Can Tennessee Be Surprise SEC Contender This Season?

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The Tennessee Volunteers haven’t made the SEC Championship since 2007. Since then, the team has been stuck in a downward spiral, failing to ever make progress in their goal of rebuilding. Last season may have been the biggest disappointment for the struggling program. Tennessee fielded their worst defense in program history, ranking 107th overall in total defense and points allowed (35.7 points per game).

Butch Jones took the reins of the Tennessee program this past December. Along with several members of his Cincinnati coaching staff, Jones has created a buzz for the program, dominating the recruiting trail and capturing a No. 1 ranking. Vol fans are looking ahead when it comes to Jones’ tenure, as expectations for the upcoming season seem low.

However, could the Vols potentially be a surprise contender in the Southeastern Conference?

The identity of the Tennessee football program has completely changed. The Vols used a pass-heavy playbook last season while struggling to adjust to a new 3-4 defense. Now, Jones and new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian bring a more run-oriented, uptempo attack to the offense. Rajion Neal, who progressed in his development despite a lack of carries, will likely serve a greater role as the team’s primary option.

Neal showed promise, leading the team with 708 yards and nine total touchdowns in a limited role. He will have the luxury of running behind one of the most experienced offensive lines in the SEC, which includes four returning seniors and one junior.

Despite their struggles, the Tennessee defense should make a dramatic improvement this season. They will switch back to a 4-3 scheme and will return a lineup primarily made up of seniors and juniors. A.J. Johnson led the SEC in tackles last season and will likely see more help form his teammates. If healthy, Curt Maggitt will help make up one of the best linebacker tandems in the conference when lined up next to Johnson.

However, Tennessee will have their hands full with a tough schedule. Including their annual matchups against Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. The Vols will also face Oregon early in the season.

There are many questions facing the Volunteers heading into Butch Jones’ first season. Although the odds to contend seem unlikely, Tennessee could surprise some teams this season and finish with an impressive record. Vols fans remain optimistic of the road ahead, but the upcoming season may be somewhat of a surprise to many fans and doubters.

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