SEC PREVIEWS: Honeymoon over at UT

As if winning five straight national titles wasn't enough to declare the Southeastern Conference's college football supremacy, the league managed to take it one step further last season when the BCS title game matchup between Alabama and LSU guaranteed a sixth straight national champion from the SEC before the championship game was even played.

So how does seven in a row sound? Well it will be hard to bet against the SEC continuing its dominance, especially with LSU returning 15 starters from last year's squad and BCS champ Alabama still loaded on the offensive side even with the loss of standout running back Trent Richardson.

Yet the big story in SEC Football 2012 is the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the conference, something that figures to make it even tougher to get through the league schedule unscathed. While neither Mizzou nor the Aggies are expected to contend for SEC divisional titles, they both bring solid programs to the league. Missouri was ranked No. 1 in the country five years ago before losing to Oklahoma in the 2007 Big 12 title game, and A&M's Kyle Field is one of the most difficult venues in the country for visiting teams, something Florida, Arkansas and LSU will have to contend with this fall.

The Scout.com publishers believe that LSU and Georgia will repeat as division champions this year with LSU picked to win the SEC Championship. Previews of all 14 SEC teams are about to be featured on GamecockAnthem.com, and today we look at Tennessee.



SEC EAST

TENNESSEE(PREDICTED FINISH: 5TH IN EAST)


Tennessee's 10-7 loss at Kentucky last November ended more than the 2011 season and a 26-game winning streak in the series; it ended head coach Derek Dooley's honeymoon.

Big Orange fans were so enraged by the lackluster effort put forth at Commonwealth Stadium that Dooley's approval rating took a serious hit. After records of 6-7 in 2010 and 5-7 in 2011, he no longer is guaranteed four years to right the ship. The Vol Nation wants to see progress and it wants to see it now.

Fortunately for Dooley, he finally has a roster talented and deep enough to compete with most of his SEC rivals. His first recruiting class (2010) will be juniors this fall, and it will be the cornerstone of the 2012 team.

The best of the 2010 signees -- quarterback Tyler Bray, wideouts Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers -- combine to give Tennessee the most talented passing combo in the SEC. If junior college receiver Cordarrelle Patterson lives up to his hype, Tennessee might have the most talented passing combo in the NCAA.

Bray came out smoking as a sophomore last fall. He threw for 1,328 yards in the first four games, breaking the school record of 1,326 yards set by Peyton Manning in the first four games of 1997.

Rogers wound up posting 1,040 receiving yards, and Hunter was on pace for 1,800 before tearing an ACL in the first quarter of the game at Florida. When Bray suffered a fractured thumb two games later that caused him to miss five games and play poorly in the final two, Tennessee's offense plummeted from awesome to awful.

All five starters return from the 2011 offensive line but one of them will be watching from the bench in 2012. That's because sophomore sensation Antonio Richardson put a lock on the left tackle spot in spring practice, forcing senior two-year starter Dallas Thomas from left tackle to left guard and probably relegating James Stone (15 career starts) to a backup role.

The Vols appear three-deep at tight end, with senior starter Mychal Rivera (11.9-yard average on 29 catches in 2011) qualifying as an All-SEC candidate.

Tennessee's ground attack was pathetic last fall, averaging a league-worst 90.1 rushing yards per game. The Vols spent all spring addressing this issue and believe they made strides. Marlin Lane (nine carries, 106 yards), Rajion Neal (10 carries, 49 yards), Tom Smith (10 carries, 49 yards) and Devrin Young (8 carries, 39 yards) all enjoyed productive outings in the spring game.

Defensively, Tennessee is making the switch from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 base under first- year coordinator Sal Sunseri, fresh from three years coaching Alabama's linebackers. That transformation often requires a full year to click, as Georgia discovered during Todd Grantham's first year as coordinator in 2010.

Any analysis of the Vols' 2012 defense is pure guesswork at this point. The projected starter at nose guard, 6-6, 360-pound Daniel McCullers, joins the team in August. Three guys who were undersized defensive ends in 2011 -- Jacques Smith, Willie Bohannon and Jordan Williams -- are now outside linebackers. The projected starter at middle linebacker, fifth-year senior Herman Lathers, missed the entire 2011 season with a fractured ankle.

All of Tennessee's 2011 defensive backs return but that may not necessarily be cause for celebration. Last year's Vols ranked 10th among the 12 SEC teams in pass defense efficiency and 11th in interceptions. Unless Tennessee can dramatically improve a pass rush that mustered just 16 sacks last fall, the Vols again will be vulnerable against the SEC's better throw-and-catch teams.

Punter Matt Darr and kicker Michael Palardy are back but that doesn't have Big Orange fans dancing in the streets, either. Darr averaged just 38.1 yards per punt last fall and Palardy was 9-of-14 on field goals, including just 4-of-9 beyond 28 yards.

Seven of nine assistants bolted following Tennessee's loss to Kentucky last November. Dooley seems to have hired quality replacements but the lack of familiarity among the coaches could cause some growing pains this fall.

This would be a great year for the Vols to open against The Sisters of the Poor. Instead, they'll kick off the 2012 season by facing North Carolina State in the Georgia Dome. A convincing win could be the springboard to an 8-4 or 9-3 season. A loss could be disastrous.

This much is certain: After a 1-7 SEC record in 2011, the natives are restless.

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