012 has officially begun. Athlon Sports’ 2012 preseason annuals will be hitting newsstands in early June and its official top 25 countdown will begin on May 1. Picking the order of finish in each conference and compiling the top 25 is no easy task. Each day leading up to the release of No. 25 on May 1, Athlon’s editors will tackle some of the top preseason debates and question marks facing the teams and conferences for 2012.
Tennessee or Vanderbilt: More SEC Wins in 2012
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
The reaction to the 2011 season for Tennessee and Vanderbilt says everything about the two programs. In Nashville, coach James Franklin is a rock star after going to a bowl in his first season at Vanderbilt. In Knoxville, coach Derek Dooley is sweating even though his team finished only one game behind Vanderbilt in the standings. That’s with good reason. It’s probably tougher to take Vanderbilt to a bowl game than to go 1-7 in the SEC at Tennessee. I think the Volunteers will overtake Vanderbilt again, despite all the momentum and mojo at Vandy. If Tennessee gets full seasons from a healthy quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receiver Justin Hunter, the Volunteers are probably a bowl team. Bray started the season with 14 touchdowns and two interceptions in the first four games, three of those with Hunter. Vanderbilt should continue to improve under Franklin, but I wonder if this might be a year when the Commodores take a dip. They’ll be better with Jordan Rodgers as the primary quarterback teaming with running back Zac Stacy all year, but they won’t catch anyone off guard either. My biggest concern about Vanderbilt is the loss of some key defensive players – Tim Fugger, Chris Marve and Casey Hayward. Tennessee and Vanderbilt are going to compete for a lower-tier SEC bowl, so there’s not much separation here. I’m still picking Tennessee to be marginally better.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
The Dores get the big leg up in the crossover scheduling department. Vanderbilt will not face Alabama, LSU or Arkansas in 2012 and instead visits Ole Miss and hosts Auburn. Tennessee, on back-to-back weekends, must visit Mississippi State before hosting the defending champions on the Third Saturday in October.
Unfortunately for the Commodores, however, they have a brutal early conference slate. South Carolina comes to town to open the season on Thursday night before the Dores have to visit Missouri and Georgia all in the first five games of the season. It doesn’t get any easier with Florida and Auburn then visiting West End by October 20. How good — and healthy — will Vanderbilt be in the final four weeks of the season could be crucial to returning to the postseason. They have winnable games against Ole Miss, Kentucky and Tennessee to start November.
Tennessee does have to travel to Nashville to face the Commodores and fans on both sides can bet James Franklin hasn’t let his team forget how the Vols celebrated the overtime win in Knoxville last season. Tennessee’s schedule is tougher in the middle but has winnable games at the backend as well. The two swings games in this debate are the head-to-head at Vanderbilt Stadium and each’s contest with SEC newbie Missouri. Tennessee gets the Tigers late in the year at home, while Vandy has to visit Mizzou.
I will pick the Vols to beat Mizzou at home and Vandy on the road. This will give Tennessee a one-game edge in the standings over the Dores.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
No matter which way you want to rank the teams, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina seem to be the clear top three in the SEC East for 2012. Missouri, Tennessee and Vanderbilt can each make a case to be ranked fourth and there’s not really much separation between the three teams.
This is really going to be an interesting season for Vanderbilt and Tennessee. Coach Derek Dooley has his back against the wall with the Volunteers, especially after losing to Kentucky and missing out on a postseason berth last year. The Commodores are on the rise under second-year coach James Franklin, but they were hit hard by key losses on defense.
If quarterback Tyler Bray can stay healthy and become a better leader for Tennessee, I like the Volunteers to barely edge Vanderbilt for the better record in SEC play. The crossover schedule with the West slightly favors the Commodores, playing Ole Miss on the road and hosting Auburn. And Vanderbilt hosts South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee, so there is the potential for a few upsets. Tennessee hosts Florida and Missouri, which is a good opportunity to pickup two key conference wins. I wouldn’t be shocked to see both teams tie in SEC wins at the end of the season, but a desperate Tennessee team will edge Vanderbilt in the final East standings.
Chris Lee, VandySports.com (@ChrisLee70)
Tennessee is primed for improvement, returning 20 starters, and perhaps most importantly, gets quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Justin Hunter back healthy. Combine that with receivers Da’Rick Rogers, and newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson, and UT’s passing attack is lethal. The defense isn’t dominant, but it did finish 27th a year ago, and has one of America’s more experienced secondaries.
While Vandy quarterback Jordan Rodgers and receivers Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews can’t match UT in talent, but the trio makes tons of big plays. The ‘Dores are loaded at running back with Zac Stacy and Warren Norman, and perhaps the fastest freshman in America in Brian Kimbrow. Defensively, VU returns most players from America’s 18th-best defense, coached defensive genius Bob Shoop.
Vandy finished a game ahead of UT last year, but lost to the Vols head-to-head. The Commodores have two small scheduling advantages, too: they play Auburn and Ole Miss where Tennessee plays Alabama and Mississippi State, and they get the Vols in Nashville. Still, I think UT’s explosive offensive talent puts the Vols just a notch ahead – but given the off-field problems with players and the revolving door of assistants under coach Derek Dooley, I wouldn’t bet money on it.
Barrett Sallee, Lead SEC Blogger for Bleacher Report (@BarrettSallee)
Tennessee will have a better record than Vanderbilt, but it'll be close. The pressure is on in Knoxville, and head coach Derek Dooley knows that. Injuries really hampered the Vols last season, but with quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receiver Justin Hunter back, that offense is set to be explosive yet again. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri is finally getting a break and getting his shot at being a coordinator at the FBS level, and the addition of junior college transfer Darrington Sentimore on the defensive line should help the Vols as they transition to the 3-4.
Color me skeptical on Vanderbilt. I know James Franklin is a rock star in Nashville, and the Commodores were a couple of bad breaks away from being an eight-win team, but I think that six or seven wins may be the ceiling there.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
Both teams will probably be in the 4-4/3-5 range in league play, so this answer comes down to the head-to-head matchup I think Tennessee wins at Vanderbilt Stadium (or Neyland West to Vols fans), so Derek Dooley’s club gets the nod. Everything went wrong for Tennessee in 2011, but a healthy Tyler Bray at quarterback and Justin Hunter at receiver could mean big offensive numbers in 2012. Receiver Da’Rick Rogers can be a star, and the running game will be better with an improved offensive line under Sam Pittman’s leadership. There is talent on the Vols defense, but the adjustment to new coordinator Sal Sunseri’s 3-4 scheme may take time. Vanderbilt should have a solid offense led by running back Zac Stacy and quarterback Jordan Rodgers, but the defense lost some high-end talent and experience with the departures of Tim Fugger, Chris Marve Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson. The Commodores have a schedule advantage by drawing Auburn and Ole Miss from the West, but I’ll still take the Vols to be much-improved and finish better than the Dores.
Other SEC Spring Preview Content:
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Ranking the SEC's Head Coaches for 2012
Ranking College Football's Top 25 Head Coaches for 2012
Missouri or Texas A&M: Which Team Will Have More Wins in 2012?
College Football's Top Transfers to Watch for 2012
College Football's Top Spring QB Battles to Watch
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat