2013 Record: 5-7 (2-6 in SEC)
Head Coach: Butch Jones (second year at Tennessee, 55-34 All-Time)
Last Bowl Game: 2010 Music City Bowl: lost to UNC 30-27
Stadium: Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN (capacity = 102,455)
2013 Home Record: 4-3
Spring Game Highlights:
8/31 vs Utah State
9/6 vs Arkansas State
9/13 at Oklahoma
9/27 at Georgia (2013 result: lost 34-31 OT)
10/4 vs Florida (2013 result: lost 31-17)
10/11 vs Chattanooga
10/18 at Ole Miss
10/25 vs Alabama (2013 result: lost 45-10)
11/1 at South Carolina (2013 result: won 23-21)
11/15 vs Kentucky (2013 result: won 27-14)
11/22 vs Missouri (2013 result: lost 31-3)
11/29 at Vanderbilt (2013 result: lost 14-10)
Stats to Fear: turned the ball over 24 times in 2013 (last in SEC), had just 18 sacks in 2013 (last in SEC), allowed opponents to rush for 5.26 ypc in 2013 (13th in SEC) and allowed 207.33 rushing ypg (13th in SEC)
Stats to Cheer: held opponents to 73% score rate in the red zone (third in SEC), allowed only 15 sacks in 2013 (2nd in SEC)
Phil Steele’s Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 5, Special Teams: 0
Key Losses: RB Rajion Neal, T Antonio Richardson, C James Stone, G Zach Fulton, T Ja’Wuan James, DT Daniel McCullers, LB Dontavious Sapp, DL Corey Miller, DL Marlon Walls, K Michael Palardy
Key Defensive Returnees: LB AJ Johnson, LB Curt Maggitt, S Brian Randolph, S LaDarrell McNeil
Key Offensive Returnees: RB Marlin Lane (534 yds rush, 5.29 ypc, 4 TD), WR Marquez North (38 rec, 1 TD), WR Jason Croom (18 rec, 2 TD)
In year one of the Butch Jones regime, the Vols were up and down. The highlight of the season was a two point home victory over South Carolina, which came on the heels of a near OT win over Georgia, but that was quickly washed away by three back-to-back-to-back blowouts at the hand of Bama, Mizzou and Auburn. Despite winning just five games in Jones’s debut season, the Vols appear headed in the right direction. The big question is how long will it take them to get where they are going?
On offense, Tennessee is tied for the least amount of returning starters in the SEC because of the departure of their entire offensive line. The Vols must replace every starter on their OLine and they still haven’t found the right person to play quarterback. Sounds like a recipe for disaster.
So who will be the QB? Senior Justin Worley (55.6% completions, 10 TD, 8 INT), soph Joshua Dobbs (59.5% completions, 2 TD, 6 INT), soph Nathan Peterman (10 of 23 with 2 INT) or red-shirt freshman Riley Ferguson. They have options but none have stepped to the forefront. It sounds like Jones will go the route of giving the ball to the senior and then picking his replacement if he’s not up to par. Keep an eye on Riley Ferguson as he looks like the guy the Vols will turn to if Worley can’t help the Vols put Ws on the board early in the season.
Marlin Lane returns at RB and he’s a solid back (averaging over 5 ypc in each of the last two years) but someone needs to step up to help him carry the load. The likely candidate is frosh Jalen Hurd.
Tennessee’s cup runneth over at the WR position and that’s with Pig Howard’s status being uncertain. Marquez North returns as the go-to guy. He and frosh Josh Malone will make a formidable tandem in the coming years. Jason Croom and Josh Smith also return and when you add in early enrollee Von Pearson this will be a group that opposing teams will not want to line up against. The question remains, do the Vols have somebody who can consistently get the ball to the them?
And…can the offensive line hold up. Coming out of spring, the Vols appear to be set at four of the five offensive line positions but knowing that this group will be all new starters has to make for an uneasy feeling this off-season for the Vols coaching staff, quarterbacks and fans.
On defense, Tennessee has the same problem as on offense. They must replace everybody from their line. The Vols are the only team in the SEC to return 0 starters off of their defensive line. The DL struggled to stop the run last year so maybe that’s not such a bad thing but if they had better players, they probably would have been playing. The player to watch here is Curt Maggitt. Maggitt is listed as a linebacker but should see extended time at defensive end. Can he help the Vols with their experience issues on the line and more importantly can he help them get after the quarterback with more urgency and success than in 2013. Keeping Maggitt healthy (he is coming back from an ACL injury) could make or break this defense.
The back seven will be a strength for Tennessee with players like AJ Johnson, Brian Randolph (who was banged up this spring) and LaDarrell McNeil. The overall team speed on defense for Tennessee should start to show this year and they will need it with the inexperience up front.
The schedule makers did no favor to Jones this season. The Vols start off with Utah State and star QB Chuckie Keeton. That might not seem like much but it will be a fight, especially when you consider how the Vols struggled with the likes of South Alabama last season. After that it’s Arkansas State (who it feels like is on their 9th coach in 9 years) and then at Oklahoma. If the Vols start 2-1, consider it a success.
The in-conference schedule starts out with a bang for the Vols and like usual their schedule is back loaded with the easier games. That means starting with Georgia (on the road), then getting Florida at home, then on the road to Oxford, at home against the Tide and on the road against a revenge minded Gamecocks squad.
The key games for the Vols this year will be their conference home games against Florida, Kentucky and Mizzou and the two in-conference roadies against Ole Miss and Vandy. Circle those on the calendar and it will make the difference between three wins for the Vols and a bowl birth.
The Vols will be very young in 2014, mainly due to the last two regimes and how they recruited and maintained their roster. Jones is paying for the sins of the recent past and he will continue to pay this season. When you look around the Vols roster, there is talent but the Vols will continue to struggle because the talent is not evenly distributed throughout the roster. The Vols will be up and down again this year but I do expect them to win a game or two that most think they won’t and I think they will somehow find their way to a bowl game despite all of the growing pains they will go through in 2014. Maybe more important than wins and losses will be how youth is served on the roster this season. The future looks bright in Tennessee but it will take time.
Note: final predictions for all SEC teams will be made in August in my conference preview.