Tennessee season preview

Today, we take a closer look at Tennessee in Year No. 1 under Butch Jones.

Coach: Butch Jones (50-27 overall, first season at Tennessee)

2012 record: 5-7, 1-7 SEC

Key losses: QB Tyler Bray, WR Justin Hunter, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, LB Herman Lathers, CB Eric Gordon

Key returnees: RB Rajion Neal, OT Antonio Richardson, OT Ja'Wuan James, OG Zach Fulton, DT Daniel McCullers, LB A.J. Johnson

Newcomers to watch: WR Marquez North, TE Woody Quinn, CB Riyahd Jones, CB Cam Sutton

Biggest games in 2013: at Oregon, Sept. 14; at Florida, Sept. 21; at Alabama, Oct. 26; Vanderbilt, Nov. 23

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The Vols lost nearly all of their proven offensive firepower from last season, particularly in the passing game. Justin Worley still has to lock down the starting quarterback job, but he’s at least played some. Whether it’s Worley or one of the freshmen at quarterback, the Vols are going to need the skill people around them to step up their games, and in many cases, to play beyond their years. The good news is that it looks as though prized freshman receiver Marquez North will be able to help immediately, and fellow true freshman Ryan Jenkins could also factor into the rotation at receiver. Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane are back at running back, but the Vols will be counting on a lot of new faces to make plays for them on offense this season.

Forecast: Jones is Tennessee’s fourth head coach in six years, and his passionate brick-by-brick approach has been a hit for a win-starved fan base. The Vols have suffered through three straight losing seasons, and simply getting to a bowl game will be a chore in Jones’ first season. One of the biggest things working against him is a brutal schedule which includes games against five teams in the top 10 of the preseason coaches’ poll. Three of those games are on the road, too, against Oregon, Florida and Alabama.

A year ago, the Vols scored points in bunches, but couldn’t stop anybody. They were plagued by busted assignments and confusion on defense. New defensive coordinator John Jancek has gone back to a 4-3 scheme and tried to simplify things. Getting linebacker Curt Maggitt healthy is a must, but he’s on track to be full go by the opener. The Vols also need a big year from massive defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, who’s in the best shape of his career.

The strength of the team will be an offensive line that should be among the best in the country. The Vols will lean heavily on those guys and hope they can dictate the flow of games while some of the younger skill players come into their own. The month of November will be critical. It’s probably going to take a 3-1 mark in the final month to go bowling, making home dates with Auburn (Nov. 9) and Vanderbilt (Nov. 23) worth circling in orange. It's been a while since the Vols have beaten somebody they weren't expected to beat. In fact, they've lost 14 of their past 16 SEC games. So knocking off a Florida, Georgia or South Carolina in Jones' first season would further convince the Big Orange Nation that he's indeed the man to re-establish the Vols as an SEC power.