NCAA Football Preview - Tennessee Volunteers

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Updated: 8/18 9:55 am

After collecting just a 15-21 record in three seasons under Derek Dooley, the Vols hired former Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones last season to lead the team back to prosperity, but things were rough during his first year as the team finished 5-7 (2-6 in the SEC) and missed the bowl season for the third straight year.

The squad could not overcome its difficult schedule in 2013, losing a brutally tough road non-conference bout to Oregon (59-14) while also falling to bowl- bound SEC squads Georgia (34-31 in OT), Alabama (45-10), Missouri (31-3), Auburn (55-23) and Vanderbilt (14-10).

It wasn't all disappointment for the Vols last season, as they knocked off a heavily-favored South Carolina squad on Oct. 19, 23-21. They also ended the year on a high note with a 27-14 triumph at Kentucky.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Generating offense was a big problem for the Vols last season, as they ranked in the bottom-third of the SEC in both scoring (23.8 ppg) and yardage (353.3 ypg). They'll need to seek improvement this season with nearly an entirely new unit, as they return just four starters.

"Most teams need to replace a third of their roster," Jones said of his team's continuity heading into the new season. "We're having to replace half."

One of the returning starters is quarterback Justin Worley, who was modest at best last season in completing just 55.6 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions in eight games. Luckily for Worley, his direct competition -- Joshua Dobbs (.595 completion percentage, 695 yards, two TDs, six INTs) and Nathan Peterman (10-of-23, 45 yards, two INTs) -- failed to impressive during their playing time last year.

Rajion Neal was the offense's most steady performer in 2013 with 1,124 yards and 12 scores, but even following his graduation the team isn't expected to lose much in inserting Marlin Lane (534 yards, four TDs) into the starting lineup, as he actually averaged more yards per carry than Neal (5.3). True freshman and five-star recruit Jalen Hurd is also expected to see plenty of action early in his career, although both running backs will have the unfortunate task of running behind an inexperienced offensive line that returns just one starter in tackle Jacob Gilliam.

The team is relatively deep at wide receiver with the return of top pass- catchers Alton "Pig" Howard (44 receptions, 388 yards, three TDs) and Marquez North (38 receptions, 496 yards, TD). Josh Malone, another five-star prospect from Tennessee's highly-touted freshman class, is also in position to make an immediate impact.

DEFENSE: Unsurprisingly, Tennessee's defense also failed to impress during the 2013 campaign, allowing 29.0 ppg and 418.4 ypg. Luckily the unit brings back more experienced players than the offense with five returning starters, including both top tacklers.

A.J. Johnson (106 tackles, 8.5 TFL) established himself as one of the SEC's best linebackers last season, and more of the same is expected in his senior season. Safety Brian Randolph (75 tackles) was a difference maker in the secondary with four interceptions and a fumble recovery.

The inexperienced defensive line will have four new starters, none of which recorded more than 1.5 sacks in reserve roles last season.

The secondary remains largely intact, with corners Justin Coleman (46 tackles, INT) and Cameron Sutton (39 tackles, two INT) and safety LaDarrell McNeil (54 tackles, INT) joining Randolph to round out the veteran bunch.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Michael Palardy acted as both the place kicker and the punter last season, and his departure has opened up two new jobs. George Bullock has a leg up on the kicker position, while Matt Darr is likely to take over punting duties in his senior season.

Devrin Young is back as the kickoff and punt returner. He was especially impressive returning kicks a year ago with 19 run backs for 493 yards (25.9 yards per return). Reserve receiver Jacob Carter also figures to get some chances.

OUTLOOK: With the stakes lowered last season, Jones put together a solid showing in his first year with a very young squad, and now he'll have to do it all over again thanks to another year with a large turnover, but his outlook has remained positive.

"Everyone is extremely optimistic," Jones said. "There is a lot of positive energy, excitement, momentum that surrounds Tennessee football. So much momentum, not just from a program standpoint in terms of football, but from facility improvements, from recruiting, just the overall development that's going on at Tennessee."

The fact remains that the Vols are still a few steps behind most of the SEC in terms of talent and experience and are likely a few years away from being a true threat in the nation's most difficult conference. If they can show a slight improvement to six wins and return to bowl eligibility, it would be considered a huge success.

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