WHEN: Saturday, October 26; TBD
WHERE: Bryant-Denny Stadium (Tuscaloosa, AL)
LAST SEASON: 5-7 (1-7 Southeastern Conference, 6th in Eastern Division)
CURRENT PRESEASON RANKING: consensus – unranked
CURRENT BETTING LINE: Alabama by 27
RADIO: Crimson Tide Sports Network, local affiliates listed here.
SERIES HISTORY: Alabama leads the series 50-37-8. Last meeting: 44-13 Alabama in the traditional rivalry game. The last Tennessee victory came in 2006 with a score of 16-13 in Knoxville.
OFFENSE: First year head coach Butch Jones faces a tough schedule with a Tennessee Volunteers squad that finished 5-7 (1-7 SEC) last season. Adding to his headache, the UT offense loses gunslinger QB Tyler Bray who accounted for 3,612 passing yards and 34 touchdowns last season. Coach Jones has not decided on a starter for 2013 but that issue should be settled before the trip to Bryant-Denny in late October. Justin Worley, the only quarterback with game experience, faces a tough challenge from Nathan Peterman and incoming freshman Josh Dobbs.
The fate of any QB will hinge on the play of the wide receivers. UT returns only two receivers, Dallas and Carter, with measurable game experience. Combined, they accounted for 17 catches and 275 yards last season. Young players will need to step up early, but they will be aided by one of the most experienced offensive lines in the SEC.
Conclusion: Tennessee fielded a top 20 offense last season, but still managed a losing record. Most of the stars from last year are gone and Tennessee is dealing with their fourth coach in six seasons. Butch Jones is a proven winner in the FBS. Whether he is a success in the SEC is yet to be determined — Knoxville is not Cincinnati. He has the ability to build an offense around the talent he has and he will win some games that the Vols might have lost in previous years. As the passing game struggles early, the Vols may return to tradition and experiment with a pounding running attack. Tennessee will likely come to Tuscaloosa at 3-4 and it is hard to predict what they will have left to show after facing Oregon, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Look for this season to be the closest thing to a mulligan a coach can expect in Knoxville, where winning is expected quickly.
DEFENSE: If you had to give a nickname to the 2012 Tennessee defense, it might best be described as The Sieve. The Vol defense was bad last season (107th in the FBS). Tennessee games often evolved into shootouts more common to arena football than SEC play and the 2012 Vols surrendered more than 35 points per game.
UT returns most of the defense from 2012 which should provide some stability. Coach Jones and coordinator John Jancek are shifting to a 4-3 defense (UT ran a 3-4 last season). Jones made this transition at Cincinnati. However, he went 4-8 his first season before rebounding with a 19-6 run for his final two seasons there.
Conclusion: The transition to the 4-3 is the right move but it could get ugly for the Vols before it gets better. It’s hard to predict how a defense will adapt to the new assignments but the new defense could help mask some of the holes that were clearly there the last few years. The SEC is a very physical league and the tough early schedule will not leave a lot of room for experimentation before the trip to Tuscaloosa.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game was a source of frustration for Vols fans over the last few seasons. Starter Michael Palardy has been injury prone and was replaced for a portion of the season by punter Derrick Brodus. For the season, the Vols did not make any field goals longer than 40 yards although they didn’t attempt many 3 pointers (19) all season. Tennessee kickers missed 5 PAT attempts and that could cripple them in close games.
Although first year assistant Mark Elder is officially the special teams coach, the entire staff is working with the team in kick return and coverage assignments. With the departure of Cordarrelle Patterson, who could be an early starter for the NFL Vikings, kick return duties should fall to Devrin Young or Pig Howard. Both players are capable and could break one for a quick score.
Conclusion: Look for UT to be vastly improved in special teams this season due to the extra attention from the coaching staff. The extra attention should provide more discipline in the kicking game. Better blocking for returns and better coverage after kicks are important this season and could be the difference in a couple of games. If UT manages to hang with Alabama early, it could be due to a well executed return.
COACHING: Butch Jones is a good coach and he will bring success back to Knoxville, but Vol fans are going to have to be patient this season. He has done an excellent job recruiting and he will build the team into a contender for the SEC East in a couple of seasons. Jones brings a 50-27 record into Knoxville which is blemished by one losing season, a rebuilding year at Cincinnati.
Conclusion: As a first year coach in the SEC, Butch Jones will get a grace period. Those don’t last long in the nation’s top conference, but he has shown an ability to win in his short career (6 years as a head coach). Speculation for 2013 is broad among the Vol faithful. Optimists look for a 9-3 year and a run at the East crown. Pessimists look at a three-win year as a young team gets ready for the future. Most fans would be happy with signs of growth and a return to a bowl game. UT should leave Tuscaloosa at 3-5 with reasonable expectations of a 5 or 6 win campaign. Variables for the remainder of the season will be the stretch of Missouri, Auburn and Vanderbilt. UT lost high scoring games to both Mizzou and Vandy last year and did not play Auburn. They will need to take 2 of those three to finish at 6-6 with a win over Kentucky to close the season.
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