Butch Jones has arrived in Tennessee, and  it’s his job to right a ship that pretty much sank under the ‘stewardship’ of Derek Dooley. The good news is is that he still has some playmakers and weapons playing for him – they didn’t all decide to transfer. The bad news is is that the Vols are playing catch-up in a nasty SEC and an even nastier division – the SEC East, where the ‘haves’ are Georgia, South Carolina and Florida….and former ‘little brother’ Vanderbilt are becoming the conference’s hottest story.

So how will things work out in 2013. Here’s our preview.

LAST YEAR

It’s strange, because last year wasn’t a truly awful one for Tennessee….at the start, anyway. The Vols ranked fashionable dark horse NC State 35-21 in the first game, and scored 50 in their home opener to quickly go 2-0. Then came Florida. The Vols took a 14-10 lead into half-time – and it could have been more had the Vols offense (and in particular Justin Hunter, who dropped a couple of key catches) been able to take their chances. They then lost heart in the second half, and Florida won out a more-convincing-than-the-scoreline-suggested 37-20 winners. After being Akron, Dooley’s team then lost a shoot-out against Georgia 51-44, turning a 21-10 first quarter deficit into a 30-27 lead in the second. They were 51-44 with 15 seconds to go and had the chance to take the game to overtime before Tyler Bray was intercepted by Sanders Commings. More bad luck for Dooley – and more horrific defense, too. Losses at Mississippi State and at home to Alabama followed, and Jadeveon Clowney’s freakish play in the dying seconds of the South Carolina game (you know, the one where Marcus Lattimore broke his leg in one of the most sickening moments of the 2012 season), ensured that the Vols lost 38-35 and Derek Dooley’s job was basically over. Squeaking by 55-48 against Troy hardly did the coach’s job any favours, and a 4 OT loss to Missouri, followed by the 41-18 annihilation at Vanderbilt ensured Dooley was fired before the final game against Kentucky, which the Vols actually won 37-17.

Why did we go into so much detail on this? Because it’s interesting to note out that the Vols actually weren’t as bad as their 5-7 (1-7 SEC) record suggested. They lost three games by a touchdown or under. They led against Florida and didn’t get the breaks. They were 22nd in the country in scoring offense (although their defense was 104th in the country).

But what killed the Tennessee fans, boosters and probably AD Dave Hart, probably wasn’t the fact the UT went 0-3 against South Carolina, Florida and Georgia – they could have easily gone 2-1 in those games. It was the fact that they went 0-3 against Vanderbilt, Missouri and Mississippi State – all three games that would have been ‘winnable’ on a Vols fan’s schedule.

OFFENSE

There is one thing that will help the Vols once they’ve got this situation dealt with: They’ve got an excellent and experienced offensive line. It’s stacked with future first and second-round NFL picks, led by Antonio Richardson, and are No. 2 in the country in total starts. So that’ll help the QBs’ necks, then. Now for their arms…

Justin Worley might know this offense, but he’s missing a ton of it. Gone are coach Derek Dooley, brilliant receiver/returner Cordarrelle Patterson and receiver (brilliant sometimes) Justin Hunter, as well as TE Mychal Rivera, who was great as a blocker and a catcher.

Athalon Sports preview said: “Worley will likely win the job because he’s taken Gen. Robert Neyland’s first maxim of football to heart….”The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win“. They’ve got Worley beating Pearlman and Ferguson to the job. But if I’m a Vols fan, I’d be worried that Worley couldn’t stand out during Spring practice. It’s a reason why the battle is still on, and not Worley’s. Ferguson might bring a good arm to the UT table after throwing for nearly 6,000 yards in his last two years at high school, but who’s he going to throw to? Some people believe Pearlman’s getting the job, by the way.

A lot of people are talking up freshman receiver Marquez North, who’ll combine with freshman Jason Croom. Marlin Lane had exactly ZERO TDs last year. In a word: gulp.

