KNOXVILLE – Butch Jones knows a thing or two about winning.
Heading into his seventh year as a head coach, Jones has compiled a 50-27 record, four conference championships and has led his teams to five bowl games.
He hasn’t slowed down since arriving in Knoxville early last December. Jones has attacked the recruiting trail, netting a class that currently sit at No. 1 in the nation, according to Rivals.com. He drew a crowd of over 60,000 for the Orange and White Game, and nearly 40,000 showed up for an open practice this fall.
Many fans are excited about UT again. Many alums have returned for the first time in years. Thus far he’s won off the field.
And while all that bodes well for UT’s long-term future, the reality of the present is that the Vols are facing another season where they will be looking up at the elites of the SEC. Tennessee, a five-win team in 2012, lost most of its offensive firepower to the NFL and is searching for answers to fix one of the worst defenses in school history.
“Our margin is incredibly thin,” Jones said multiple times in camp.
He’s right. Basically starting from scratch at quarterback, receiver and tight end, the Vols are preparing for a schedule that includes five teams (Alabama, Oregon, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida) ranked in the top 10 of the AP Poll. Three of those games are on the road.
Add in two more bowl teams from 2012 (Western Kentucky, Vanderbilt) and SEC teams looking to rebound such as Auburn and Missouri, and it’s not a stretch to say the Vols might have one of the toughest schedules in the nation.
That’s out of UT’s control at this point, though, and Jones and a roster that has seen so much change over the past several years now must set out to prove that they haven’t fallen as far as many have said.
There are some reasons for optimism.
The Vols bring back one of the most experienced and talented offensive line units in the nation. The defense, though reeling from last year’s debacle, has experience and talent in spots, such as linebacker A.J. Johnson, safety Brian Randolph and defensive tackle Daniel McCullers.
And then there’s the Jones factor. It can’t be quantified, but it’s the hope, on Tennessee’s behalf, that the errors of the past few years won’t be duplicated going forward. There is optimism that there will be less mental mistakes, less costly penalties and overall better football IQ and game management from this team and staff
If all goes as planned, the Vols do have a shot at improving upon their five-win performance last year despite losing all that talent. It’s not guaranteed, though. That margin will be thin all season and every mistake will be magnified.
Jones’ first ride through the SEC is sure to be bumpy, but how much progress can he show? That’s the question. In just one more week, we’ll start getting some answers.
Full schedule with predictions (all times ET):
8/31 vs. Austin Peay W (42-7)
9/7 vs. Western Kentucky W (28-17)
9/14 @ Oregon L (52-14)
9/21 @ Florida L (28-10)
9/28 vs. South Alabama W (34-17)
10/05 vs. Georgia L (42-24)
10/19 vs. South Carolina L (24-21)
10/26 @ Alabama L (45-7)
11/2 @ Missouri W (28-24)
11/9 vs. Auburn W (35-31)
11/23 vs. Vanderbilt L (21-17)
11/30 @ Kentucky W (35-21)
Final regular season record: 6-6 (3-5 SEC)
Projected depth chart:
QB: 1. Justin Worley | 2. Nathan Peterman
RB: 1. Rajion Neal | 2. Marlin Lane
TE: 1. Brendan Downs | 2. Joseph Ayres
Slot WR: 1. Pig Howard | 2. Devrin Young
WR: 1. Marquez North | 2. Jacob Carter
WR: 1. Jason Croom | 2. Josh Smith
LT: 1. Tiny Richardson | 2. Marques Pair
LG: 1. Alex Bullard | 2. Marcus Jackson
C: 1. James Stone | 2. Mack Crowder
RG: 1. Zach Fulton | 2. Dylan Wiesman
RT: 1. Ja’Wuan James | 2. Kyler Kerbyson
DE: 1. Corey Miller | 2. LaTroy Lewis
DT: 1. Daniel Hood | 2. Maurice Couch
DT: 1. Daniel McCullers | 2. Danny O’Brien
DE: 1. Jordan Williams | 2. Marlon Walls
LB: 1. Dontavis Sapp | 2. Kenny Bynum
LB: 1. A.J. Johnson | 2. Christian Harris
LB: 1. Brent Brewer | 2. Greg King
CB: 1. Cameron Sutton | 2. Malik Foreman
CB: 1. Justin Coleman | 2. Vincent Dallas
S: 1. Brian Randolph | 2. Max Arnold
S: 1. LaDarrell McNeil | 2. Byron Moore
Nickel: 1. Jaron Toney | 2. Devaun Swafford
K: 1. Michael Palardy | 2. George Bullock
P: 1. Michael Palardy | 2. Matt Darr
KOS: 1. Michael Palardy | 2. George Bullock
* Left off due to injury concerns starting the season: DE Jacques Smith, DE Corey Vereen, TE Alex Ellis, LB Curt Maggitt, CB Riyahd Jones
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga