Can the Volunteers return to the postseason after a disappointing 2012?
After a 15-21 record in three years on Rocky Top, Derek Dooley was fired as Tennessee’s coach and was replaced by Butch Jones. The Volunteers have missed out on a bowl game in each of the last two seasons and have just two conference wins during that stretch.
Jones did a good job in two previous coaching stops, recording a 27-13 mark in three years with Central Michigan and a 23-14 record at Cincinnati.
Jones seems to have Tennessee back on track, but the Volunteers have a lot of question marks to answer in 2013.
The 2013 college football season is still over 100 days away, but it’s never too early to start talking predictions and expectations for each team going into 2013.
Athlon Sports’ official college football top 25 countdown for 2013 will begin in early May. With the top 25 and predictions in mind, Athlon’s editors will be debating some of the hottest topics from the preseason throughout April and May.
Will Tennessee Make a Bowl Game in 2013?
Jon Cooper, lead writer and editor Saturday Down South, (@JonSDS)
No doubt, the goal for Butch Jones in his first year is a bowl game, but there could be rough waters ahead for the near future. Welcoming Jones to Knoxville is just an overall brutal schedule as the new leader, with road games in back-to-back weeks to Oregon and Florida followed up by the remorseless stretch of Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. Those five alone will make the hair stand up on any coach’s neck.
Can Tennessee make a bowl game? Sure, but there are too many personnel questions right now to say they will make a bowl game. I could see another 5-7 season for the Vols, but rest assured, there are brighter days ahead with The Butch in command. The only area of the Vols’ team that Jones can even feel remotely positive about is the offensive line. Outside of the big uglies, who are SEC Championship caliber, there are questions all over the roster.
Don’t get me wrong; I love the momentum and direction Jones has created in just his first five months on the job. Tennessee has their man. Now, they must give him time to succeed. But the learning curve for Jones’ first year is just too great to feel good about going to a bowl game, especially with the talent lost on offense. Ironically, Tennessee could be sitting at four wins with Vanderbilt and Kentucky in the last two weeks. The key to the whole season is the Vandy game.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
In a few years, Tennessee is going to be happy with Butch Jones. He’s unfairly labeled as standing on Brian Kelly’s shoulders after following him at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. On the contrary, last season was probably his best coaching job. But that’s partly because he rebuilt the foundation with the Bearcats before going 10-3 in 2012. In Knoxville, he may as well be starting from scratch. The defense was so bad last season that even a top-20 offense nationally couldn’t win more than one SEC game. And now Tyler Bray is gone. With a veteran offensive line -- one that allowed the fifth-fewest sacks in the country last season -- the regression for the offense will be mitigated. And this coaching staff already worked miracles with a bad Cincinnati defense it inherited from Kelly’s final season. Tennessee will have to win a handful of games they couldn’t last season, but they were closer to bowl eligibility than we remember last season. The Vols lost in four overtimes to Missouri, by a field goal to South Carolina, by a touchdown to Georgia, not to mention a Florida game that got away from them in a span of a few minutes in the second half. Tennessee should be counted on to win four games, and after that the season hinges on a road trip to Missouri and a home game against Auburn. A bowl seems plausible to me.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Despite the worst two-year SEC run in program history, there are things to like about the Tennessee Volunteers in 2013. New head coach Butch Jones has built a competitive coaching staff that knows how to win (and recruit). But most importantly, the Vols will boast one of the nation's best offensive lines. The ability to run the ball and protect the quarterback will help whoever is under center or catching passes. The schedule has some huge obstacles — at Oregon, Florida and Alabama to go with home games with South Carolina and Georgia. Assuming Tennessee loses all five, that leaves five winnable and two swing games for the Vols to compete for the postseason. Austin Peay, Western Kentucky, South Alabama, Auburn and Kentucky should be wins, leaving a home game with new rival Vanderbilt and a road trip to Missouri left to determine bowl eligibility. One win in those two and Tennessee will likely make it to a bowl. The change from Derek Dooley to Jones should be worth at least one game, right?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
So far, Butch Jones is making all of the right moves at Tennessee. But winning the off-the-field battles and games in the SEC are two totally different matters.
With the departure of quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, the Volunteers have some gaping holes on offense at both positions. The good news is the offensive line could be the best in the SEC, and running back combination of Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane is solid.
While the quarterback battle is getting the most attention in Knoxville, Tennessee has to find some answers for a defense that was one of the worst in the nation last year. The Volunteers probably weren’t as bad as the numbers indicated, especially since the talent never meshed with Sal Sunseri’s 3-4 approach. With seven starters back, this unit should show some improvement in 2013.
In order to get to a bowl game, Tennessee has to go 3-1 in non-conference play. With Austin Peay, Western Kentucky and South Alabama on the schedule, getting three wins outside of the SEC should be attainable. However, finding three victories in the SEC won’t be easy. The Volunteers’ best chances at victories in conference play will likely come in November, as they play Missouri, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. I don’t think it will be easy, but Tennessee should find a way to get to 6-6 and play in a bowl in Butch Jones’ first season.
Mark Ross (@AthlonSports)
As much as I like the Butch Jones hiring, I think he will need some time to get things going in Knoxville. Besides starting over from scratch from not only a coaching standpoint but also the players having to learn new offensive and defensive systems, Tennessee saw a lot of talent leave for the NFL, especially on offense. While the offensive line should be a strength for the Volunteers, there's no Taylor Bray under center or Justin Hunter or Cordarelle Patterson (or Zach Rogers or Mychal Rivera for that matter) to catch passes. Then there's UT's schedule, which has two "guaranteed" wins on it - the season opener against Austin Peay and a Sept. 28 visit from South Alabama - and then four more potential winnable games at best. That would get the Vols to six wins and bowl-eligible, but it wouldn't surprise me one bit if Western Kentucky, Missouri, Auburn or dare I say it, even Kentucky was able to beat Tennessee this season. I think it's going to be a rocky road for "Rocky Top" this fall as the Vols will miss out on a bowl for the third straight season.
Nathan Rush (@AthlonSports)
Butch Jones is no Derek Dooley — and as a result, the Volunteers will make a bowl game this year. But there is little room for error, and the postseason party will almost certainly by an in-state affair at either the Music City or Liberty Bowls, respectively. Gone are the days when you couldn't spell Citrus (now the Capital One Bowl) without "UT," as Steve Spurrier famously quipped during the 1990s heyday of Phillip Fulmer's Big Orange machine. The Volunteers' schedule has five losses built in (at Alabama, at Oregon, at Florida, Georgia and South Carolina). Plus, the "easy" SEC games are on the road (at Missouri and at Kentucky). The cupcakes are South Alabama and Austin Peay. That leaves James Franklin's Vanderbilt, Gus Malzahn's Auburn and Bobby Petrino's Western Kentucky — three winnable (but losable) home games at Neyland Stadium — to decide the fate of Tennessee. Coach Jones needs at least two of those three to take the Vols bowling for the first time since 2010. If Jones can't make that happen, he better plan a Lane Kiffin exit strategy because patience is a thing of the past in Knoxville after the doomed Dooley era.
Barrett Sallee, Lead SEC College Football Writer for Bleacher Report (@BarrettSallee)
As long as the secondary can turn things around under first-year defensive coordinator John Jancek, I'd say that's not only a realistic goal, but an attainable one on Rocky Top.
Butch Jones takes over a program that's in a similar state as it was when former head coach Derek Dooley took over before the 2010 season. Scheme changes plus personnel changes doesn't typically equal immediate success, but that doesn't mean that the Vols are set for another rebuilding year.
The front seven for Tennessee will benefit tremendously from the switch back to the 4-3, and you'll see more consistency from the secondary as a result. A stout pass rush creates opportunities in the back end, and that will pay dividends for the Vols in 2013.
The schedule is brutal, and doesn't lend itself to a major turnaround in Year 1. But a .500 record and a lower-tier bowl game is progress. Jones will make that happen with this team.
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