Vols will win nine games

I admit, I'm gun shy. In over 30 years in the media, I have never been more wrong about a team I covered than last year's edition of the Tennessee Vols. I never saw 5-6 coming. I never saw a tie for fourth in the SEC East Division. I never envisioned such a woeful offense.

No one did. In retrospect, some naysayers said they knew. They didn't. How could you forecast a team that won 10 games with two true freshmen and an LSU reject at quarterback, that lost to only one SEC team, that routed Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl and that returned 18 starters would have such a disastrous season?

No one knew.

Just like no one really knows what Tennessee will do this year. How will Erik Ainge respond at quarterback to a new offensive coordinator? Will a leaner offensive line prove to be meaner? Are the receivers ready for prime time? Can the defense overcome losing six starters off the front seven? Will the special teams be special or spastic?

Those questions and many more await a team that faces one of the SEC's toughest schedules.

Knowing I wasn't the only one who whiffed on last season's outlook, I'm willing to step in the batter's box again. After all, you can't hit a home run unless you swing.

So, here goes.

Tennessee has five teams on its schedule it should beat: Air Force, Marshall, Memphis, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

That leaves Cal, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas. Of those seven, four are at home: Cal, Florida, Alabama and LSU.

Tennessee will win three or four of those seven. Since predictions should be precise, I'll say the Vols go 5-2 at home, 4-1 on the road and finish the regular season 9-3. Since I'm wavering between eight and nine wins, I'll say UT loses the bowl game for a 9-4 season. That will put the Vols about 23rd in the AP poll – which is where they start.

(As an aside, for Tennessee to beat Cal, the Vols must rush for at least 150 yards, hold Cal's run game to less than 200 yards, make a huge play on special teams, have two fewer turnovers and win time of possession by four minutes.

On defense, watch UT's linebackers and defensive ends. Play recognition will be important for this inexperienced group. Cal likes to float its running backs out of the backfield on wheel routes and run misdirection. If UT's linebackers don't stay at home, they'll get burned.

On defense, Cal likes to rush three and drop eight in passing downs, but they may forgo that to blitz Ainge. It will be an interesting chess match.)

Ainge will pass for 2,700 yards with 24 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. He will complete 55 percent of his passes. If he starts each game, Tennessee will have a successful season. If he doesn't, UT could wind up 7-5, but that would depend on how redshirt freshman Jonathan Crompton responds.

Arian Foster will rush for 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns. Montario Hardesty will be the second-leading rusher with about 500 yards. His production will be effected by a bothersome knee.

Jayson Swain will lead the team in receiving with 50 catches – the first Vol to surpass 50 since 2001. Robert Meachem will lead the team in yards per catch. The tight ends will combine to catch over 40 passes. The fullbacks will catch 20.

UT will have at least 10 gains of 10 yards or more on screen or bubble screen passes.

Tennessee will average 160 rushing yards per game and 230 passing. The 390 total yards of offense – 64 more per game than a year ago -- will rank fourth in the SEC.

The Vols will average 27 points per game. Cutcliffe's goal is to score 30 points in each game. UT will score at least 30 points in six games compared to none in regulation last year. The Vols will be held to 20 or fewer points three times.

On defense, the Vols were second in the nation in stopping the run a year ago (82.5 yards per game). UT will allow 120 rushing yards per game this year. The secondary will give up 190 yards passing. Opponents will average 310 total yards.

UT will record 38 sacks and make 18 interceptions. Robert Ayers will lead the team with seven sacks. Jonathan Wade will lead the team with five picks.

Demetrice Morley will score two touchdowns – one via interception return and one on special teams. Morley will also block at least two kicks.

Jerod Mayo, if he stays healthy, will lead the team in tackles with 88. Marvin Mitchell will be second in tackles. Justin Harrell will top the team in tackles for loss.

Opponents will average just under 20 points per game. Two teams will score at least 30. Three teams will score no more than 10.

James Wilhoit will make 16 of 22 field-goal attempts with two game winners.

Britton Colquitt will average 43.5 yards per punt.

UT will improve its punt return average from 8.4 to 11.0. The kickoff return average will improve from 19.8 to 24.0 with two returns of over 50 yards.

Here's a look at some of last year's prediction highlights:

Rick Clausen will complete over 60 percent of his passes (he hit 57.4 percent) for five touchdowns (he threw six).

Tennessee will not win the East Division.

Parys Haralson will lead the team with 11 sacks. He led with 8.5 sacks.

Wilhoit will hit 17 of 24 field-goal attempts. He was 14 of 19.

Colquitt will average 41 yards per punt. He averaged 41.2.

Kevin Simon will lead UT in tackles with 125. He led but had 88 stops.

Omar Gaither will be second in tackles. He was second.

UT's defense will allow 112 rushing yards per game, 205 passing, 317 total and less than 20 points per game. UT allowed 82.5 rushing, 215.7 passing, 298.2 total and 18.6 points per game.

Jonathan Hefney will average over 10 yards per punt return. He averaged 11.5.

Tight ends will combine for 18 catches. They combined for 14.

The bad forecasts:

Gerald Riggs will gain 1,500 yards. He was hurt and finished with 530.

Ainge will pass for 2,600 yards and 22 touchdowns. He had 737 yards and five scores.

Meachem will catch 50 passes for over 800 yards. He caught 29 for 383.

Five receivers will catch at least 30 passes. None did.

UT will score at least 30 points in six games and average 33 points. They scored 30 in one game and averaged 18.6.

UT will average 175 rushing yards, 230 passing and 415 total. UT averaged 128.3 rushing, 198 passing and 326.6 total.

Roshaun Fellows will lead the team with five interceptions. He had none.

The team will have 20 interceptions. It had nine.

Foster will be the second-leading rusher with 256 yards. He led with 879 after Riggs' injury.

Fullback Cory Anderson will catch 25 passes. He caught 14. Anderson will score six touchdowns. He did not score.

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