USA Today is counting down to to football season by taking an in-depth look at each team, and ranking them against each other. See what they have to say about the Vols' prospects this season, and why they ranked Tennessee at #62.
by Paul Myerberg, USA TODAY Sports
Tennessee was a few first downs, a third-down conversion, a fourth-down stop, a two-point conversion and an errant pass away from reaching bowl eligibility last fall, the program's third year under ex-coach Derek Dooley. These missteps - a few of many on the year - all came in the second half against Missouri, a game the Volunteers gave away on the second Saturday of November.
Let's say UT wins that game, doing one or two of the above to move to 5-5 with two games to play. Perhaps the Vols still lose to Vanderbilt; the Vols still beat Kentucky to reach six wins. Now, let's say UT wins its bowl game to finish with seven victories. Let's say the university sees enough progression to give Dooley another year - and that's a stretch, but stick with me.
Meet the one loss that might have changed the entire future of Tennessee football: Missouri 51, Tennessee 48. A catch here, a tackle there, a stop here, a kick there; could the Vols' inability to do anything right late in the Missouri defeat have led the program to Butch Jones, an absolute winner with the experience, schemes and blueprint to lead UT back to its perch among the nation's elite?
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION
You'll notice that Tennessee's strengths are predominately located on the offensive side of the ball. While the Vols have potential on defense, especially at linebacker, it will take time for this group to gel in Sunseri's new system. This is clear up front, where the line and linebackers take on different duties, but even the secondary is a concern - as noted, last year's solid finish against the pass was misleading. Looking at this team, what makes UT an SEC East contender is an offense with speed, athleticism and explosiveness to burn; what has Tennessee here, in third in the East, is the idea that the defense isn't yet up to snuff.
- In a nutshell: At least the offense improved. In 2011, Tennessee gained more than 290 yards against only one SEC opponent, Arkansas (376 yards), and would lose by 42 points. Last fall, the Vols gained at least 340 yards against every SEC foe but two, Alabama and Vanderbilt, and ended the year ranked 18th in the FBS in total offense, 15th in passing and 22nd in scoring. The offense went up; the defense went down with equal velocity. For example: UT allowed 555 yards and 8.81 yards per play to Florida. Florida. The byproduct of this imbalance was yet another losing season, the third in a row under Dooley and the fourth in five tries for one of college football's bluebloods, and the program's third coaching change since the 2008 season. Was last year's team worse than the Vols' 2011 version? Do we really need to have that conversation?
- High point: A 35-21 win against N.C. State in the season opener. Hope! Optimism! A quick-strike passing game and an opportunistic defense! It would be downhill from here.
- Low point: Just take your pick. What's one loss compared to another? Alabama dominated UT, of course. The Missouri loss was heartbreaking, if positive if hindsight, as noted. Vanderbilt texted with friends as it toyed with the Vols in a 41-18 win.
- Tidbit: Tennessee is in the midst of the worst five-year stretch in the program's modern era. UT has gone 28-34 since the start of the 2008 season, with one winning season and four years with seven or more losses, for a .452 winning percentage. Up next is UT's run from 1976-80, when the Vols went 27-28-1, a .482 winning percentage, with two losing seasons. Tennessee has now won only a single game in SEC for two years in a row. Prior to 2011, UT had notched just one SEC win only three times in program history: 1954, 1964 and 1977.
- Tidbit (recruiting edition): What can Jones do for UT? Check out what he's done already: Jones' initial recruiting class, thrown together in one month, ranked 21st in the FBS, according to Rivals.com. Though there's an eternity until next February, Rivals has the Vols' current group, 18 members strong and growing, as the best in the country.
- Tidbit (ugly losses edition): The Vols suffered six SEC losses over the last two years by 17 or more points. In comparison, UT went nine years, from 1993-2001, losing only two league games by the same margin: 31-0 to Florida in 1994 and 62-37 to Florida in 1995.
