The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 42 Tennessee.
Previewing the Tennessee Offense for 2014:
If Tennessee’s offense improves significantly in 2014, you can throw football cliches out the window — or something like that. Championships may be won at the line of scrimmage, but the Vols are losing all five starting linemen from a year ago and still should be more productive on offense.
Tennessee is pinning its hopes on an influx of speedy playmakers, like freshman wideout Josh Malone and junior college star Von Pearson. Combine that with second-year improvement from Jason Croom and Marquez North, and Tennessee coaches believe their receiving corps will be vastly improved.
The primary question is, who will get the ball to the playmakers? If the quarterback battle were a political race, Justin Worley would be the conservative, reliable but somewhat bland incumbent. Riley Ferguson was the brash young challenger — risky, but perhaps worth it. However, Ferguson transferred in late May, leaving Worley and sophomore Joshua Dobbs to compete for the starting job.
The running game will be tested behind an entirely new offensive line. Tennessee had 2,261 rushing yards a year ago, the most since 2004. Senior Marlin Lane will have to hope that the running lanes are as generous as they have been for most of his career. But Lane is a placeholder for Jalen Hurd, the elite freshman back who coaches hope will add a bigger, tougher dimension to the Vols’ ground attack.
Previewing Tennessee’s Defense for 2014:
Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 SEC Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.The SEC offers no place to hide for teams lacking speed in the back of their defense, and the schedule was particularly cruel to the Vols in 2013. Games against warp-speed teams Oregon and Auburn provided Exhibits A and B of Tennessee’s need to upgrade its speed. The changes might not be dramatic in 2014, but by improving some of the weakest links (like the nickel spot), coaches hope to notice a difference.
Speed is the new mantra now, so much so that Emmanuel Moseley, a gangly athlete who had no big-school offers when he was discovered by Tennessee, could be the starting cornerback as a true freshman. He’s truly fast. After two years of breakdowns tolerated only because there were no better options, expect some veterans to lose their jobs or be pushed for playing time.
Depth at the defensive line is a real concern, but this could be the year defensive end Corey Vereen appears on the national scene. He played on passing downs in 2013 but is likely to be an every-down player now. Linebacker A.J. Johnson and hybrid Curt Maggitt will anchor the defense. Johnson keeps putting up ridiculous tackle numbers (now 324 in three years), but more widespread respect has eluded him.
Previewing Tennessee’s Specialists for 2014:
Maybe it was a reflection of a rough year, but Butch Jones designated kicker/punter Michael Palardy as the team’s MVP in 2013. It might take three players to replace him. Freshman Aaron Medley could end up handling field goals, although George Bullock showed a solid leg in the spring. The punting job returns to Matt Darr after he lost it to Palardy in 2013. UT has a handful of young athletes who could impact the return game, but they’ll have to unseat senior Devrin Young.
Even after a 5–7 debut season, Jones has retained his relentlessly sunny attitude, and it seems to be infectious in Knoxville. But here’s the downer: While this team will eventually be better than the 2013 version, the roster turnover represented by 32 newcomers offers plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong. And this schedule (once again) offers little margin for error. Reaching six wins and a bowl game won’t be easy, but it will be a critical hurdle in keeping the Jones-fueled optimism alive and well in Knoxville.