Like recent predecessors Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley, new Tennessee head coach Butch Jones vows to make the Vols relevant again. Whether he succeeds where they failed remains to be seen but he has one thing they lacked -- a winning background.
Kiffin compiled a 5-15 record in less than two full seasons with an NFL franchise (Oakland Raiders) before taking the Vol reins in 2009. Dooley brought a 17-20 record from a mid-major program (Louisiana Tech) when he took over at Knoxville in 2010.
By comparison, Jones' 50-27 mark at Central Michigan and Cincinnati sounds downright imposing. Throw in the fact Jones has won four conference titles in six years, and Big Orange fans are feeling downright elated.
That elation is premature, however. Jones inherits a program that went 1-7 in SEC play each of the past two seasons. He inherits a defense that allowed 35.7 points per game in 2012. He inherits an offense that must replace three-year starting quarterback Tyler Bray, plus the top four receivers from 2012. Two of them, wideouts Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter, were among the first 34 players picked in the 2013 NFL Draft.
The Vols return a combined 123 starts among their offensive linemen but are merely average at running back. Rajion Neal ran for 708 yards in 2012 and Marlin Lane for 658 but neither got much on his own.
The quarterback situation is muddled. Junior Justin Worley threw just 23 passes as Bray's backup last fall and lacks the mobility to fully exploit the new read-option spread offense. His competition consists of three guys who have never taken a college snap -- redshirt freshman Nathan Peterson, plus incoming freshmen Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson.
Tennessee's offensive shortcomings were painfully obvious in the spring game, when the Orange and White squads combined for just one offensive touchdown. That does not bode well, considering that the offenses were competing against many of the same Vol defenders who allowed 35.7 points per game last fall.
Tennessee's defensive front projects to feature four seniors -- massive Daniel McCullers (6-6, 377 pounds) and Mo Couch (6-2, 299) at tackle, Jacques Smith (6-2, 244) and Corey Miller (6-3, 257) at end. Mid-term freshman Corey Vereen recorded four sacks in the spring game and will be a fixture in obvious passing situations.
Junior A.J. Johnson heads up the linebacker corps after recording a team-high 138 tackles in 2012. Fellow junior Curt Maggitt is another returning starter. The other spot belongs to senior Dontavis Sapp, the breakout player of spring practice.
Sophomore free safety Brian Randolph is the bell cow of Tennessee's secondary, even though he missed all but three games in 2012 with a torn ACL. The rest of the defensive backfield is anyone's guess.
Michael Palardy returns to handle the kicking chores after making 9 of 12 field-goal attempts and averaging 43.1 yards per punt in 2012.
Tennessee's defense should be significantly better than a year ago but the offense projects to be significantly worse. Thus, a third consecutive 5-7 record seems entirely possible.
2013 SEC Football Preview: Tennessee
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