Tennessee Volunteers season preview


Previewing the 2014 season for the Tennessee Volunteers:

2013 record: 5-7

Final grade for the 2013 season: Butch Jones' first season on the field at Tennessee was a mixed bag. The Vols took Georgia to overtime and upset South Carolina two weeks later. They also lost for a second straight season to Vanderbilt, lost four of their final five games to end the season and wound up below .500 for the fourth straight season. All in all, it was just a notch below average, so a C-minus sounds about right.

Key losses: RB Rajion Neal, OT Ja'Wuan James, OT Antonio Richardson, DT Daniel McCullers, DE Corey Miller, PK/P Michael Palardy

Key returnees: QB Justin Worley, WR Marquez North, OG Marcus Jackson, DE Curt Maggitt, DE Corey Vereen, LB A.J. Johnson, CB Cameron Sutton

Instant impact newcomers: RB Jalen Hurd, WR Von Pearson, WR Josh Malone, TE Ethan Wolf, OT Coleman Thomas, DE Derek Barnett, CB Emmanuel Moseley

Breakout player: Most of the preseason drama at Tennessee revolved around the quarterback race, but Jones ended that last week when he named Worley the starter. Had he not injured his thumb and missed the remainder of the season a year ago, the Vols probably would have gone to a bowl game. He's been put in some tough positions during his career, including being thrown to the wolves as a true freshman before he was ready. But he's persevered. His arm has gotten stronger. He's healthy now, and he also has more playmakers around him this season. Nobody's pushing him for the Heisman Trophy or even All-SEC honors, but here's betting Worley has a very solid senior season after throwing more interceptions (13) than touchdown passes (11) in his previous three seasons.

Most important game: We'll cheat and go 1A (Florida on Oct. 4) and 1B (Missouri on Nov. 22). Both games are at home, and both will go a long way toward determining whether or not the Vols can make it to the postseason. They've lost nine in a row to Florida, so ending that drought would be a big step in the right direction for Jones and the program. The Missouri game is sandwiched between a home game with Kentucky and the regular-season finale at Vanderbilt. It could be that the Vols have to win all three to go bowling.

Biggest question mark: It's gotta be the defensive line. The Vols don't return any starters up front defensively and are hopeful Maggitt can stay healthy and become that finisher off the edge after moving from linebacker to end. He missed all of last season with a knee injury and has been banged up in preseason camp. The Vols like their collection of young defensive linemen, but how well they're able to hold up right there in the middle of their defense is a huge concern.

Upset special: Right out of the gate, Tennessee had better be on its toes. Chuckie Keeton and Utah State aren't coming to Neyland Stadium on Aug. 31 to soak up the sights and sounds. The Aggies are coming to win.

Key stat: Tennessee is the only FBS team in the country without a returning starter in the offensive or defensive lines.

They said it: “We’re going through the realities of building a football program. Sometimes, I think of us as an expansion team. But our players have done a great job. They’ve really embraced everything. Our older players are really mentoring the younger players. The whole key for us is how we manage the natural adversities that a football season brings about." -- Tennessee coach Butch Jones

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 5.4 wins

Bovada over-under: 5.5 wins

Our take: The killer for Tennessee is being so unproven in both the offensive and defensive lines. The Vols will be counting on a ton of players up front who are seeing their first meaningful SEC action. The good news is that they've added speed on both sides of the ball and have more players at the offensive skill positions capable of making big plays. Jones has given everybody in the Tennessee family a reason to believe again with his recruiting prowess. The Vols are still a year away from contending in the East, but should be able to squeeze out six wins and get to a bowl game in 2014.