FORMER PLAYERS IN THE NFL
- 38: DE Robert Ayers (Denver), FB Ben Bartholomew (New England), S Eric Berry (Kansas City), QB Tyler Bray (Kansas City), LB Kevin Burnett (Oakland), P Dustin Colquitt (Kansas City), P Britton Colquitt (Denver), LS Morgan Cox (Baltimore), RB Arian Foster (Houston), OG Ramon Foster (Pittsburgh), DT Aubrayo Franklin (Indianapolis), CB Jabari Greer (New Orleans), LB Parys Haralson (San Francisco), RB Montario Hardesty (Cleveland), WR Justin Hunter (Tennessee), DE Malik Jackson (Denver), FB Austin Johnson (New Orleans), QB Peyton Manning (Tennessee), LB Jerod Mayo (New England), DE Turk McBride (Chicago), OG Jacques McClendon (Atlanta), DT Tony McDaniel (Seattle), DT Tony McDaniel (Seattle), WR Robert Meachem (San Diego), LB Marvin Mitchell (Minnesota), WR Denarius Moore (Oakland), WR Cordarrelle Patterson (Minnesota), RB Tauren Poole (Carolina), TE Mychal Rivera (Oakland), WR Zach Rogers (New York Jets), OG Chris Scott (Buffalo), OG Jarrod Shaw (Cleveland), QB Matt Simms (New York Jets), WR Donte' Stallworth (Washington), TE Luke Stocker (Tampa Bay), OG Dallas Thomas (Miami), C Scott Wells (St. Louis), DT Dan Williams (Arizona), TE Jason Witten (Dallas).
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST
- PBS personalities
1. Bob Vila
2. Carl Sagan
3. F. Murray Abraham
4. Neil deGrasse Tyson
5. Michael Wood
- Butch Jones (Ferris State '90), entering his first season. What separates Jones from Dooley and Lane Kiffin, Tennessee's last two failed hires? Winning, that's what. Unlike Dooley, who brought a losing record to Knoxville from Louisiana Tech, and unlike Kiffin, who brought only similar NFL experience, Jones has won games and conference titles at two different FBS stops. Over six seasons at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, Jones proved himself as a builder, a maintainer and a dogged recruiter, not to mention a coach wholly confident in his schemes and blueprint for winning consistently with the hand he's dealt.
He's fresh off a three-year turn at Cincinnati, where he rebounded from a four-win debut to win at least nine games in each of the last two seasons. In each year, the Bearcats tied for first in the Big East, losing a BCS bid due to head-to-head tiebreakers. This stint followed a three-year run at Central Michigan, where Jones posted a 29-13 record and one Mid-American Conference championship. It was a happy return to CMU for Jones, who served as an assistant coach with the Chippewas from 1998-2004, including a three-year stint (2001-3) as offensive coordinator. Following the 2004 season, Jones left to serve as Rich Rodriguez's wide receivers coach at West Virginia. In total, he brings to UT a 50-27 career mark with one losing season, four years with eight or more wins, two years with 10 or more wins and one 11-win season, in his final year with the Chippewas. At each stop, he replaced current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.
The Kelly connection - the idea that Jones won solely due to Kelly's work as his predecessor - has evaporated. Yes, Kelly was the coach who first brought CMU out of its generation-long malaise, but don't allow that in any way to detract from the job Jones did smoothly transitioning his coaching staff while keeping in place the same offense that Kelly had implemented to perfection over his term in Mount Pleasant. After back-to-back national rankings at Cincinnati, Jones has become his own man: Tennessee hired a program-builder, a coach with the deft touch and clear vision for remaking this program into one of the SEC's best.
- Tidbit (coaching edition): Far, far too often, a coach moving up the ladder - as Jones is in 2013 - opts to remake his coaching staff with bigger-name assistants more familiar with the new league or conference. Not Jones. The majority of UT's staff comes over from Cincinnati: defensive line coach Steve Stripling, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian, defensive coordinator John Jancek, tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Mark Elder and offensive line coach Don Mahoney. In my mind, the lone key figure behind UC's rise not along for the ride is former receivers coach T.J. Weist, now the offensive coordinator at Connecticut. Jones will fill Weist's shoes with former Florida and Wisconsin assistant Zach Azzanni. He's one of four assistants with past SEC experience, joining defensive backs coach Willie Martinez, running backs coach Robert Gillespie and linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
- Offense: Hey, at least UT has a leg up on Alabama in one area: With the Tide's changes up front, Tennessee can proudly claim ownership to the SEC's best offensive line. The Vols return four of last season's starters, and it's easy to make a case for all four earning postseason accolades: junior Antonio Richardson at left tackle, senior James Stone at center, senior Zach Fulton at right guard and senior Ju'Wuan James at right tackle. Richardson's the anchor, a franchise tackle with surprisingly adept footwork - given his mammoth frame - and a wonderful mean streak. But the unit as a whole is superb, with James finding a home on the strong side, Fulton a strong and physical blocker at right guard and Stone one of the two most experienced centers in the SEC. The lone new face, junior Marcus Jackson, will move up a peg and replace Dallas Thomas at left guard. It's obvious that Dooley left Jones a full cupboard up front, not merely with this starting five but also with reserves like Alex Bullard, Kyler Kerbyson, Alan Posey and others. This group will set the tempo for Jones' first offense.
They'll also open holes for a rededicated running game. Two issues with UT's backfield: one, there's a lack of depth behind senior Rajion Neal (708 yards) and junior Marlin Lane (658 yards), and two, this pair has not shown an ability to reel off long plays from scrimmage - which is a little surprising, given their own athleticism and how potent the Vols' passing game was at times in 2012. One thing Jones' tenure at Cincinnati illustrated was his desire to find a lead back and a speed back while landing consistent production from his quarterback, with the latter a factor in the team's ongoing quarterback competition. Will one of Neal or Lane step forward as the Vols' bell-cow, putting the other into a secondary role? Perhaps, but given this front and the team's lack of experience under center, look for both to notch 125-plus carries in 2013. What's vital for UT is developing a third and fourth option during fall camp.
Tennessee returns only three receivers with any level of manageable experience: Vincent Dallas (9 receptions for 149 yards), Jacob Carter (8 for 126) and Pig Howard (13 for 54). Including Howard in this group might be a stretch; while he played as a true freshman, most of his action came in situational packages and not as a traditional receiver. Perhaps more so than any position on this roster - and this is saying something - look for UT to rely greatly on true and redshirt freshmen. Drae Bowls and Jason Croom are two bigger targets coming off redshirt years; February's class included four recruits, two with four-star billing, and the entire quartet must be prepared to play early. Obviously, any team in the FBS would struggle replacing receivers like Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter and Zach Rogers. For Tennessee, its ability to remain afloat hinges entirely on the play of the youngsters. There's talent here, but it's incredibly raw. The Vols also have a hole at tight end, where the offense will look to duplicate Mychal Rivera's impact with the group of junior Brendan Downs, sophomore Justin King, JUCO transfer Woody Quinn and a handful of unknowns.
- Defense: Tennessee will move back to the 4-3 after spending 2012 in the 3-4, which is good news. While there were certain pieces recruited to play in the previous system, UT's talent does fit a return to the more traditional scheme, by and large. The one unit that may struggle adapting to the 4-3 is this defensive front, where former 3-4 ends begin to move inside and former outside linebackers transition down to end. But here's one thing to consider: Jones, Jancek and Stripling led Cincinnati through a similar transition three years ago, and we know how well that went - it went pretty well, if you don't recall. There's still some pressure on Stripling to rework this front to match up with the SEC's mostly physical brand of offensive football.
