Over the next few weeks, we will start taking a look at the SEC teams and discuss the apparent strengths and weaknesses of them as the 2013 season nears.
The idea is to identify what we “know” – as much as we can “know” anything about a season that has yet to start. We will also examine what we think we know, what we don’t know and when we might have answers to the biggest questions.
What We Know
The Volunteers boast one of the strongest offensive lines in the SEC – There isn’t much we know about this Tennessee team, but this is a very encouraging sign for first-year coach Butch Jones. This line isn’t decent. It’s very good with a chance to be great. Four starters return, including Ts Antonio Richardson and Ja’Wuan James. The line will miss all-SEC performer Dallas Thomas, but should still be the strength of the offense. Richardson, James, C James Stone and G Zach Fulton each earned preseason all-SEC honors. With myriad questions in the passing game, Tennessee would like to lean on what should be a strong ground assault. RB Marlin Lane is back after Jones kicked him off the team during spring practice because of non-specified, off-the-field disciplinary issues. Lane and RB Rajion Neal – last year’s leading rusher – should combine to give the Volunteers a gamey run game behind a stacked line. Last year they combined for 1,366 yards and 7 TDs. They will likely need more production this season for the Volunteers to take a step forward.
What We Think We Know
The return of several defensive starters will result in stronger play – Depth might have been more the cause of Tennessee’s disastrous defensive downfall last year than talent. Plenty of potential playmakers, including S Brian Randolph and LB Curt Maggitt, saw their seasons get cut short last season with injuries. They will be back this year, though Evan Woodbery of The Knoxville News-Sentinel reports that Maggitt seems likely to miss the opener, along with DE Jacques Smith. It will be interesting to see how the defense responds to returning to the 4-3 defense it abandoned in 2012. DT Daniel McCullers, a 6-foot-8, 380-pound preseason all-SEC pick, anchors a defensive line that could benefit from the change. LB A.J. Johnson led the SEC in tackles a year ago, but will see a different role from that in the 3-4 defense. Tennessee absolutely must be better on the back end. The Volunteers got torched in the secondary after Randolph went down with the season-ending injury. That unit seems to be returning largely intact, though the addition of Randolph is important. Junior-college transfer CB Riyahd Jones seemed to be in line to get a chance to help turn around the secondary before suffering a calf injury that could prove serious. True freshman CB Cameron Sutton is among the first in line to start if Jones does miss considerable time. If Tennessee can’t improve against the pass, there will be a lot of opposing receivers celebrating in the checkered end-zone again this year.
What We Don’t Know
Pass/fail: How will the Tennessee aerial assault grade out? – QB Tyler Bray is gone. So, too, are WRs Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter and TE Mychal Rivera. The Volunteers’ returning leading receiver is RB Marlin Lane. Neither spring ball nor August camp have exactly provided answers to who will run Jones’ up-tempo offense or who will catch passes from whichever quarterback emerges with the job. Starting with quarterback, Justin Worley seems the most logical – and likely safest – choice. He is a junior who has bid his time behind Bray, even filling in for him when Bray missed games in 2011. That Worley has yet to officially claim the job might say everything about him – and his competition. Redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman has drawn the accolades of being Worley’s chief competition, though true freshmen Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs are getting their opportunities. Jones remains mum on the QB1 topic, though it’s a foregone conclusion to many that Worley will ultimately be named the Week 1 starter. Of course, that doesn’t mean he will be the Game 12 starter. The Vols are stocked with talent at receiver but lack experience. True freshman MarQuez North, the No. 1 prospect in Tennessee and the No. 2 overall WR prospect, has a tremendous opportunity to come in and play right away. Pig Howard and Devrin Young seem likely to start at this point, though an official depth chart has not yet been released. Jason Croom is also in the mix for significant snaps. When Will We Know? A brutal seven-week stretch starting with a trip to Oregon will likely give fans everything they need to know about how good the passing game will be in 2013. The gauntlet also features road games at Florida and Alabama and home dates with Georgia and South Carolina. By the time the Florida game concludes, it will be fair to draw some conclusions.
Will the Volunteers reclaim the state and return toward the top of the SEC East? – It took exactly one win under James Franklin for Vanderbilt to start getting chesty with its in-state nemesis. Now the Commodores seem to think they’re playing for control of the Volunteer State – something Jones knows he is tasked with defending. The real importance of the Tennessee-Vanderbilt rivalry (in 2013, anyway) has less to do with recruiting battles inside state lines and more to do with who will move forward in the SEC East. Franklin’s team broke through last year, finishing fourth in the division behind top-10 teams Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Tennessee is accustomed to being where those latter three teams are – not battling for fourth. Walk before you run, though, Vols. Moving into the fourth position would provide Jones a satisfactory launching point for what has already been a sensational recruiting year. When Will We Know? This question will be answered Nov. 23 when Tennessee plays Vanderbilt in Neyland Stadium. Sure, stealing a win over Florida, Georgia or South Carolina would mean a lot, but with so much change, returning to winning ways against the Commodores would be a reasonable step forward this season.