All of the Tennessee Volunteers are starting with a clean slate and must prove their worth to a new coaching staff. This is a chance for underdogs to make a run at playing time and starters to solidify their roles. In other words, there are going to be some intense battles at certain positions.
Coach Butch Jones will have open competition for all positions, as is customary with new coaches. But we all know, for instance, that A.J. Johnson will be the starting middle linebacker and that the offensive line is already set.
I'm most interested in the positions that are seriously undecided.
To add some timely flavor, I've added another passion of mine, The Academy Awards (whose 2013 nominations just came out) into the mix. You'll see the "nominees" for each position, the "favorite" to win, the essential "dark-horse" candidate and the "storyline" for that spot.
And The Peyton goes to...
Nominees: Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman
Favorite: Justin Worley
Dark Horse: Riley Ferguson
Storyline: In what figures to be one of the most exciting position battles throughout the spring, the Tennessee Volunteers have at least two, maybe three, viable options at quarterback.
Worley is a former Gatorade Player of the Year from South Carolina who has waited two years to get an opportunity to be the official starter for the Vols. As a junior, there's no question he has the most experience of the bunch.
But Peterman has what neither of the other two nominees do—a former offer from Butch Jones himself. Peterman's style might fit best with Jones' up-tempo, no-huddle offense, signaled by the interest Cincinnati showed in him last year.
And then there's Ferguson, who has received lofty offers from Alabama, LSU, Michigan and Clemson but remains true to Tennessee.
This one may end up like the 1968 Academy Award for Best Actress.
Nominees: Marlin Lane, Rajion Neal, Alden Hill, Devrin Young
Favorite: Marlin Lane
Dark Horse: N/A
Storyline: The Vols may not have one great running back, but they do have two good ones. Between these two, Jay Graham should be able to coach up another solid running game in 2013.
Lane started to become the preferred back by the end of last season. For the first half of the season, Lane averaged a mere 6.1 carries per game to Neal's 18.7, but for the second half, it flipped to Lane receiving 13.8 carries per game and Neal getting 11.
Tennessee might be best off splitting the role down the middle and going with two solid backs.
Hill and Young are nice complements but are no threat to take the starting job. Hill is a big bruiser coming off a 2012 redshirt, while Young is known for his scatback speed.
The big wrench that could be thrown into this whole process is a commitment from 5-star running back Derrick Green out of Virginia. He's looking primarily at Michigan, Tennessee and Auburn.
He will be announcing his college choice on January 26.
Nominees: Vincent Dallas, Alton "Pig" Howard, Jason Croom, Drae Bowles
Favorites: Vincent Dallas, Pig Howard
Dark Horse: Paul Harris, Ryan Jenkins
Storyline: The Volunteers lost their top three wide receivers from 2012. Two left early and will be first-round NFL draft picks. One graduated after a breakout season. All have a chance at the next level.
That leaves Dallas, who has 12 career receptions and zero starts, as the elder statesmen of the unit. Needless to say, the wide receivers are going to be full of youngsters and no starting spot will be secure.
After Dallas, Howard showed great playmaking ability last fall when he caught, ran and even passed the football in his freshman season. In an up-tempo offense, his athleticism could allow him to thrive.
The dark horses are freshmen Harris and Jenkins. The two are very similar to Croom and Bowles, respectively. Suffice it to say, Tennessee has a lot of talent at wide receiver, albeit young and inexperienced talent, and should expect several different combinations to see the field.
Marquez North, 4-star receiver out of Charlotte, could potentially vault to the top of the list if he were to commit to Tennessee.
Nominees: Brendan Downs, Woody Quinn
Favorite: Brendan Downs
Dark Horse: Justin Meredith
Storyline: Tennessee waves goodbye to the best pass-catching tight end since Jason Witten and one of the best in school history in Mychal Rivera. His shoes will be tough to fill.
The only upperclassman in contention is Downs, who figures to get the longest look at starter for 2013. He's appeared in 18 games in two years, caught six passes for 73 yards and a touchdown.
Quinn is a recent JUCO commitment from California. The 2-star's offer list is rather boring, but he provides immediate depth and experience to an otherwise thin position.
Watch out for redshirt freshman Meredith, who had offers from Auburn, Cincinnati (Butch Jones), Louisville, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, South Carolina and Virginia Tech this time last year.
Nominees: Marlon Walls, Corey Miller, Trevarris Saulsberry
Favorite: Marlon Walls
Dark Horse: Jason Carr
Storyline: Tennessee is switch back to the 4-3 defense, which means the team needs to find a prototypical defensive end, rather than the oversized 3-4 version.
Walls is the leading candidate to line up opposite Jacques Smith and alongside Daniel McCullers and Maurice Couch. He's a senior who has had a good but not great UT career.
Miller is Walls' most likely contender, but Miller is undersized at 6'3", 257. Would the Vols trot out two undersized ends? Perhaps, but Miller would have to be overwhelmingly better than Walls.
Saulsberry is a redshirt junior who likely won't figure into the equation but never say never.
Carr is an exciting defensive end commitment out of Memphis. After the coaching change, his commitment softened as he decided to start looking at Alabama and Ole Miss, too.
If he stays with the Vols, Carr has a legitimate shot to compete for the job.
Nominees: Dontavis Sapp, LaTroy Lewis, Raiques Crump
Favorite: Dontavis Sapp
Dark Horses: Jordan Williams, Kenny Bynum
Storyline: The Big Orange have two stud linebackers in A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt that need a third now that Herman Lathers is gone.
In an otherwise weak field of nominees, Sapp is the most likely favorite. Besides being a three-year letterman, he has a couple starts under his belt and has appeared in 35 games.
Williams has waffled back and forth between defensive end and linebacker, but his 250-pound frame is better suited for a 4-3 linebacker. If he can get comfortable with yet another position switch, he could challenge Sapp.
Finally, Bynum is another familiar face for Butch Jones, who offered the 3-star linebacker while at Cincinnati. Bynum was sidelined all of 2012 with a torn meniscus but was impressing coaches before he went down.
Now he's back and healthy.
Nominees: Justin Coleman, Eric Gordon, Jaron Toney, Riyahd Jones
Favorite: Justin Coleman, Eric Gordon
Dark Horse: Daniel Gray
Storyline: If the Volunteers could trade a few safeties for cornerbacks, they'd be in great shape. Unfortunately, this is college.
Tennessee's safeties include Brian Randolph, Byron Moore, LaDarrell McNeil, Brent Brewer, Geraldo Orta and newcomer Jalen-Reeves Maybin.
The cornerbacks are thinner and less talented. Luckily, there's some experience between Coleman and Gordon, though neither Vol has lived up to expectations. The junior and senior seem to be the favorites to start.
Toney provides some nice depth, and Jones is a very nice JUCO commitment. If either of the favorites stumble, these two could quickly jump in.
Then there's Gray and newcomers Lemond Johnson, Reeves-Maybin (maybe, though he's more of a safety/linebacker) and Cameron Sutton.
It's wide open after the first couple players.