Any line with senior Daniel McCullers (39 tackles, 5.5 for loss) in the middle should be tough to move, right? McCullers, a 350-pound behemoth, should continue to occupy blockers and demand attention along the interior of the Vols' front. He's one of a few seasoned tackles, joining fellow seniors Maurice Couch (38 tackles), Daniel Hood and Marlon Walls, and this group will team with holdovers like Trevarris Saulsberry, Allan Carson and Gregory Clark - three untested underclassmen - to give UT some beef inside. In a perfect world, the Vols won't need to go far beyond the top four. On the outside, look for senior Jacques Smith (33 tackles, 7.0 for loss) to transition to the line from linebacker and junior Jordan Williams to move down from the hybrid end-linebacker role he held in last year's defense. Walls remains an option at end, especially if UT wants to get bigger; also in the mix is true freshman Jason Carr, who could start at end before adding enough weight to move to the interior. The biggest key: UT needs ends who can take advantage of the attention paid in McCullers' direction.
Tennessee finished last season ranked second-to-last in the SEC in pass defense despite not facing Texas A&M; Arkansas (14th in the SEC), Mississippi (11th) and Missouri (10th) all felt the Aggies' wrath. Worse yet: UT allowed 26 touchdowns against 12 interceptions despite holding N.C. State, Georgia State and Akron to one touchdown against eight interceptions. It was not a banner season for a program known for producing elite defensive backs. Any good news? Of course. For one, last year's sour play could be tied to the secondary's lack of experience. This fall, the Vols return several defensive backs with growing experience in the SEC, such as junior cornerback Justin Coleman (59 tackles) and safeties Brian Randolph, LaDarrell McNeil (58 tackles) and Bryon Moore (86 tackles, 5 interceptions). Moore, a senior, will be an undisputed team leader from his spot at safety, whether that's free or strong; he played both last season, ending at free safety, but could fit into either spot depending on how the staff feels about Randolph and McNeil. JUCO transfer Riyahd Jones is penciled in as the starter opposite of Coleman, but that could change during fall camp. Believe me: UT can't do a worse job than it did last season. The added experience will yield an improvement against the pass.
The Vols have a pair of very solid - and that might be underselling this duo - returning starters at linebacker. In the middle, UT returns junior A.J. Johnson (138 tackles, 8.5 for loss), last year's leading tackler in the SEC and a very easy preseason pick for all-conference honors. On the strong side, the Vols will again turn to junior Curt Maggitt (30 tackles), who turned in a very promising 2011 campaign before injuries and a lack of comfort in the previous system led to a bit of a sophomore slump. To replace Herman Lathers on the weak side, UT could promote senior Dontavis Sapp, who had a terrific spring, or utilize converted safety Brent Brewer (27 tackles) - or use both, which seems likely. Brewer could be an asset in passing situations. If not as good as Alabama's group, not as fast as LSU's monsters or as explosive as Mississippi's young crop, the Vols' linebacker corps is an unquestioned strength for this defense.
- Special teams: UT returns every piece from last season's kicking game, if that's a good thing. Perhaps the staff would be wise to take some duties off senior Michael Palardy's plate; he did it all for the Vols in 2012, though nothing particularly well. He's better than last season might have indicated. Once again, UT will have other options, like Matt Darr at punter and Derrick Brodus at kicker. Any projected improvement from UT's specialists will be tempered by the decline in the return game, as replacing a player of Patterson's elusiveness would task every program in the FBS.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH
- Quarterback: Tennessee's open competition includes four contenders: junior Justin Worley, redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman and true freshmen Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson. Worley and Peterman were the top quarterbacks during spring drills - Dobbs and Ferguson join the program over the summer - with Worley taking a slight lead heading into offseason conditioning. If nothing else, Worley can tout some experience: UT used him as a freshman in 2011 and again last fall, with most of his experience coming over a three-game span two years ago. One area where Worley seems lacking for this system in his lack of adequate mobility, a bit of a prerequisite for Jones' quarterbacks. Hence Peterman's ability to remain an option in this race, though he did not arrive in Knoxville with the same level of accolades as Dobbs, one of the gems of February's signing class. Could Jones really go with a freshman starter in the SEC? This isn't rare for UT: Tyler Bray started as a freshman in 2010 and Worley did the same a year later. But to truly grab the starting job, Dobbs, Ferguson or Peterman needs to illustrate to Jones the sort of take-charge mentality he desires from the position. Here's the thing: Jones' system will make lemonade out of lemons - not these guys are lemons - and his staff will tailor a plan to fit its personnel, so starting a rookie is not necessarily a recipe for disaster. This freshman-dominated competition will be one of the SEC's defining storylines during fall camp. Do not be surprised if Jones and UT turn the reins to a rookie - and don't be surprised if this great offensive line keeps the new starter clean as a whistle.
