Since 2008 the Vols have had four different head coaches. Former Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones is the latest that will try to right the ship in Knoxville. Jones took over for Brian Kelly at Cincinnati and went 4-8 in his first season before going 19-6 over the last two years. Jones brings Mike Bajakian and John Jancek with him from Cincy as his coordinators. This trio had a good run at Cincy sharing the Big East crown each of the last two years but you have to wonder how long it will take them to get acclimated to the weekly grind of SEC football.
It's interesting when you look at returning starters because Tennessee has the most starters returning in the SEC East. But when you dig a little bit deeper, the Vols are losing a ton of talent. On offense the Vols will lose QB Tyler Bray (3612 yards passing, 36 TD), WR Justin Hunter (73 rec, 9 TD), WR Cordarelle Patterson (46 rec, 5 TD), TE Mychael Rivera (36 rec, 5 TD) and WR Zach Rogers (32 rec, 7 TD). For those playing at home, that's pretty much the entire Vols passing game. On defense the key losses are Herman Lathers (third leading tackler) and Prentiss Waggner (48 tackles, 2 INT).
Defensively, the Vols look good in terms of returning talent but you also have to consider that they had the worst defense in the SEC in terms of points allowed and yards allowed. In addition to the struggles on defense last season, this will be their third different coordinator in as many years and changing schemes so often makes it difficult on many different levels. Jancek will switch the Vols defense back to a 4-3 after one year of running the 3-4. Last year, Tennessee had just 17 sacks which left them in the basement of the SEC in that metric. Jancek will look to turn the defense around behind talent like AJ Johnson and Byron Moore. Jancek coached at Georgia previously (under Mark Richt) but was shown the door when Richt fired Willie Martinez and hired Todd Grantham. Jancek has made the controversial (at least in my mind) hire of Willie Martinez as DB coach after unsuccessful stints at Oklahoma and Auburn in the same capacity over the last two years.
We looked at the big loss in the passing game for the Vols but the rest of the offense remains in tact. The Vols return four starting offensive lineman and return running backs Raijon Neal and Marlin Lane Jr (combined for 1366 yards rushing and 4.9 yards per carry). The big question is who will be handing the ball off to them? Will it be Justin Worley (15 of 23 in 2012 with 0 TD and 2 INT)? Red-shirt freshman Nathan Peterman? How bout verbal commitment Riley Ferguson? Whoever it is won't have much SEC experience and also won't have very experienced receivers.
The Vols are rebuilding and the SEC East is more competitive with Florida, Georgia and South Carolina really strengthening their positions recently. Lane Kiffin blew everything up. Derek Dooley couldn't get it fixed and now Butch Jones gives it a shot. The defense will be better than it was last year, it has to be, but the offense will take a step back this season. I think this year will be a lot like last year for the Vols although they will improve as the season progresses. Butch Jones is going to need time because he isn't turning this ship around in one off-season. A bowl for the Vols in 2013 should be considered a success.
Previous SEC First Looks: