2014 CFN Preview - Tennessee Volunteers
Tennessee LB A.J. Johnson
Tennessee LB A.J. Johnson
Posted Jul 2, 2014

CollegeFootballNews.com Preview 2014 - Really, the Vols are rebuilding again? When will they be great? (Getty Images

Tennessee Volunteers

Preview 2014

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Head coach: Butch Jones
2nd year: 5-7
8th year overall: 55-34
Returning Lettermen
Off: 23, Def. 20. ST 1
Lettermen Lost: 28
Ten Best Vol Players
1. LB A.J. Johnson, Sr.
2. LB Curtis Maggitt, Jr.
3. SS Brian Randolph, Jr.
4. CB Cameron Sutton, Soph.
5. CB Justin Coleman, Sr.
6. RB Marlin Lane, Sr.
7. WR Marquez North, Soph.
8. WR Von Pearson, Jr.
9. RB Jalen Hurd, Fr.
10. WR Josh Malone, Fr,
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 Utah State
Sep. 6 Arkansas St
Sep. 13 at Oklahoma
Sep. 27 at Georgia
Oct. 4 Florida
Oct. 11 Chattanooga
Oct. 18 at Ole Miss
Oct. 25 Alabama
Nov. 1 at South Carolina
Nov. 15 Kentucky
Nov. 22 Missouri
Nov. 29 at Vanderbilt

Another year, another Tennessee rebuilding job, another season that's supposed to take the program a step forward to being back among the elite of the elite. However, this time, it really does seem like things are about to turn.

In 2015.

Missouri might have come from out of nowhere to go from a losing season to the SEC East title, and Auburn blew up after Gus Malzahn took over, but Tennessee hasn't been able to find the magic formula. The talent level hasn't been bad, and the schedule hasn't been a killer over the years – at least by SEC standards – but the process has been really, really, really slow.

2007 isn't that long ago, but it seems like forever since Tennessee was a powerhouse, going to the SEC championship and losing to LSU on the way to a 10-4 season. Since then, the Vols have just one winning season in the last six, and that came under Lane Kiffin's watch in 2009.

But it's more than that. It's more than just not being a winner. Tennessee isn't even close to being a real contender for the SEC title, and that includes last season when the East was banged up and down.

Oh sure, there was a terrific win over South Carolina last year, but for the most part, the program has feasted off the weak on the schedule and hasn't been able to keep up with the big boys. Head coach Butch Jones came in last year appearing to be ready to change all of that and turn Tennessee into a contender again. With his 2014 recruiting class, and with his energy when it comes to getting prospects and the plan that's in place, the success should be coming.

Can it happen this year? Can Tennessee be this year's really big story? If it is, it's going to take a few major surprises, because there are far more concerns and issues than positives.

The offensive line has to undergo a massive overhaul, losing everyone including tackles Antonio Richardson and Ja'Wuan James. Meanwhile, the quarterback situation isn't exactly a mess, but it's not a positive as the coaching staff continues to look for someone to take charge. Top rusher Rajion Neal is gone, the pop and explosion for the passing game needs to come from the new receivers, the defensive line is starting over, kicker/punter Michael Palardy is gone after a fantastic year.

Other than that, everything is fine.

After four straight seven-loss seasons, there's more talent and athleticism now, but again, that's coming from the new guys. The coaching staff is terrific, the program is built to be among the superpowers, and there aren't any barriers or excuses to not be an SEC champion.

In 2015.

What to watch for on offense: There needs to be a downfield passing game. Defenses have to start being scared of the Vol passing attack. The horrible offense cranked out just 353 yards per game, but the ground game wasn't bad and the pass protection was terrific. The passing game was miserable, finishing with fewer than 2,000 passing yards with just 12 touchdowns and 17 picks. Worse yet, almost nothing was happening down the field. Tennessee averaged 10.4 yards per catch with the longest play a 51-yarder by Josh Smith against Oregon, and now the offense has to find something that works to start stretching the field. There's plenty of experience returning with the top six wideouts all back, but the incoming recruiting class is supposed to provide the most help. They have to shine, and the quarterback situation has to be settled, and both should happen.

What to watch for on defense: Can the defensive tackles rise up right away? All four starters are gone off the defensive front, but the end situation doesn't seem to be a problem with Jordan Williams back after seeing a little bit of starting time and with Corey Vereen looking like a rising star this offseason. After a year of struggling against the run, allowing 207 yards per game and 25 scores, the tackles have to improve. Gregory Clark is a huge, squatty defender on the inside, and Danny O'Brien saw a little time as a backup on the nose, but like other key areas, it'll be recruiting class or bust. Inexperience on the line is no way to deal with SEC running games.

The team will be far better if… it can stop the run. The Vols were able to get by South Carolina despite allowing 218 yards and two touchdowns, but that was the only time all season they won after allowing more than 200 yards, going 1-7 when allowing more. They bottomed out against the two SEC championship combatants, allowing 883 yards in back-to-back games. The 2008 team didn't allow any team to crank out 200 yards or more on the ground, and since then the program is 3-23 when giving up 200 or more. The linebacking corps will be in place to be stronger against the run, but the defensive front has to start from scratch. Things might be a little worse before they get better.

The Schedule: It's not crazy to suggest that Tennessee will have to face three eventual conference champions – Utah State (MW), Arkansas State (Sun Belt), at Oklahoma (Big 12) – in the first three weeks of the season. Fortunately, there's a week off to prepare for the SEC. The bad news is that it all kicks off with a trip to Georgia.

Going to Ole Miss this year is rough, and the bad break of Alabama being the interdivisional rivalry game won't help, but there's a chance things might turn around over the finishing kick. Vol fans are used to this – the team will do what it can during the first part of the year, and then it's time to kick it in late with Kentucky and Vanderbilt part of the mix. This year, though, it might take a win over Missouri to ensure a bowl appearance.

Best offensive player: Senior RB Marlin Lane. But this could change in a heartbeat with Jalen Hurd a huge running back prospect coming in and Derrell Scott a speedster who could be the team's most dangerous option. Lane finished second on the team with 534 yards and four touchdowns, but with his combination of size and quickness, he could be the right workhorse back who takes over for Rajion Neal and takes over the offense. With the passing game so iffy, and with the line such a concern, it could be a rough go, but Lane has to be great.

Best defensive player: Senior LB A.J. Johnson. He could've left early for the NFL as a mid-round selection, but he came back for one more year and should once again be an all-star tackling machine. Big, consistent and tough, he has been a run-stopping force for the Vols over the last few years, and with so much uncertainty up front, he'll be needed more than ever. With great range and an uncanny nose for the ball, he's always working and he's always in the right position.

Key players to a successful season: Senior QB Justin Worley. The Vols have to come up with a quarterback who can make everyone better. Worley, the 2010 Gatorade National Player of the Year, is the safe choice with good size, smarts, experience and effectiveness, but there's no big-time upside. Riley Ferguson is more of a pro-style passer who can get the chains moving with a huge arm, but he has to be a better decision maker, and Joshua Dobbs is a one-time star recruit with the ability and skills to be an option to work around. It'll probably be Worley by the start of the season – the call won't be made until the start of the season – and he has to be great with so many question marks at receiver.

The season will be a success if ... the Volunteers come up with a winning season. There are too many newcomers and too many question marks to expect anything special, but after three straight 5-7 seasons, a good step forward would be a winning campaign with a bowl appearance. It's not going to be easy, and going to Oklahoma, Georgia and South Carolina along with home games with Alabama, Florida and Missouri means it'll take a few upsets, but seven wins would set the tone for a potentially big 2015.

Key game: Oct. 4 vs. Florida. It seemed like everyone had fun with Florida last year but Tennessee, losing 31-17 in Gainesville. Losers of nine straight in the series, with the last win coming in 2004, the Vols won't be able to afford a home loss in this year's matchup with all the tough SEC road games to deal with and with Alabama still to deal with. In terms of the most winnable tough conference showdowns, this might be it.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Penalties: Opponents 75 for 648 yards – Tennessee 55 for 455 yards
- Kickoff Return Average: Opponents 25.4 yards – Tennessee 23.8 yards
- Average Yards Per Pass: Opponents 7.2 yards – Tennessee 5.8 yards

- 2014 Tennessee Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players