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Can Butch Jones guide the Volunteers to a bowl this year?
The SEC East isn’t as strong as the West in 2014, but this division features plenty of depth. Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri are considered the preseason favorites for the East title, but Florida should be improved with the addition of Kurt Roper as offensive coordinator and a healthy Jeff Driskel at quarterback.
While the top four teams in the East seem to be clear, it’s the next group of teams that isn’t easy to sort out. Kentucky is improving but will likely be picked No. 7 in the East by most in 2014. Vanderbilt finished two games ahead of Tennessee in the East last year, but the Volunteers are expected to improve in Butch Jones’ second season on Rocky Top.
Vanderbilt lost coach James Franklin to Penn State in January but hired highly regarded defensive coordinator Derek Mason from Stanford to lead this team in 2014. Mason has a tough assignment ahead in 2014, as the Commodores return only eight starters and have a question mark at quarterback. LSU transfer Stephen Rivers is expected to start the season opener against Temple, and the receiving corps is a concern with the departure of Jordan Matthews.
Tennessee showed progress in Jones’ first year, knocking off South Carolina and nearly defeating Georgia. But showing significant improvement in the win column will be tough with revamped offensive and defensive lines.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Tennessee or Vanderbilt: Which Team Finishes Higher in the SEC East in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
This one should be close, but I will go with Tennessee. Both teams have significant question marks, and Vanderbilt is going through a coaching change after a successful three-year stint under James Franklin. The Volunteers have an edge in talent, but this team has not won more than seven games since 2007. Can Butch Jones turn some of that top talent into victories? Time will tell, but the results in 2013 were a positive sign, especially as Tennessee beat South Carolina and lost to Georgia by three points. The Volunteers have several personnel concerns in 2014, starting at quarterback and on both lines of scrimmage. The offensive line is a huge issue, but if this unit meshes in the fall, there’s plenty of talent at running back and wide receiver for this offense to succeed. Much like its in-state rival, Vanderbilt has a question mark at quarterback, but LSU transfer Stephen Rivers is expected to win the job in the fall. The Commodores need to develop more receiving options at receiver, as well as transition to a 3-4 scheme on defense. On the positive side, Vanderbilt returns a solid offensive line, and running back Jerron Seymour could be in for an All-SEC season. The schedule favors the Commodores with a home game against Tennessee and crossover matchups against Ole Miss and Mississippi State, as opposed to Alabama and Ole Miss for the Volunteers. Derek Mason has a tough assignment following Franklin after back-to-back nine-win seasons. But Vanderbilt’s program is in good shape and should be in the mix for a bowl. However, Tennessee finds a way to just edge the Commodores in the standings in 2014.
If you had asked me this about a month or so ago, I would probably have said Tennessee since the Volunteers have the luxury of coaching stability and a distinct recruiting advantage over its in-state rival. However, even with James Franklin leaving for Penn State, I am slowly warming up to new Commodores head coach Derek Mason and how he has gone about remaking the program to fit his mindset and philosophies. Besides, Vanderbilt has clearly gotten the better of Tennessee in recent seasons and I'm also a believer in momentum. While mighty mo may be starting to swing in Butch Jones' favor, as his success on the recruiting trail this year attests, I think the Vols have too many holes to fill on a team that won just five games last season. The offensive line will be completely new as a wealth of NFL-caliber talent has departed and Jones still is trying to figure out his quarterback situation. The linebackers should be pretty solid, but the rest of the defense is full of question marks for UT.
Vanderbilt's not exactly settled at quarterback either and has to find a way to attempt to replace the production of All-SEC wide receiver Jordan Matthews, but I think there's enough experience and talent returning elsewhere to, at minimum, keep the Commodores' bowl streak alive. Then there's the schedule. Tennessee has to play Oklahoma in Norman and opens the season with difficult home games against Utah State and Arkansas State. Meanwhile Vanderbilt's non-conference slate consists of four home games against Temple and three teams that are relatively new to the FBS ranks — Charleston Southern, Old Dominion and UMass. I know the question is which team will finish higher than the SEC East, but I think the non-conference slate is certainly a factor in determining this. Both Vandy and UT will play Ole Miss in crossover action with the 'Dores also facing Mississippi State on the road and the Vols welcoming Alabama to Knoxville. Which team would you rather face? Mason's team also has the benefit of hosting South Carolina and Florida, while Jones' bunch will have to travel to Columbia to play the Gamecocks as well as Athens and Nashville. The Vandy-UT game could decide which team will finish higher in the SEC East standings and even though Franklin won't be around, I still like Mason's chances to extend the Commodores' winning streak over the Volunteers to three and maintain in-state bragging rights for at least one more season.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Vanderbilt fans don’t want to hear this, and Tennessee fans wish this had happened sooner: Eventually, balance will be restored in the SEC, and Tennessee will be better than Vanderbilt. This isn’t an indictment on Derek Mason any more than it’s a ringing endorsement of Butch Jones, but Vanderbilt just isn’t going to be a nine-win team on an annual basis at the same time Tennessee is missing bowl games. That said, I don’t think it will happen this year. Vanderbilt is set up to succeed in 2014 with a solid defense and all the tools for a run-first offense with two quality tailbacks and a veteran offensive line. In other words, exactly what Stanford was doing with Mason as a coordinator. Tennessee, meanwhile, has to replace an entire starting offensive line and find answers on a not-ready-for-the-SEC defensive front. That’s not a good recipe for the Volunteers. Yet Jones has shown an ability to install a system, and at Tennessee, he’ll be doing so with standout recruiting classes. That’s going to even out, just not in 2014.
Josh Ward, MrSEC.com, (@Josh_Ward)
Tennessee faces another brutal SEC schedule. Look at the Vols’ first five league games: at Georgia, Florida, at Ole Miss, Alabama and at South Carolina. Tennessee should be an underdog in all five of those games as the Vols are working to replace all of their starters on the offensive and defensive lines.
But Vanderbilt has its own challenges. The Commodores have to replace key players like Jordan Matthews, Wesley Johnson and Kenny Ladler while adjusting to a new coaching staff. Vanderbilt will have to play at Mississippi State late in the season, which won’t be an easy road trip in between games against Florida and Tennessee.
It’s going to be a long year for both Tennessee and Vanderbilt. I think this will come down to their head-to-head matchup in the regular season finale on Nov. 29. I’ll take Tennessee to win that game in Nashville, helping the Vols finish ahead of Vanderbilt in the SEC East for the first time in four years.