The Tennessee Volunteers have been counting down to the 2013 season since the last second ticked off the clock against Kentucky on Nov. 24 of last year. Finally, the 2013 season is upon, and I have your virtual gameday program right here.
We'll recap Tennessee's dismal 2012 season before taking a look at the depth chart, key injuries, and important players to watch this year. With such player turnover on the offensive side of the ball, there is a lot of news and updates on the Hill.
Next, we'll dive into the new coaching staff. Who are they? Where are they from? What can we expect from them? With Tennessee's fourth head coach in six years, this group seems to be compiled of some key coaches who will be here for the long haul.
Also included is a comprehensive look at the 2013 schedule's most important games, offensive and defensive breakdown, X-factors, key storylines and, of course, a win-loss prediction.
The Volunteers' 2012 season was one of the biggest letdowns in school history.
After an exciting victory over N.C. State in Atlanta, Tennessee rode into its Florida duel with a 2-0 record and a Top 25 ranking for the first time in 2008. But after taking a 14-10 lead into halftime against the Gators, the Vols lost the second half, 27-6.
Embarrassing performances in wins over Akron and Troy coupled with humiliating losses against Missouri (where Derek Dooley was booed for his decision to opt for overtime with the best offense in school history on the field) and Vanderbilt (perhaps the worst performance of the last 50 years by the Big Orange) led to the Sunday morning firing of former Coach Dooley.
(Shameless plug for suggesting this was the right call and getting slammed for it.)
A 5-7 record was what the Volunteers were stuck with at season's end. The offseason was nearly as chaotic with rumors of Jon Gruden coming to the Vols amid talk of private planes and silent deals being made for the next coach of Tennessee.
In the end, it look like the Vols got the perfect guy for the job in Butch Jones.
Marquez North (1)
* Denotes returning starter
1 North has been receiving high praise from players and coaches. It's going to be hard to keep him out of the lineup.
2 Smith will be back from thumb surgery for the Oregon game.
3 Riyahd Jones will be out "for months" with sore calves.
Curt Maggitt, LB: The junior starter is coming back from a knee injury that ended his 2012 season in November. According to UTsports.com, Butch Jones said "next week you will start to see him more involved in practice."
Jacques Smith, LB: Smith broke his thumb during the first week of fall practice and will be out until early September. He underwent surgery immediately to give him ample time to return to the field. Since the surgery, Smith has been vocally active at practices.
Corey Vereen, LB/DE: The day before Smith's thumb injury, Vereen went down with an MCL sprain that required surgery. He was projected to miss six weeks initially, but recent reports have stated that he's progressing faster than scheduled.
Riyahd Jones, CB: Jones' calves have been sore and swollen for sometime now, causing Butch Jones to use dreaded words like "months" and "lengthy" in his press conference last Thursday. October looks to be the first time that the JUCO corner could see the field again.
Justin Worley, QB: After being named as the Gatorade High School Player of the Year in 2010, Worley has waited patiently behind Tyler Bray as the backup quarterback. He has played nine games in reserve, throwing just one touchdown.
But Worley has already played Alabama twice along with South Carolina, Arkansas and Vanderbilt. As the only non-freshman, he's going to be counted to no only win the quarterback job decisively, but to also lead from the position.
Antonio Richardson, LT: Built like an oak tree, Richardson has garnered All-America and All-SEC from Sports Illustrated, Athlon Sports, PhilSteele.com and the SEC media. He's been named to the Awards Watch Lists for both the Lombardi Trophy,given to the best lineman or linebacker, and Outland Trophy for the best interior lineman.
Richardson is projected to go No. 14 overall in the 2014 NFL draft by Walter Football.
Daniel McCullers, DT: After "slimming down" to 350 pounds, McCullers is expected to play a major role in the 2013 defense. He's been honored by Athlon Sports and PhilSteele.com as an All-SEC defenseman and was named to the award watch list for the Bednarik Trophy (best defensive player).
A.J. Johnson, LB: Butch Jones has been very demanding of his inside linebacker in the preseason, even demoting him to second team for a period of time. Clearly, he sees a lot in the junior.
Like McCullers, Johnson was named to the award watch list for the Bednarik Trophy. He received All-America and All-SEC honors from Sporting News, Athlon Sports, PhilSteele.com and Lindyssports.com. Walter Football projects him to go in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.
Marquez North, WR: Receiving the commitment of 4-star wide receiver North turned Jones' first signing class from average to good. At 6'4", 215 pounds, the North Carolina native comes into Knoxville as physically ready as any receiver on the team.
A strong beginning to the season could mean big minutes during the SEC-loaded October stretch for North.
