#24: The Tennessee Volunteers

Combining the ahead-of-the-curve focus of Athlon Sports and the up-to-the-minute mission of TheInsiders.com, the two sports media companies are teaming up on a preseason Top 25 for the 2003 college football season. Coming in at #24 is Tennessee.

Tennessee players are the first to admit that leadership and discipline were missing ingredients from last year's team. A deluge of injuries compounded the problem. The 8–5 campaign of 2002 was Tennessee's worst since 1988, the Vols lost to Maryland in the Peach Bowl has left a foul aftertaste.

And now coach Phillip Fulmer needs to replace six of his starting defensive front seven, including the team's top two tacklers. End Rashad Baker returns after picking off five enemy aerials in '02.

Quarterback Jabari Davis and Gerald Riggs pounding the ball inside. Four returning starters in the offensive line will pave the way.

Casualty count: Nineteen UT starters missed a total of 71 games due to injury in 2002.

Lowest high: Cedric Houston's 779 rushing yards in 2002 was the Vols' lowest team-leading total in 14 years.

Unfamiliar ground: Tennessee finished 85th nationally in total offense last season.

Returning starters: 8 offense, 4 defense, punter

2002 results: 8–5 (5–3 SEC) Bowl Game: Lost to Maryland 30-3 in Peach Bowl

2003 Schedule
A. 30 Fresno State
S. 6 Marshall
S. 20 at Florida
S. 27 South Carolina
O. 4 at Auburn
O. 11 Georgia
O. 25 at Alabama
N. 1 Duke
N. 8 at Miami
N. 15 Mississippi State
N. 22 Vanderbilt
N. 29 at Kentucky

Schedule Analysis: Fresno State will not be a pushover in the opener, especially considering Tennessee is breaking in a fairly new defense against a team that returns nine starters on offense and has dangerous athletes at wide receiver. The Sept. 20 game at Florida will be its usual ultra-challenge, and road games at Auburn and Miami are also beasts, and a road trip to Tuscaloosa will not be fun. Georgia comes to Knoxville this year, and the Bulldogs are starting to have the Vols' number with two straight wins. So we see five significant challenges as the Vols try to regain their Top 10 status. Tennessee will have to win three of those to accomplish that goal.

Final Word: Defensively, the Vols will be tough if Burnett and Ritzmann return to form and they can find one more corner. Offensively, the concern is obviously at wide receiver, where Clausen truly does not have a No. 1 option at this point. The running game should be solid and Clausen will look to have a break-out year at quarterback. With the schedule being as difficult as it is, the Vols may have a better team than last year but not have the record to show it.

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