I suspect there are very few Tennessee fans unhappy with the Volunteer football team right now. In nine games this season, Kiffin’s boys have done what was rationally expected of them. They’ve been competitive against good teams, they’ve beaten similar ones and pounded lesser ones. The UCLA and Auburn losses still sting and it’s frustrating to think that the Vols are that close to being a nationally ranked 7-2 contender. Still, look at the progress.

In really any sport, when the elements of a team are collectively unfamiliar with each other, it takes time for coaches and players to learn their roles. Thinking about those early losses makes Tennessee’s 2009 team no exception. Even the most unbiased observer has to admit the Vols would stand a much greater chance to beat both UCLA and Auburn at this point in the season. If your counter argument to this high level of play is that it came too late in the season, think about that. Isn’t that asking a little too much out of your 34 year old rookie coach? I think so. You can’t just produce a contender after 6 months on the job. This team has gotten better every week, and that’s really all I care about.

CROMPTON – In case you guys didn’t know, Jonathan can play. His mountain values have carried him lately, and he has made a remarkable turnaround in his career. Amazing Crompy Stat #1: JC is currently 4th in the nation (that’s err’ body) with 21 touchdown passes on the season. Count ’em: THREE quarterbacks in all of college football have thrown more touchdowns this year. Astounding. Amazing Crompy Stat #2: In UT’s last four games, the Crompster has a 14 to 2 touchdown to interception ratio. I’ll pause so you can pick up your jaw….I mean, are you guys as blown away by our quarterback as I am? Because we’ve discussed the subject at length here at 16th and Highland, I don’t want to dive into it too deep. I’ll simply say this: to go from being incapable of leading a team to victory against Wyoming, to having a breakout game to start the season, to only disappoint Big Orange fans with reminiscent performances early, to where he is now – Crompton has just been a very pleasant surprise. Doesn’t a 7 to 1 TD to INT ratio in the past four games (3 of them SEC, including nationally ranked Alabama and Carolina) make him the SEC’s best quarterback over that span? Am I crazy? And I really hate to go this far because of all the variables, but it’s worth noting at this point that continued success could lead to Jonathan Crompton’s drafting into the NFL. He’s 6-4 with a live arm and the numbers (if he stays on pace) to boot. Sure, the League will take into account his prior struggles, but there’s no way NFL teams will view his shortcomings with the disdain that UT’s fanbase did last year. All I’m saying is that quarterbacks with Crompton’s measurables and stats usually get drafted. They should invent an award for what Kiffin, Chaney, and David Reaves have done with this guy. And in no way do I say that to point out how bad Crompton has been in the past, but instead to celebrate the incredible improvements he’s made.

RECEIVERS – Going hand in hand with Crompton’s success is the emergence of the receiving corps that was lethargic early on, especially against Auburn. Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore, and Luke Stocker all have great chemistry with Crompy right now. Even Nu’Keese, Hancock, and Teague are looking better at this point.This mutual improvement between QB and wideouts doesn’t diminish the individual progress made by the receivers. Guys are running better routes, getting more seperation, and are making things happen after the catch.

RUNNING BACKS – Even if you take into account the immediate success of Tennessee’s run game this season, the weekly improvements by our backs are there. Bryce seems to be gaining a step as he continues to battle a hip flexer, and Hardesty is still full steam ahead. I’m so thankful he’s been able to stay healthy. The backs’ improvements extend to special teams, evidenced by David Oku’s opening kickoff return against Memphis. The fourth back, Tauren Poole, got sent to the locker room early Saturday night, seemingly because of an act of frustration. That’s understandable, given that Poole is a pretty good back and he just isn’t getting many chances in UT’s crowded backfield. Sadly for Poole, this is a good problem for the Vol coaching staff.

OFFENSIVE LINE – The big uglies have improved along with the rest of the offense. Freshman Aaron Douglas has come on strong at right tackle. The tight end in him makes him a dynamic tackle, very strong and athletic. He has great potential. The Sullins twins have performed admirably as of late, and mainstays Chris Scott and Jacques McClendon continue to get the job done. Hardesty’s 100 ypg average is a great testament to the O-line’s effectiveness.

DEFENSIVE LINE – Dan Williams has become Tennessee’s best defensive tackle since Justin Harrell. His speed makes him a very intriguing player and he should be great at the next level. He and Chris Walker (5.5 sacks) have led Orgeron’s unit this season while freshman tackle Montori Hughes and junior end Ben Martin have developed into reliable starters. Senior Wes Brown continues to get everything he can out of his knees. And the depth has strengthened on the defensive line, with one-time starter Gerald Williams and Willie Bohannon becoming very capable backups at end. Freshman Marlon Walls is seeing a lot of action at tackle and Andre Mathis has also contributed.

LINEBACKER – The ‘backer play might be the most impressive among UT’s position units given its utter depletion at this point. With Nick Reviez and Savy Frazier crutchin’ it on the sidelines, freshmen Herman Lathers and Nigel Mitchell Thornton passed their first test at middle linebacker against Memphis. Hopefully they can be consistent in this final SEC stretch. Lathers is an especially good looking prosect. Senior leader Rico McCoy has shored up his game as the season has progressed. For most of his career, the only gripe with Rico has been missed tackles; his 76 tackles are 4th most in the SEC. He also leads the SEC in forced fumbles with 4 on the year. LaMarcus Thompson has also played really well.

DEFENSIVE BACKS – The DB’s improvement can be traced by the following  stat: in each of UT’s last four games, the opposing leading receiver has been a big, fast, downfield threat (UM’s Duke Calhoun, USC’s Alshon Jeffrey, Bama’s Julio Jones, UGA’s A.J. Green). Those four receivers averaged just 5 catches and 52 yards against Tennessee. None of them caught touchdowns, an amazing feat for UT’s D. Monte Kiffin has done a phenomenal job of re-learning the college game on the fly and adapting his defense accordingly. Eric Berry was around the ball all night against Memphis and stepped oh-so-much closer to the NCAA INT return yardage record. Dennis Rogan has been solid and despite his recent suspension, Janzen Jackson has been a stalwart. Monte is salivating at the thought of having Janzen for at least the next two years.

A 5-4 record is generally not very impressive but anyone who has watched Tennessee this season knows its wins and losses aren’t indicative of its level of play. The Vols are a different team whichever way you slice it. Did you know we are the least penalized team in the SEC? How about the fact that UT’s 12 fourth down conversions are the SEC’s second most, and its opponents’ 3 are tied for least? Have you considered Tennessee’s presence in the upcoming NFL draft? By my count, there are 10 Vols that could potentially be drafted . Yes, they are Fulmer recruited players, but at least half didn’t stand a chance at being drafted at this time last season.

If the Vols run the table, win a New Year’s Day bowl, and finish 9-4, it would be one of the better turnarounds in recent SEC history and Kiffin should receive serious consideration for SEC Coach of the Year. You may say I’m getting ahead of myself and you’re probably right, but at this point, I expect my Vols to win these last three games. I don’t know what percentage of that statement is objective football analysis and what is fan bias, but fan or not, you can’t help but be impressed with Lane Kiffin’s 5-4 Tennessee Volunteers.