Corey Vereen, LB/DE: Vereen was undoubtedly the MVP of the Orange and White Game in April. His combination of speed and emotional drive has been praised by coaches and emulated by fellow teammates.
As an early enrollee, Vereen spent the entire spring battling for a starting spot on the 2013 defense at age 17.
In case you missed it, the Tennessee Volunteers have a new coach. His name is Butch Jones, and he's taken Rocky Top by storm.
Using the mantra "Brick by Brick", Jones has simultaneously communicated his vision for returning to national prominence and created a marketing campaign aimed at recruiting high school standouts, pleasing Vol legacies and earning the support of fans.
He brought with him Mike Bajakian, John Jancek, Steve Stripling, Mark Elder, and Don Mahoney from Cincinnati rather than start from scratch everywhere. The fact that the offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, defensive line, offensive line, tight ends and special teams coaches were all set from Day 1 helped the staff focus its efforts in rebuilding the team.
Willie Martinez, Zach Azzanni, Robert Gillespie and Tommy Thigpen were new additions and have all proven their worth on the recruiting trail. Thigpen is ranked No. 12 by 247sports among recruiters and Gillespie is No. 25.
8/31 vs. Austin Peay
9/7 vs. Western Kentuck
9/14 at Oregon
9/21 at Florida
9/28 vs. South Alabama
10/5 vs. Georgia
10/19 vs. South Carolina
10/26 at Alabama
11/2 at Missouri
11/9 vs. Auburn
11/23 vs. Vanderbilt
11/30 at Kentucky
The most important games for Tennessee come in the first three weeks in November.
The Volunteers are not yet prepared to topple SEC powers like Alabama, Georgia and Florida, but can certainly play competitively under the right coaching.
They are, however, perfectly capable of defeating mid-tier schools like Missouri, Auburn and Vanderbilt. Simply put, Tennessee can have a successful 2013 season if it loses to Georgia; It can't if it loses to Vanderbilt.
Winning the games that they are supposed to win will be imperative in the Volunteers gunning for their first postseason win in six years.
In his first press conference as head coach of the Vols, Butch Jones said the offense would be "a no-huddle offense...We are going to be a physical style of offense and be a pro-style offense."
In other words, he wants to pound the ball when it's time to pound, but a Jones' running game at full bore will look more like that at Oregon than Alabama.
For 2013, expect to see the ball spread around to numerous wide receivers and run consistently with three running backs, if for no other reason than the Vols haven't yet established the stars of their offense yet, so it will be difficult for defenses to target "that guy".
There is a bit of a competition going on at quarterback, but all things being equal, Justin Worley will win the starting job. Being so close to opening day, none of the other three freshmen have made a serious run. However, we have yet to see Worley's production with a full offseason of preparation as the No. 1 quarterback.
The offensive line is one of the best in the SEC and, by virtue, one of the best in the country. It will be creating holes for a three-headed rushing attack led by senior Rajion Neal and backed by junior Marlin Lane and redshirt freshman Alden Hill.
Hill, in particular, is one to watch. At 6'2", 215 pounds, he's a big running back, but his speed has improved greatly since he first set foot on campus a year ago. With Lane's injury history, Hill could see the field plenty this fall.
Meanwhile, the wide receiver unit is raw. There is plenty of talent, but there's little to no major college experience there.
You have Vincent Dallas, Alton Howard and Jacob Carter returning with some experience. Jason Croom, Devrin Young, Drae Bowles and Cody Blanc have been waiting on the sidelines in their early years. Then there is Marquez North, Paul Harris, Ryan Jenkins and Josh Smith as incoming freshmen with tons of talent, but zero experience.
Who knows what to expect in the passing game?
What's the biggest thing to watch for from the 2013 Volunteer defense? The switch back to the 4-3.
Last year's experiment with the 3-4 was an epic disaster as the Vols gave up 38 points or more in seven consecutive games. It's really impossible to get a gauge on how good or bad the actual players are in such a debacle.
John Jancek turned a Bearcats' defense that was ranked 73rd in the country in his first season at Cincinnati into the 20th-ranked defense by his second year and improved to 12th-ranked last year. That kind of experience in turning defenses around will be a huge advantage, as the Vols were ranked 109th last year.
Up front, Tennessee will depend on big Daniel McCullers to live up to his preseason All-America status. He has the ability to clog up holes in the running game but he is also the nimblest 350-pounder that Jones could ever hope to have on his line.
If he commands a double team, it will be up to Jacques Smith, Marlon Wall and Corey Vereen to take advantage on the outside.
