Head Coach: Butch Jones
2014 record: 7-6 overall, 3-5 SEC East
2014 Postseason results: Beat Iowa 45-28 in the TaxSlayer Bowl
2015 returning starters: 9 offense, 8 defense
Odds to win 2016 College Football Championship game: 70/1
Odds to win 2015 SEC Championship Game: 11/1
Odds to Win 2015 SEC East Division: +260
Regular season wins: over 8 -125 / under 8 -105
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Since 2008, the Tennessee Volunteers have gone 5-7 four times, 6-7 once and 7-6 twice, including last year. Those are not good numbers for any team much less a team like Tennessee that is used to competing for SEC and even national titles.
Volunteer fans hope coach Butch Jones, now in his third year. can build on the relative success of last year. Tennessee had a winning season after three straight 5-7 seasons. This team had an upset over South Carolina in overtime, and narrow losses to Georgia, Florida and Missouri, all by 8 points or less. Still at 6-6 the Volunteers squeaked into a bowl where they had a convincing 45-28 win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville.
Now with 17 starters back, the Volunteers look to compete with Georgia for the SEC East title. Even if that doesn’t happen, expect marked improvement from 2014.
Tennessee struggled on offense last year averaging 371 yards per game including 224 passing and 146 rushing yards per game. The Volunteers averaged 29 points a game. Coordinator Mike DeBord gets 9 starters back on offense, and they need to show improvement if Tennessee is going to truly take the next step into relevance.
Last season, quarterbacks Justin Worley and Joshua Dobbs split time at the position. Worley has graduated, so Dobbs will take over as the full time starter. Dobbs seemingly came out of nowhere last year as he started the season as the third string quarterback. Dobbs would take over for an injured Worley halfway through the season. Worley threw for 1,579 yards with 12 touchdowns and 8 interceptions before a shoulder injury sidelined him. Dobbs completed 63.3% of his passes for 1,206 yards with 9 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. The much more mobile Dobbs also rushed for 469 yards on 104 carries with 8 touchdowns. No other quarterback on the roster has taken a snap in college.
Running back Jalen Hurd had 190 carries for 899 yards with 5 touchdowns, along with 35 catches for 221 yards and 2 touchdowns as a freshman. He will split carries with Alabama transfer Alvin Kamara who sat out a year. Depth is an issue as there is only one other scholarship running back on the roster. Dobbs will also get plenty of carries as he was the second leading rusher despite playing in only six games.
Junior receiver Marquez North missed the last three games of 2014 with a shoulder injury but is healthy now. He had 30 catches for 320 yards and 4 touchdowns before the injury. With North and Hurd, the top seven receivers are back for the Volunteers. Pig Howard had 54 catches for 618 yards and a touchdown, and also rushed for 96 yards with 2 touchdowns. Von Pearson had 38 catches for 393 yards and 5 touchdowns. Jason Croom had 21 catches for 305 yards and 4 touchdowns. Josh Malone had 23 catches for 231 yards and a touchdown. Tight end Ethan Wolf had 23 catches for 212 yards.
Four starters are back on the offensive line, but the Volunteers need to be much better at pass protection. The line gave up 43 sacks in 2014. Right guard Jashon Robertson started all 13 games and was All-Freshman in the SEC last year.
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Tennessee allowed 365 yards per game on defense last year including 196 passing and 168 rushing yards. The Volunteers allowed 24 points per game. While most programs would be perfectly happy with a top 40 defense nationally, that is only good enough for middle of the pack in the rugged SEC. Eight starters are back for coordinator John Jancek.
Defensive ends Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt combined for 21 sacks last year and both return to wreak havoc in opposing backfields. Freshman tackle Kahlil McKenzie might displace Danny O’Brien from his starting spot. Owen Williams will likely start at the other tackle.
The Volunteers must replace middle linebacker A.J. Johnson, who will be missed not only for his play on the field but his leadership as well. Junior Kenny Bynum looks to step into that role. Outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin led the team in tackles as a sophomore and is the only returning starter for the linebackers. Freshman Dillon Bates will likely start at the other outside linebacker.
Three starters are back in the secondary. Cornerback Cameron Sutton headlines the unit that could potentially be among the best in the SEC. Safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil are very physical. JUCO transfer Justin Martin and Emmanuel Moseley will compete for the other corner spot.
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Kicker Aaron Medley made 20 of 26 field goals last year, but 5 of his 6 misses were from beyond 40 yards. He has worked to improve his leg strength in the off-season. Maryland transfer Nathan Renfro will compete with highly touted recruit Tommy Townsend for the punting job. Evan Berry will return kicks again after averaging 30 yards per return last year. Sutton will return punts and had a punt return for a touchdown last year.
Tennessee opens the season against Bowling Green in Nashville. The comes an early season test at home against Oklahoma, before the Vols host Western Carolina. Tennessee closes out September with the conference opener at Florida. October is difficult with home games against Arkansas and Georgia, followed by road trips to Alabama and Kentucky. The schedule loosens up somewhat in November with home games against South Carolina, North Texas, and Vanderbilt, and a trip to Missouri.
The offense and defense should be better in 2015 with so many returning starters. However, the schedule is very difficult with 8 bowl teams from a year ago. If the Vols can survive September and October with a 4-4 record, then Tennessee gets rebuilding South Carolina and Missouri teams. That could mean 8 wins and a berth in a mid-tier bowl.
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