Welcome to the SEC, Butch Jones.
The schedule didn't do Tennessee's first-year coach any favors, as the Vols will face five teams -- Oregon, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama -- in the top 10 of the preseason USA Today Coaches' Poll. If things go as expected, the Vols will enter November at 3-5, which means winning three of four in the final month -- the Vols visit Missouri and Kentucky and play Auburn and Vanderbilt at home -- would be necessary for UT to end a two-year streak without a bowl game.
The Missouri game is the key, as it could be table-setter for a strong finish to Jones' first season.
Dried and true
Whether Tennessee has the SEC’s best offensive line is a discussion for another time, but there’s no debating the front five are the Vols’ foundation. The linemen have the reputation of being the program’s hardest workers, and that doesn’t appear to have changed despite preseason praise and accolades. They are aware of their value to this team and feel they’re ready for the pressure.
“We keep on reiterating it: We’re veterans now,” left tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson said this month. “We’ve got to execute in the run game, pass game — we’ve got to be consistent all across the board.”
Green as in go
Linebacker A.J. Johnson led the SEC in tackles as a sophomore last season, but he recorded his first sack in the season finale against Kentucky and has just one forced fumble and three recoveries in his career. UT’s coaches have pushed him to increase those disruptive numbers, make more plays in the backfield and become the defense’s undisputed leader. They’ve also challenged 6-foot-8, 352-pound defensive tackle Daniel McCullers to realize his potential, anchor the defensive front and become a defender opposing offenses know they must contain.
Quarterback Tyler Bray, wide receivers Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera moved on and took 80 percent of the production from last season’s passing game with them. Of the four quarterbacks vying to start, only Justin Worley, who started three games as a freshman in 2011 and played sparingly as Bray’s backup in 2012, has any experience in a college game. At receiver, only two returning players have caught a pass in a college game, and the Vols will have to rely on some freshmen, Marquez North in particular, in a pass game that’s a work in progress. Without a dependable option on the perimeter, Tennessee’s inexperience at quarterback will be magnified.
Perhaps the biggest challenge Jones faces in year one is changing the collective attitude of a program that is 28-34 in the past five seasons and four SEC wins the past three.
Though players have embraced putting last season long behind them, the Vols had opportunities in the fourth quarters of five SEC games in 2012 and found a way to lose each time.
Can Jones instill the blue-collar identity of his previous teams in the Vols in less than a year?
He had a reputation of doing more with less at Cincinnati, and given the questions surrounding the Vols defense’s progress from last season’s disaster, all the new skill-position pieces, the schedule and UT’s overall talent level, reaching 6-6 and qualifying for a bowl might fall in line with his previous work.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...