LAST YEAR: 5-6 (3-5 SEC Eastern Division)
EXPERIENCE: The Vols return 13 starters and 47 lettermen.
TEAM STRENGTHS: The Vols return the entire secondary from a defensive unit that finished third in the Southeastern Conference (298.2 yards per game) and sixth nationally. Strong safety Antwan Stewart, a 6-0, 193-pound senior, and free safety Jonathon Heffney, a 5-9, 174-pound senior, rank with the best pairs of safeties in the SEC. Heffney had three interceptions in 2005. is the best player returning in the secondary. Although the defensive line lost three of its four starters, senior tackle Justin Harrell (6-4, 306) returns and he could be one of the best d-linemen in the nation. He had 7.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions in 2005.
The Vols have one of the best wide receiver groups in the SEC, perhaps anywhere in the nation. Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain and Brett Smith have size and speed to go with experience. The three combined for 77 receptions and 986 yards in 2005. The offensive line has to be completely rebuilt but tackle Arron Sears, a 6-4, 338-pounder, is an outstanding run-blocker and versatile enough to have played every position on the line except center. Tailback Arian Foster (6-1, 211, sophomore) took over at midseason when Gerald Riggs went down with an injury and he responded with 879 yards and five touchdowns. He will be the feature back for the entire season in 2006 and he figures to run for 1,000-plus yards. Fullback Corey Anderson is a 275-pounder that rarely misses an assignment.
TEAM WEAKNESSES: When the 2005 season began, quarterback Erik Ainge (6-6, 220, junior) was expected to be one of the best in the nation. He had only a few flashes of the brilliance he showed as a freshman in 2004 and his inconsistency has turned this position into the biggest question mark on the team. Ainge threw for only 737 yards as a sophomore and he threw more interceptions (7) than he did touchdowns (5). When he's on, Ainge is a big time passer that can make all the throws, but when he's bad, he's really, really bad. The Vols had an experienced backup last year in Rick Clausen to take over when Ainge stunk it up, but this year there is no experienced quarterback in the wings.
Both the offensive and defensive lines have to be completely rebuilt. There is more experience returning on the offensive side of the ball and there's no mistaking that there are talented replacements ready to step in. On the defensive line, there are plenty of big guys in the middle but the Vols have to find some pass rushers on the edge.
All three starters at linebacker have graduated and this position is complicated by some legal troubles by middle backer Marvin Mitchell, a proven backup.
THREE KEYS TO SUCCESS IN 2006: David Cutcliffe has returned as the offensive coordinator after a successful stretch as the Ole Miss coach. He was Peyton Manning's mentor so the Vols are hoping he can work some magic with Ainge to bring him back to the level he played at in 2004.
The second key for the Vols will be to avoid the off the field problems that plagued and embarrassed the program in the 2005 offseason. Fulmer needs to prove he's got a handle on the program after the team posted a rap sheet in 2005 that would have made them proud at FSU.
The Vols have a future All-American linebacker in Rico McCoy. They have to find two more quality players to step in and step up for the defense to play at a high and consistent level.
THE SCHEDULE: The Vols open up with four home games to start the season and that's the good news. The bad news is they play a loaded Cal team in the opener and then they have Air Force with its quirky option in game two before they face the Gators in the third game. Alabama and LSU are played in Knoxville but there are potential stumbling blocks on the road with Georgia in Athens and South Carolina in Columbia.
OUTLOOK FOR 2006: The Vols have plenty to prove to themselves and to a restless fan base in 2006. The folks in Knoxville aren't used to losing seasons and in particular, they are not accustomed to the kind of meltdowns they had both on and off the field in 2005. They had all the talent to make a run at a national championship in 2005 but ended up with a losing season. There isn't as much talent on hand this year and there are question marks galore. If Cutcliffe can settle Ainge down and bring him back to a level consistent with his play as a true freshman, then the offense has talent at the skill positions to be explosive once again. The offensive line has talent but little experience. They will have to grow up fast for the Vols to be good on offense. On defense, the front seven lacks experienced bodies. There are talented replacements but can they gel before midseason? If they come through, Tennessee has a chance for a reversal of fortune in 2006.
NEXT UP: Kentucky, Florida's September 23 opponent at The Swamp.