The Volunteers rank No. 19 in Athlon's Top 25 for 2017.
The expectations of a preseason top-10 ranking ended in a 9-4 campaign for Tennessee, one that featured some highs (wins over Florida, Georgia and Virginia Tech) but also several lows (losses to Vanderbilt and South Carolina). The challenge now for head coach Butch Jones is to at least maintain that nine-win success and compete for an SEC East title even after suffering key personnel losses. There’s plenty of talent on the roster, but it’s unproven for the most part and the Volunteers also will breaking in a new quarterback and offensive coordinator.
Previewing Tennessee Football’s Offense for 2017
The “T” on Tennessee’s helmets might just as well stand for “transformation” with a new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks on Rocky Top. The Vols will tweak their modified spread attack to cater to their new personnel, specifically quarterbacks Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano.
Dormady is more the prototypical QB, a 6'4", 216-pound Texan with a big arm, strong pocket presence and some experience at the college level as he enters his junior year. The 6'4", 205-pound Guarantano is a redshirt freshman with dazzling mobility and an electric arm. Offensive coordinator Larry Scott — interim head coach at Miami in 2015 — is looking for efficiency and balance from the quarterback position.
The Vols’ offensive line has improved greatly this offseason, thanks in large part to new strength coach Rock Gullickson, formerly of the Los Angeles Rams. It’s not typically a good sign when a true freshman interjects himself into the starting lineup, but there’s nothing normal about Trey Smith, ESPN.com’s No. 1-rated prospect in the 2017 class. Smith enrolled early and proved he could push anyone off the line, so it has become a matter of figuring out what position he’ll do the pushing from. New offensive line coach Walt Wells says the “five best will play.” It’s a good bet senior Jashon Robertson will be among that group as a guard or center after working at both positions in spring.
The Vols don’t feature that sort of depth at tailback or receiver. John Kelly averaged 6.4 yards per carry last season. Carlin Fils-aime is unproven. Incoming freshman Ty Chandler will be among those challenging for carries. Jauan Jennings is among the most dynamic receivers returning in the SEC, but there are more questions than answers behind him in the receiving corps.
Previewing Tennessee Football’s Defense for 2017
Junior end Jonathan Kongbo could measure up to his lofty ranking as the top junior college signee in 2016, though it’s hard to imagine him completely filling the void left by UT all-time sacks leader Derek Barnett. The trainers might end up being the real MVPs; the Vols hope that defensive linemen Kendal Vickers (shoulder), Shy Tuttle (knee), Kahlil McKenzie (pectoral) and Kyle Phillips (shoulder) will be healthy after missing spring drills.
Junior Darrin Kirkland is back to anchor the defense after missing much of last season with a high ankle sprain, lining up at middle linebacker in what figures to be more of a 4-3 look after the Vols most often utilized a 4-2-5 last season.
Tennessee should have two of the more dynamic defensive backs in the SEC with Todd Kelly Jr. and Nigel Warrior — both the sons of former Vols first-round NFL Draft picks; Warrior is the son of former NFL All-Pro Dale Carter.
Previewing Tennessee Football’s Specialists for 2017
Trevor Daniel is as proven and consistent as any player on the team entering his third year as the starting punter. Aaron Medley is a fourth-year starting placekicker coming off a solid though not spectacular 2016 season. If senior Evan Berry returns from the knee injury that sidelined him in November, he might lead the nation in kick returns and earn All-American honors again.
Tennessee needs to find a competent quarterback and develop playmakers if it’s to compete for an SEC East Division crown. The schedule is unforgiving, with road trips to Florida and Alabama and a November visit from LSU. The Vols defense and special teams are solid, but ultimately Tennessee will only go as far as their new quarterbacks can take them.
NATIONAL RANKING: 19
SEC EAST PREDICTION: 3
Don't forget to check out Athlon Sports' entire college football Top 25.