Tennessee (2-1) – Last week: 59-14 loss to No. 2 Oregon
2012 Record: 5-7 (1-7 SEC)
Returning Starters: 13: Offense: 5, Defense: 8
Key departures: QB Tyler Bray (Kansas City Chiefs undrafted free agent, 3,612 yards and 34 TDs), WR Cordarrelle Patterson (Minnesota Vikings first round draft pick, 1858 all-purpose yardage and 10 TDs), WR Justin Hunter (73 receptions for 1083 yards & 9 TDs, Tennessee Titans second round selection), TE Mychal Rivera (Sixth round pick of Oakland Raiders), LB Herman Lathers (third on team in tackles with 66), WR Zach Rodgers (491 yards and 7 TDs)
Player to watch offense: RB Rajion Neal
After a bevy of early departures last offseason, UT’s versatile senior back remains one of its few talented skill players on a team mostly devoid of playmakers. Neal is hardly a flashy player, but he scored nine touchdowns in 2012 -- five as a rusher and four as a receiver. The Vols have major uncertainties at both quarterback and wide out, but team’s undoubted strength is its offensive line, and new Vols coach Butch Jones is likely to rely heavily on Neal’s wheels even though he prefers an up-tempo, pass-heavy attack. Neal leads the Vols with 257 yards on 43 carries (6.0 y/c) and four touchdowns this season.
Player to watch defense: LB A.J. Johnson
The SEC’s leading tackler (136) in 2012 was the lone bright spot on an abominable Volunteers defense last year. Johnson, a coveted 2014 NFL prospect, led UT in tackles, quarterback hurries (8) and takedowns for a loss (8.5). Johnson is charged with conducting a unit again adjusting to a new scheme (UT is changed back to a 4-3 defense). To date, Jones has not utilized Johnson’s talents as a two-way player. In 2012, the linebacker scored six rushing touchdowns on 12 attempts as UT’s goal line back in its Wild-Vol set.
2013 Outlook: Measurably bleak
The Volunteers actually led the Ducks 7-0 before surrendering 59 straight points. They return eight starters from a defense that ranked at or right next to the bottom of every statistical category in the league (scoring, rushing, passing, total, sacks, etc.) UT allowed 54 touchdowns in 2012, good for 94th nationally. The secondary and receiving corps are a total mess, and the quarterback competition between junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman wasn’t settled during spring camp and remains in flux. Worley started the first three games but Jones reopened its quarterback competition this week.
Jones inherited a roster thin on elite talent, particularly with the exodus of Bray, Hunter and Patterson. UT’s new coach has already given the Vols faithful hope with a potentially dynamite incoming recruiting class (No. 2 in Rivals’ team rankings), but with a monster schedule on the horizon -- The No. 19 Gators, a cupcake, then three consecutive games against top 12 teams -- the program may spiral further downward before it can rise again. The Volunteers do boast a stacked offensive line. A unit, according to ESPN Stats Inc., that has 123 career starts. Antonio Richardson and Ja’Wuan James might be the top tackle tandem in the nation, but it’s quite doubtful an offensive line can carry an entire unit with few other discernable known quantities.Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton