Life in the SEC is difficult. With perennial powers like Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and South Carolina unlikely to lose any steam and stay at the top, it's tough for any team to show its head and put up any semblance of a fight. Teams like the Florida Gators and Auburn Tigers are sure to have pressure on them to perform, but one team sticks out and is sure to outperform expectations—the Tennessee Vols.
Although there was hope and aspirations going into last season, they were cut short due to a bevy of injuries and bad coaching decisions. With Derek Dooley entering his third season as head coach with the program, he'll be on the hot seat if the team does not perform up to expectations. With a few winnable games to start the season, he shouldn't have to worry about a thing until the halfway point. Having to rely firmly on the shoulders of freshmen due to injuries last season, Dooley can now relax a bit knowing that some familiar faces will be returning.
With offensive playmakers, such as junior QB Tyler Bray and junior WRs Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter returning, plus the addition of junior college stud Cordarrelle Patterson, the Vols should have a very solid passing game. Before injuring his knee last season, Hunter was viewed as one of the top deep threats in the SEC. With close to a year since his injury, Hunter is sure to be healthy and ready to go.
Bray, too, was hampered by injuries for a good chunk of the season, missing time with a thumb injury. He has developed a bit of a tendency for getting injured during his collegiate career, but when healthy, he has all the tools to develop into one of the Vols best quarterbacks in recent memory. He did limit his interceptions to six last year, but half were due to him simply being overzealous with his bullet of an arm. The connection he has with Rogers, the return of Hunter and the inclusion of Cordarrelle Patterson will only bode well for this powerful aerial attack.
The return of defensive field general, Herman Lathers only helps a defense that was ranked 28th in the nation last year. The switch to the 3-4 defense will also allow the team to work on the weaker part of their defensive attack, the passing game. Incoming freshman safety, LaDarrell McNeil will give the Volunteers defense the toughness, tenacity and durability it so lacked last season. Mix that with the returning Maurice Couch on the D-Line, and you have one mean, nasty D.
Now, the weakest part of this team was the rushing attack. The Vols rushed for a putrid 90 yards per game, 111th in the nation. The North-South approach was seemingly abolished by the notion that East to West would clear space for the runners. That is never the case. With Tauren Poole gone, look for there to be a twin-headed attack of Marlin Lane and freshman all-purpose back Davante' Bourque. Bourque has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, while Lane will flash through the holes and not stray away from contact. If they can conjure up 135+ yards out of the backfield, they should take the added pressure off of Bray.
With the team getting back 19 of their starters from last year, look for the Vols to win eight to nine games, granted they stay relatively healthy After all, they play only one of the "Power Four" this year, that team being the Crimson Tide. Get ready for the offensive fireworks.