Tennessee Football: 5 Toughest Players Vols Face in 2014

Reid AkinsContributor IIJuly 4, 2014

Tennessee Football: 5 Toughest Players Vols Face in 2014

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Tennessee Volunteers' 2014 schedule is widely regarded as one of the toughest in the nation. A big part of that is due to the extremely skilled players the team will match up against each week. 

    In fact, many of the opponents the Vols face this upcoming season have rosters loaded on both sides of the ball with All-SEC, All-American and even Heisman Trophy candidates.

    Since Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter left for the NFL in 2012, Tennessee hasn't truly established any elite athletes on either offense or defense, although players like Marquez North, Cameron Sutton and A.J. Johnson could achieve that status with solid play this season.

    In order to compete throughout the team's gauntlet of a schedule, the Vols need more exceptional playmakers of their own to emerge to offset the big plays generated by opposing superstar athletes. 

    Here are the top five toughest players Tennessee's offense and defense will face during the 2014 season.

1. Trevor Knight

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    Trevor Knight instantly became one of college football's most high-profile quarterbacks after he led the Oklahoma Sooners to an upset victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. 

    Knight turned in a staggeringly efficient performance against one of the top defenses in the country, completing 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.

    Now, Knight and the Sooners will look to capitalize on their momentum by making a run for the 2014 College Football Playoff.

    Unfortunately for Tennessee, not only do they have face to Knight and the Sooners in 2014, but they play them in Norman, Oklahoma, during Week 3 and with one of the youngest and most inexperienced rosters in all of college football.

2. Todd Gurley

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    After missing the 2013 Tennessee-Georgia game due to an ankle injury, Todd Gurley closed out his sophomore season as a Bulldog in a big way, totaling 989 yards rushing on six yards per carry and 10 touchdowns. 

    This year, Tennessee likely won't be lucky enough to play against a Gurley-less Georgia team. In fact, there's a good chance the Bulldogs' entire offense will run through both him and fellow junior running back Keith Marshall.

    Gurley is an early Heisman favorite, and adding Marshall to the mix only makes UGA's backfield even more deadly. With a new defensive line, the Vols will need exceptional play out of their linebackers and defensive backfield to have any hope of stopping this duo.

3. Vernon Hargreaves III

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    With its stocked wide receiver corps, Tennessee will try to pick up yards through the air against teams with stout defensive lines, including the Florida Gators.

    However, if previous play is any indication, first team All-SEC cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III won't make it easy for the Vols when the Gators come to Neyland Stadium on Oct. 4.

    Hargreaves will likely match up against the Vols' 2013 SEC All-Freshman wide receiver, Marquez North. At 6'4", North has a major height advantage over the 5'11" Hargreaves.

    However, quarterback Justin Worley will have a thin margin of error when he targets North during that game, as Hargreaves has the athleticism and quickness to swat down and intercept even perfectly thrown passes. 

4. Robert Nkemdiche

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    If there's any young player in college football poised for a breakout season, it's Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche.

    The consensus top-ranked recruit in 2013, Nkemdiche turned in a first-year performance that earned him first team freshman All-American honors. 

    Now, with a full year of SEC play under his belt, Nkemdiche is in position to become every bit the game-changing player the Rebels need him to be. 

    The Tennessee Volunteers won't get any breaks when they face off against Ole Miss and Nkemdiche in 2014. Not only is the game in Oxford, Mississippi, but Tennessee's offensive line is also completely new.

    Dontavius Blair, Coleman Thomas and Marcus Jackson will need to live up to every bit of their potential to keep Nkemdiche at bay and out of the Vols' backfield. 

5. Amari Cooper

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    Dave Martin/Associated Press

    Alabama's Amari Cooper was a freshman All-American in 2012. In fact, his 59 receptions, 1,000 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns led the entire Crimson Tide wide receiver corps.

    After a somewhat disappointing season in 2013 that saw his production drop to 736 yards receiving and four touchdowns, Cooper will be determined to (presumably) finish out his college career on a high note in 2014.

    Tennessee's Cameron Sutton will likely be the man tasked with shutting down Cooper during this season's edition of the Third Saturday in October. Sutton is no slouch himself, and there's good evidence that he may be one of the league's most promising young cornerbacks. 

    Depending on how Alabama's new quarterback performs during that game, Sutton and the Tennessee secondary could find success in limiting Cooper's receptions and yardage.

    However, stopping the running back duo of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry might be a slightly more difficult task.