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SEC Season Preview: Tennessee

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Previewing the 2017 Tennessee Volunteers.

Head Coach: Butch Jones – fifth year at Tennessee; eighth year overall (80-48 overall, 14-18 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Larry Scott (first season)

Defensive Coordinator: Bob Shoop (second season)

2016 Record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC); defeated Nebraska in Music City Bowl

Returning Starters: 14 (7 offense, 7 defense)

2017 Schedule

Sept. 4 – vs. Georgia Tech (Atlanta) (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Sept. 9 – INDIANA STATE (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Sept. 16 – at Florida (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
Sept. 23 – MASSACHUSETTS
Sept. 30 – GEORGIA

Oct. 14 – SOUTH CAROLINA
Oct. 21 – at Alabama
Oct. 28 – at Kentucky

Nov. 4 – SOUTHERN MISS
Nov. 11 – at Missouri
Nov. 18 – LSU
Nov. 25 – VANDERBILT

What We Know

-The offensive line is (finally) a point of strength. After inheriting a mess at the position thanks to some recruiting failures, to put it kindly, under Derek Dooley, Butch Jones has built one of the SEC’s best blocking units. Tennessee was dealt a blow last week when starting tackle Chance Hall was lost for the season with a knee injury, but the Vols have options, including redshirt sophomore Drew Richmond, whose light appears to finally be coming on. The interior is in great shape with two four-year starters and five-star freshman Trey Smith likely to man the guards and center positions.

-The defense should still have a star at each of the three levels. Gone are first-round NFL Draft pick Derek Barnett, third-round pick Cameron Sutton and fourth-round pick Jalen Reeves-Maybin, but the cupboard isn’t bare in Knoxville. Kahlil McKenzie, if healthy, can be a dominant three-technique defensive tackle. At linebacker, junior Darrin Kirkland also has battled injuries, but he can be a difference-maker when on the field. Senior safety Todd Kelly led the Vols in tackles last season, and was one of just two players with multiple interceptions. If the top guys at each level can at least come close to matching the production of their prestigious predecessors, the emerging talent around them (and better injury luck) should make this defense a better unit statistically than last year’s.

-Special teams could tilt a game or two in favor of Tennessee. Senior Aaron Medley struggled a little last year, missing four of seven kicks from 40 yards or longer, but he’s a reliable leg after three years of starting. Punter Trevor Daniel averaged nearly 40 yards of net gain last season, giving the Vols a second consistent presence. The SEC’s leading kick returner, Evan Berry, is also back, after registering four return touchdowns over the past two seasons.

What We Don’t Know

-So who’s the quarterback? Jones hasn’t tipped his hand in the battle between junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano. Both seem likely to play against Georgia Tech and Indiana State, but Jones would be best served to pick one by the time the Volunteers head to Florida to open SEC play. Guarantano is more mobile, while Dormady, although by no means a statue in a pocket, is a more capable passer. With Dormady having thrown 39 passes over the past two years, expect him to get the first snap against the Yellow Jackets.

-How quickly does Ty Chandler emerge at running back? Alvin Kamara is a big loss, but Tennessee is in good hands with junior John Kelly, a tough runner and a great locker room presence. There’s not much behind Kelly, making Chandler’s early development all the more important. If Dormady is indeed the quarterback, the Vols won’t be able to count as much rushing production as they got a year ago from Joshua Dobbs (831 yards), so a second running back being able to spell Kelly without a decline in performance is imperative.

-Is there enough in the wide receiving corps? Only one of the top four pass-catchers is back in junior Jauan Jennings. Senior Josh Smith was mostly a non-factor last season, while Preston Williams left the team at midseason. The burden falls on sophomores Tyler Byrd and Marquez Callaway. Byrd has 15 receptions last season, but Callaway may have more upside. One needs to emerge into a 40-catch player to complement Jennings, as there aren’t any true freshmen at the position expected to contribute this year.

X-Factor

Jennings – After a strong sophomore season, Jennings has a lot of star qualities. Can he take the next step into a 70-catch, 1,000-yard, all-SEC receiver? Without Kamara and Josh Malone, there aren’t many big-play threats on this Tennessee offense. Jennings, of course, made the biggest play of last season, hauling in Dobbs’ Hail Mary pass with no time remaining to defeat Georgia. He’ll need more plays that lead highlight reels this season for Tennessee to threaten Florida and Georgia in the SEC East.

Ranking The Units

1.   Offensive Line
2.   Defensive Backs
3.   Running Backs
4.   Defensive Line
5.   Wide Receivers
6.   Linebackers
7.   Quarterbacks        

Season Prediction

Butch Jones is a decent football coach. Nothing more, nothing less. He won’t win an SEC title at Tennessee, but he’ll keep the program’s floor at about 7-5. With expectations lower this season than they were in 2016, expect a looser Tennessee team to surprise and finish second in the SEC East after winning a head-to-head tiebreaker with Georgia. A 1-2 start will have some calling for Jones’ job before summer turns to fall, but a strong finish to get to 8-4 will make for a respectable season, even if a trip to Atlanta eludes the Vols for a tenth straight year.

Overall Record: 8-4
SEC Record: 5-3
Final CFP Ranking: 20
Bowl: Belk Bowl vs. Notre Dame

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.