The linebacker corp is very good with a chance to be great. A.J. Johnson has been a dependable player and leader since his first game as a true freshman in 2011. Curt Maggitt has plenty of talent, but has fought injuries throughout his career. It's time for the junior to come into his own.
Brent Brewer, the former professional baseball player-turned-oversized safety, has found a home at outside linebacker. If he's been known for anything during his Vols' career, it's big hits across the middle.
Be sure to watch the safety tandem of Brian Randolph and Byron Moore. They looked terrific working together last year before Randolph's season was cut short, but I believe they can be one of the best duos in the country.
The Volunteers will need them to be because opposite cornerback Justin Coleman will be freshmen Cameron Sutton and Lemond Johnson. Utilityman Jaron Toney will likely see some playing time as well, but in the long run, Sutton and Johnson have the talent to win the job.
Rajion Neal, RB: There's no substitute for a running back who can set the pace, control the clock and move the chains. Neal's workouts have always been impressive, but it wasn't until 2012 that any of his potential was realized on the field.
With a full offseason to prepare to be the starter, Neal rattled off a 98-yard touchdown run in a fall scrimmage. Behind the vaunted Tennessee offensive line, there should be more to come.
Byron Moore, S: Moore got off to a hot start last year, intercepting four passes in five games, including a pick-six at Georgia. His decline in production is directly traceable to Brian Randolph's season-ending knee injury.
With Randolph back and healthy, expect to see Moore once again in the secondary, waiting to intercept an errant pass a la Deon Grant.
Corey Vereen, LB/DE: The Volunteers haven't had a consistent end pass rusher in 15 years. Sacks have simply not been a part of Tennessee's defensive attack, but Vereen has the ability to change that when he returns from knee surgery in the middle of the season.
At 6'2", 248 pounds, Vereen is small for an end, but his motor is unparalleled and that's where consistent success as an edge rusher comes from.
"John Doe", WR: Anyone want to be the Vols' top receiver? Anyone? There are at least half a dozen players who could rise to the occasion, but none has done so yet. Whoever this ends up being will be a major X-factor for the Volunteers.
With an offensive line that could be the best in the SEC, Tennessee's quarterbacks should have ample time to let their receivers roam. Whoever develops the best chemistry with the signal-caller could turn in a 1,000-yard, eight-touchdown season out of nowhere.
We just don't know his name yet.
Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman, Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson are all highly talented quarterbacks and all but Worley are freshmen (Peterman is a redshirt). Worley offers experience with Tennessee, the players and the opponents. Peterman offers mobility. Dobbs offers athleticism with tremendous intelligence. Ferguson offers an undeniable history of winning.
While the junior Worley is expected to win the job, if he struggles, gets injured or leaves the game, it will be fascinating to watch who plays in his place and how well.
Youth and Energy at Wide Receiver
After sending Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter, Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera to the NFL, the cupboard was left very bare at wide receiver. Vincent is the longest-tenured Volunteer receiver with 12 catches for 186 yards and one touchdown in his two-year career.
That's why Butch Jones brought in Paul Harris, Marquez North, Ryan Jenkins and Josh Smith in the 2013 recruiting class. They join numerous Vols with talent, but little to no experience, such as Jason Croom, Alton Howard, Cody Blanc and Drae Bowles.
There is plenty of talent on the outside, but the youth and inexperience will be a key storyline to follow throughout the season.
What's the Defense Look Like?
The 2012 Tennessee defense allowed more than 35 points per game playing in an impromptu, terribly coached and executed 3-4 scheme. It was an epic disaster, leaving us with very little knowledge on how good the personnel actually is.
Are the players really not capable of slowing down a college offense? Was the lack of coaching the true source of last year's defensive miscues? Does the answer lie somewhere in the middle?
These questions are going to be asked until December.
The Tennessee Volunteers will fight hard in all 12 games. The new coaching staff will see to that.
They won't, however, be able to get over the hump against such major SEC opponents as Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. Those four teams are simply too talented to predict Tennessdee upsetting them in 2013.
The trip to Eugene, Ore., to play the Oregon Ducks will be another brutal test of skills, endurance and heart. It's tough to envision Tennessee upsetting the Ducks in that game, though.
The remaining seven games are winnable. Austin Peay, Western Kentucky (yes, even with Bobby Petrino), South Alabama and Kentucky are wins.
That leaves Missouri, Auburn and Vanderbilt (three games outlined as the most important of the season) that will mean the difference between a winning season with a bowl trip and an unprecedented fourth consecutive losing season.
When the dust settles, I believe the reinvigorated Vols will be able to wrap up those wins to finish 7-5 and play in the Music City Bowl.