GAME(S) TO WATCH
- Alabama: UT doesn't need to beat Alabama in Jones' first season, but it'd be nice to keep things close - the Vols have lost six in a row to the Tide by a combined 139 points, the last three by 31 points apiece. To reach six wins, UT must sweep Austin Peay, Western Kentucky, South Alabama and Kentucky and take two of three from Missouri, Auburn and Vanderbilt, or take two or three of the toss-up games and steal an upset against Oregon, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. Basically, the schedule does not allow for any missteps. Such is life in the SEC for a rebuilding program.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION
- In a nutshell: Enjoy this, Butch Jones, because this is the closest you'll get to a pressure-free season at Tennessee. Oh, there's pressure - just not the sort of pressure he'll get in 2014, 2015 and so on down the line; embrace it, revel in it, but don't get comfortable. Do get cracking, however, making some tough decisions at quarterback, wide receiver, defensive end, weak side linebacker and cornerback, and do so as soon as humanly possible. For UT, every practice between today and Austin Peay is absolutely, positively priceless. Good thing Jones knows how to make every second count.
Now, this is not a great team. It might be a great roster - there's your typical Tennessee-level talent, the sort of youth that should develop tremendously under Jones - but it's not a great team, if you understand the distinction. There's a great chance UT goes with a freshman quarterback. There's no proven depth at running back beyond the top pair. The receiver corps is frighteningly young and unproven. The defensive front might struggle moving back into the 4-3 system. The secondary is better, but those familiar with last year's defense understand that better is a relative term. What the Vols have heading into fall camp is a superb offensive line, speed to burn on offense, a healthy amount of experience on defense and questions to burn. Oh, and they have a heck of a new coach.
I think Jones rallies this team to six wins, but I could see UT ending anywhere from 4-8 to 7-5 - and I'd be more surprised by the latter than the former. Part of this has to do with the schedule, which pits UT against five teams in most folks' top 10: Oregon, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. Other reasons include the youth, the coaching change and the shift in schemes, each of which will present a hurdle for the Vols to overcome. Anything else? Jones' history suggests that UT won't hit its stride in year one, but rather year two. That doesn't bother me: I think Jones gets the Vols into the postseason by taking care of the weak opponents and notching three wins in SEC play. Jones will lead the way; UT's going to follow.
- Dream season: Tennessee goes 9-3, losing only to Oregon, Florida and Alabama, building tremendous hope and optimism for the future.
- Nightmare season: The Vols win only three games - Austin Peay, Western Kentucky and South Alabama - and fail to notch a single win against SEC competition.
IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING
- Where Tennessee fans hang out: A number of options. Message board options include Vol Nation, Vol Quest, Vols to the Wall and Inside Tennessee. For additional coverage, take a trip to Rocky Top Talk and Go Vols Xtra, the latter a blog from The Knoxville News Sentinel.
- All-name team nominee: WR Pig Howard.
- Who is No. 61? This team has not thrown an interception on third down and three yards or less since the 2009 season.
2013 TEAM OVERVIEW
- Conference: SEC, East
- Location: Knoxville, Tenn.
- Nickname: Volunteers
- Returning starters: 13 (5 offense, 8 defense)
- Last year's ranking: No. 28
- 2012 record: 5-7 (1-7)
- Last year's re-ranking: No. 78
- 2013 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
Paul Myerberg, a national college football writer for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @PaulMyerberg.
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