No. 26 Tennessee
Preseason chatter surrounding Tennessee is a little different this year. Last summer fans were inundated with proclamations of turning the corner, playoff berth, SEC title and more. Though expectations are still high for fifth-year head coach Butch Jones and the Vols, no one is expecting them to flirt with 10 victories again.
Except they can. They can absolutely flirt with 10 victories, if not more.
2016 Record: 9-4 (4-4, SEC)
Tennessee fell short of playoff expectations, and a three-game mid-season losing streak that featured a 39-point home loss to Alabama was embarrassing. Still, the Vols won nine games for just the second time since 2007, had a five-game winning streak and won four of their final five games, including an uplifting 14-point victory over Nebraska in the Music City Bowl.
Head Coach: Butch Jones (5th year, 30-21)
For how much hot seat chatter surrounds Butch Jones, you'd think he'd be a .500 coach without a bowl appearance in four years. While extraordinary expectations haven't been met, he has still delivered back-to-back nine-win seasons for the first time since 2006-07 and finished second in the SEC East twice.
Not great but let's pump the brakes.
"This place is very challenging in blocking out the outside noise and the clutter, the distractions,'' Jones said. "I know what we are building here. I know what we have built here and [you can't let] anyone take you off course of that. And I think not only for me personally, but for the program in general — from the coaching staff to the players.''
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Quinten Dormady, RB John Kelly, WR Juaun Jennings, TE Ethan Wolf, OL Jashon Robertson
Larry Scott was promoted to offensive coordinator after Mike DeBord left for the same position at Indiana. There won't be dramatic scheme changes in the offense, but the intensity has picked up under Scott.
“I want to apply a lot of pressure on every guy on offense, top of the roster to bottom of the roster,” Scott said. “I want them to understand what consistent performance is all about, whether we have to pressurize that each and every day, or if some guys are old enough to get it."
One of the guys at the top of the roster is Joshua Dobbs' replacement at quarterback, junior Quinten Dormady. The big (6-foot-4, 216-pound) pro-style passer has played well in limited duty the past two seasons and showed a nice, soft touch during the spring game.
With Josh Malone gone, Juauan Jennings is the Vols' No. 1 receiver. The 6-foot-3, 209-pounder had 50 catches last year and is one of many veterans who've talked about a different and healthy atmosphere over the offseason.
“That’s new to the program this year, and you can tell the team has matured as a whole because of it,” Jennings said. “It was something we wanted to do as a team, and getting that timing down between the quarterbacks and us receivers was huge.”
Losing two talented runners like Jalen Hurd (transfer) and Alvin Kamara (NFL) should be a big problem. It's almost irrelevant for Tennessee, who turns to junior John Kelly. The former three-star running back was superb last year in relief of Hurd and Kamara, racking up 630 yards on fewer than 100 carries (6.4 yards per carry).
“He’s probably more vocal than he’s ever been,” Butch Jones said of Kelly. “He’s coaching the younger players. It gets back to details, accountability and toughness. John has done a really good job of accountability not only to himself, but his teammates around him. His voice is well respected.”
The offensive line is led by new coach Walt Wells, who has one of the SEC's best interior lineman in Jashon Robertson back. Robertson practiced at both guard and center this summer.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Kendal Vickers, DT Kahlil McKenzie, LB Darrin Kirkland Jr., CB Rashaan Gaulden, S Todd Kelly Jr., S Nigel Warrior
Tennessee's defense allowed fewer than 31 points to Power Five opponents just three times. Their rush defense was miserable (218.5 yards per game) and they had only two players with more than 2.5 sacks.
Senior tackle Kendal Vickers is back inside, as is Kahlil McKenzie, a former five-star recruit who's played in 15 games in two seasons. McKenzie battled a pectoral injury this spring but says he's ready to roll and has earned the praise of the staff.
“I like everything I see from him, and not just on the field but in a leadership role as well,” Jones said before fall camp opened. “For a defensive lineman, right now it’s just all about your technique and the use of your hands and the fine details.
Linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., who started 10 games as a freshman in 2015 but was rarely 100 percent last season, is back in the middle.
“I have always been a good player surrounded by great players,” Kirkland told said during spring practice. “Now I am kind of the last of the Mohicans. I find myself being the main guy, the leader of the defense, and I’ve embraced that role and I know I have to bring it every day.”
The secondary is led by senior safeties Todd Kelly Jr. and Nigel Warrior. Kelly is a 5-foot-11, 208-pounder who has 146 tackles and eight interceptions in his first three seasons.
Notable Player Losses
QB Joshua Dobbs, RB Alvin Kamara, RB Jalen Hurd, WR Josh Malone, DE Derek Barnett, DE Corey Vereen, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, CB Cameron Sutton
Tennessee had six players draft in April, three on each side of the ball.
Derek Barnett, a three-time All-SEC selection and one of the best players in program history, went the highest, No. 14 overall to the Philadelphia Eagles. He and Corey Vereen combined for 30.5 tackles for loss and 20 sacks last year.
Corner Cameron Sutton (seven career interceptions) was taken in the third round and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin was a fourth-rounder despite missing most of the season with injury.
Offensively, Joshua Dobbs (fourth-round pick) is gone after racking up nearly 10,000 total yards in four seasons, as are running backs Alvin Kamara (third round) and Jalen Hurd (transfer). They'll badly miss receiver Josh Malone's game-breaking ability. He averaged 19.4 yards per catch in 2016.
Notable Player Additions
RB Ty Chandler, G Trey Smith, DE Deandre Johnson
Trey Smith was a five-star in-state prospect who enrolled early and is in line to start at right guard. He did not look like a true freshman during spring practice, routinely pushing around veterans.
"When he doesn’t have to think, he can really come off the ball and hit somebody in the mouth, that is for sure,” offensive line coach Walt Wells said. “Trey is a good player. Trey is intelligent. He’s mature beyond his years. He is still learning as we go through it.”
Ty Chandler is another true freshman from Tennessee. A four-star running back from Nashville, Chandler is fighting for snaps behind John Kelly.
Defensively, a third true freshman could play a significant role in defensive end Deandre Johnson.
Tennessee opens the season at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta against Georgia Tech. Two weeks later they open SEC play at Florida and their conference home opener is two weeks after that on Sept. 30 against Georgia.
Other notable games include Alabama (away) on Oct. 21 and LSU (home) on Nov. 18.
|Monday, Sept. 4||vs. Georgia Tech|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. Indiana State|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||at Florida|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||vs. UMass|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||vs. Georgia|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||vs. South Carolina|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||at Alabama|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||at Kentucky|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||vs. Southern Miss|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||at Missouri|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. LSU|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||vs. Vanderbilt|