Rant Sports College Football Top 100 countdown makes a stop in Knoxville, Tenn., to preview the No. 51 team, the Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols look to rebound from yet another disappointing season, continuing the recent woes of one of the top programs SEC history.
Tennessee suffered a 5-7 (1-7) record in 2012 after high preseason expectations. Despite ranking in the top-25 for passing offense (No. 15) and point scored (No. 22), the Vols struggled defensively, finishing at No. 107 in both total defense and points allowed.
Their abysmal SEC record and a blowout loss to Vanderbilt led to the long foreseen firing of former head coach Derek Dooley, who finished his tenure at UT with a losing record in each of his three seasons and zero bowl game victories.
In stepped former Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, who has the Tennessee faithful optimistic of a long-awaited turnaround. Jones’ upbeat enthusiasm of Tennessee football folklore, promotion of the program through social media and impressive recruiting class for 2014, which currently ranks at No. 1 overall on Rivals.com have already made his surprising hire a popular one across the state.
But, Jones will have a tough first year on Rocky Top as the Vols face uncertainty at multiple positions and another tough SEC schedule.
The Vols will likely go from a pass heavy attack to a run-based offense in 2013. Former offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has been replaced with Mike Bajakian, an assistant to Jones at Cincinnati, as will likely be the case for the Vols “air-raid” style of play.
Tennessee’s returns two veteran running backs in senior Rajion Neal and junior Marlon Lane. Neal finished the season with a team-best 708 yards and five touchdowns, while Lane totaled 658 yards and two touchdowns.
Both backs showed promise as they split carries in a pass happy scheme. However, with the departure of former starting quarterback Tyler Bray, wide receivers Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter and Zach Rogers and starting tight end Mychal Rivera, one if not both backs will likely be the focus of the Vols’ offense.
Which brings us to the passing game. Although Jones has yet to name a starting quarterback, many speculate that Justin Worley will likely get the nod. Worley is the only quarterback listed on the Vols’ depth chart with prior college football playing experience, taking snaps in limited action during both of his first two seasons with Tennessee. He is also the former Gatorade National High School Player of the Year for 2010.
The wide receiving corps will also face changes entering the upcoming season. Alton “Pig” Howard and Vincent Dallas are expected to see an increased role in the passing attack in 2013. Tennessee will likely rely on top prospects Marquez North and Paul Harris to compete for starting positions as the team returns a combined total of 368 yards from the wide receiver and tight end positions.
The Vols defense struggled, but to be fair, the majority of blame falls upon the decision to switch from a 4-3 to Sal Sunseri‘s complex 3-4 defensive scheme. Another factor was injuries, which was a problem the defense faced throughout the season.
Curt Maggitt played well through pain, but ultimately was sidelined after suffering a knee injury against Missouri. Brian Randolph shined in limited action before suffering a torn ACL injury against Florida in Week 3. If both players are healthy next season, they will likely be key contributors to improving the Tennessee defense.
The most clear-cut star, however, is junior linebacker A.J. Johnson. Johnson led the SEC with 138 total tackles, while averaging 11.5 per game. Johnson and defensive tackle Daniel McCullers were both nominated to the Bendarik Award preseason watch list and will likely impress in an improved scheme.
The Vols will face a tough schedule in 2013. Tennessee will likely struggle as they take on annual rivals Florida and Alabama on the road this year. The Vols will travel to Lexington to face Kentucky on Nov. 30 in the final game of the regular season.
The Vols annual SEC East schedule will include games against Georgia, South Carolina and Vanderbilt all being played at home. During SEC West matchups, the Vols will travel to Missouri on Nov. 2 before hosting Auburn the following week at Neyland Stadium.
Last season, the Vols were successful in winning each of their non-conference matchups. However, they will have a major hurdle during a Week 2 road matchup against Oregon. Otherwise, the Vols shouldn’t face too much struggles in non-conference matchups with home games against Austin Peay, Western Kentucky and South Alabama