5 Bold Predictions for Tennessee Volunteers' 2014 Season
It's finally game week for the Tennessee Volunteers, and that means it's time to do the one thing we writers do best: put on our Nostradamus hats and predict the upcoming season.
Part of the fun of college football is its uncertainty. For every game that plays out exactly the way Vegas said it would, there's another massive upset where a three-touchdown underdog blows out their opponent.
Tennessee isn't getting much respect from the oddsmakers or the experts this season, and for good reason: The Vols are one of the youngest teams in the nation, and they're replacing their entire offensive and defensive lines.
That simply isn't a winning formula.
But it's not all doom and gloom. Tennessee has enough talent and experience at those positions to be competitive throughout their brutal schedule, and the Vols' skill position players are some of the best (and youngest) in the conference.
The roster certainly has the potential to carry Tennessee to six or even seven regular-season wins, along with some surprise end of the year stats and conference recognition along the way.
Here are five bold predictions for Tennessee's 2014 season.
The Vols Beat Florida
Tennessee hasn't beaten Florida since 2004.
Since then, it seems every season will be "the year" when the Vols finally end the losing streak. But by the time the third quarter of what used to be the SEC East's biggest rivalry is underway, Tennessee generally gets outcoached or outplayed by the Gators—and sometimes both.
It's reasonable to expect this season's Gators to be vastly improved over the 4-8 squad of 2013. Florida is never far from the top 10 or even top five when it comes to recruiting classes, and their roster is always loaded with talent.
Quarterback Jeff Driskel is reportedly much improved heading into his senior season, according to Florida Today's David Jones, but it remains to be seen how that will translate to the field. And the Gators' best player, Vernon Hargreaves III, will likely match up with Tennessee's best player in Marquez North, who also possesses elite speed and a decided size advantage.
Last season, Tennessee upset the South Carolina Gamecocks—a team that ended the season ranked fourth in the nation—with one of the least athletic Vols squads in history. Don't be surprised if the 10th anniversary of Tennessee's last win over the Gators ends in similar fashion in 2014.
Jalen Hurd Rushes for 700-Plus Yards
In January, Jalen Hurd arrived in Knoxville to enormous expectations. So far, it appears he has lived up to the hype.
One look at Hurd's high school highlight tapes, which almost exclusively showcase his junior season due to an injury sidelining him for the majority of his senior year, proves he has the potential to be an elite running back in the SEC.
His size and weight are matched only by Alabama's Derrick Henry, but Hurd also has elite speed.
Senior running back Marlin Lane is listed as Tennessee's starting running back against Utah State on Sunday, Aug. 31, and he will likely hold on to that position throughout the season.
However, don't be surprised if Lane and Hurd end up splitting carries 50/50, as each has a running style that complements the other and will keep defenses on their toes.
Lane should finish the season with more yards and touchdowns, but Hurd will accumulate some serious stats himself in 2014, paving the way for a potential All-SEC season in 2015.
5 Vols Named Freshman All-SEC
Tennessee's 2014 recruiting class couldn't have come at a better time.
In a year when the team lost an enormous amount of experience and production on both lines, Butch Jones managed to restock the roster with highly talented freshmen who will see significant playing time this season.
Last year, the Vols had two breakout freshmen stars: Marquez North and Cam Sutton, both of whom will be in the conversation for First Team All-SEC by the end of the season.
This year, it's hard to pinpoint which freshmen will make the biggest impacts on the team, simply because there are so many in the mix.
Freshmen Derek Barnett, Jashon Robertson and Ethan Wolf all locked up starting spots for the Vols' opener on Sunday.
Daniel Helm, Coleman Thomas, Josh Malone, Dimarya Mixon, Dewayne Hendrix, Dillon Bates, Colton Jumper, Emmanuel Moseley, Todd Kelly Jr. and Jalen Hurd are all in the two-deep.
In other words, the Vols will play an unprecedented number of freshmen in 2014. That gives the newcomers the much-needed exposure and playing time to not only be named Freshman All-SEC, but also to grow up in a hurry on a team with immediate needs across the board.
Justin Worley Is the Most Productive SEC East QB
Last season, Justin Worley was on pace to throw for just under 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns when he was injured against Alabama.
Those aren't exactly groundbreaking stats, considering the production of other excellent quarterbacks in the SEC at the time, including Aaron Murray and Connor Shaw.
However, those quarterbacks are in the NFL now, and the majority of the SEC East is breaking in new signal-callers for their offenses. Only Worley and Florida's Driskel have significant experience as starters, and there are no proven elite talents among the other teams in the division.
While Driskel may have a higher ceiling than Worley, he doesn't have the weapons Worley will have at his disposal this year.
Sophomore Marquez North is among the top wide receivers in the conference. Add in highly talented newcomers Josh Malone and Von Pearson, along with Pig Howard, Josh Smith and Jason Croom, and Worley will have no shortage of targets this fall.
Although Worley likely won't come close to cracking the 3,000 yard or 30 touchdown mark often seen from elite SEC quarterbacks, neither will his competition in the East. By the end of the season, Worley will narrowly edge out Georgia's Hutson Mason and Florida's Driskel to be the top quarterback in the division.
Tennessee Wins Its First Bowl Game Since 2007
Not only have the Vols not been to a bowl game since 2010, but they haven't won a bowl game since a 21-17 victory over the Wisconsin Badgers in the Outback Bowl to cap the 2007 season.
At the time, Philip Fulmer was secure in his standing as head coach of the Vols and Butch Jones had just completed his first season as head coach of the Central Michigan Chippewas.
A lot has changed since 2007—including the Vols' overall standing in the SEC pecking order.
Butch Jones knows a bowl game is a must to get Tennessee back to the top of the conference. In fact, he went so far as to state it's not a matter of "if" the program gets back to a bowl game, it's a matter of "when," according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Dustin Dopirak.
However, all the goodwill and positive momentum gained by reaching the postseason can be wiped out if the team doesn't walk away with some hardware at the end of the night.
Thankfully, the wide-eyed and mistake-prone freshmen who took their lumps all season long will have 12 games under their belts by that point and will be ready to cap off their first year with a bowl victory against a mid-major team.
Images of Butch Jones and his team raising a trophy on a cold football field in Birmingham, Alabama, Memphis, Tennessee, or Nashville, Tennessee, this December won't get much national attention, but it will be a momentous step in the right direction for one of college football's sleeping giants.