DEFENSE

The Vols return eight defensive starters this year, but as a friend of mine puts it: “If they weren’t very good last season, it doesn’t really matter if you return all 11”. That’s probably a valid point. No-one on the team distinguished themselves last season – unless it was giving up a ton of points and looking terrible against the pass (282.5 yards per game) and a little less terrible against the run (188.8 yards per game).

Some previews blame that about the installing of a 3-4 defense, so a return having four men up front hopefully will stop some of the SEC runners (Tennessee fans will pray so against one of the rougher schedules in college football!). More will be required of defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, who disappointed in ’13, and DT Maurice Couch and DE Jacques Smith will be equally required to improve from terrible seasons. LB A.J. Johnson may well be someone you see on Sundays – especially if he can repeat his excellent 138 tackles in 2012, leading the team by far. Vols fans will be hoping he becomes a sack threat – he only had one last year (the top returning ‘sackmeister’ are LB Curt Maggitt, Smith and DE Jordan Williams, who had 2 apiece. Because by God, the Vols need to learn how to pressure a quarterback- particularly with the offenses they’ll face.

Secondary-wise, Brian Randolph, a safety who Orange Nation had a lot of hopes for before he was injured in the Florida game, returns, which gives the secondary a bit of hope. It was so awful last season that fans feel that they need it.

THE SCHEDULE

Aug 31  AUSTIN PEAY 
Sept 7 WESTERN KENTUCKY 
Sept 14 at Oregon 
Sept 21 at Florida 
Sept 28 SOUTH ALABAMA
Oct 5 GEORGIA 
Oct 19 SOUTH CAROLINA 
Oct 26 at Alabama  
Nov 2, at Missouri 
Nov 9 AUBURN 
Nov 23 VANDERBILT 
Nov 30 at Kentucky 

Whoever the Tennessee offense gets, they’d better click by the time they face upset-minded Western Kentucky in Week 2, who are coached by Bobby Petrino, who knows something about a high-octane offense. Well, even if they get through that unscathed, Butch Jones’ real baptism of fire will be back-to-back games against the high-tempo Oregon, and the high-tempo defense of Florida, followed by a ‘game’ against South Alabama before back-to-back battles with Georgia and South Carolina at Neyland. Then it’s an easy road trip to Alabama followed by a match-up with Missouri in Columbia before Vols fans get to see Auburn and Vanderbilt visit Neyland. Then it’s Kentucky on the road to polish the season off.

BOTTOM LINE

THE OPTIMIST SAYS: Tennessee goes 2-0 to start the season, doesn’t embarrass itself against Oregon, Florida, Georgia, Carolina and Alabama, recovers to beat Mizzou, beats Auburn who have some of the same issues in defense that they do, beat Kentucky and get back to winning ways against ‘Little Brother’ Vanderbilt, going for a 6-6 season and a bowl game. On the offensive side, Marquez North becomes the next Cordarrelle and Justin, and Vols fans breathe easy behind good quarterbacking. Oh, and ‘D’ is better-than-average, too.

THE PESSIMIST SAYS: Listen, Butch Jones could be an offensive master and Marquez North could be the next Sammy Watkins, Amari Cooper, Marqise Lee and Jerry Rice rolled into one, but we still don’t see the Vols getting beyond five wins – and it could be even worse than that. Why? Their ‘D’ remains poor. Austin Peay and South Alabama are the only definite wins on the list. Western Kentucky is good at upsets. Vanderbilt has all the momentum. Auburn has Gus Malzahn and a high-tempo offense that the ‘D’ won’t be able to live with. Columbia, Missouri won’t be easy and the fans will be loud and desperate. As will Mark Stoops at Kentucky, who by then will be screaming out for their first SEC victory. Oh, and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and those tiny teams Alabama and Oregon might as well be ‘Ls’ on the list. This side could easily go 4-8 or even 3-9, or even worse, 2-10. That’s how bad the ‘D’ is.

THE NEUTRAL: Tennessee scares South Carolina and Georgia for a bit at Neyland, but the season is a ‘rebuilding’ one, and the Vols finish 4-8. 

 

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