Derek Dooley and the Tennessee Vols won't have an easy road to return to glory by winning SEC and national championships.
The Vols' schedule is manageable, but they have to play up-and-coming LSU and Georgia on the road. The toughest games (Alabama, Oregon, Florida) are at home.
The Vols definitely have holes and question marks this year.
Can Nick Stephens succeed as an SEC quarterback? Will the Vols be able to replace Montario Hardesty, Bryce Brown, and all five hogs on the offensive line? Can Janzen Jackson be the second coming of Eric Berry?
Luckily the Vols open up against an "in-state" rival.
1. vs. UT Martin Skyhawks, Sept. 4
The Skyhawks were a poor FCS school at best, going 5-6. They lost to FBS lightweight Memphis 41-14. However, they did hold a Pro Day at their school for some NFL prospects.
Tennessee should use this game to break in the new offensive line and running backs. Stephens should be able to get in a rhythm early against an inferior secondary. This game will be a great experience booster for the Volunteers and give their young players some time on the field.
2. vs. Oregon Ducks, Sept. 11
The Volunteers have made it a tradition to play Pac-10 teams early in the season. They beat a highly ranked Cal team 35-14 that featured NFL star Marshawn Lynch, but they lost at Berkeley and were swept by mediocre UCLA teams in their two meetings.
Even with the loss of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli for the season, the Ducks bring back nine starters back on defense and offense. LaMichael James will be back from suspension, and Tennessee will need their experienced linebackers Herman Lathers and LaMarcus Thompson to contain him.
David Oku and Tauren Poole will also have a rude awakening when they run into the Ducks' experienced LB corps, led by All-Pac-10 senior Casey Matthews.
This is the Vols' toughest non-conference game in recent memory. Without Masoli, the Ducks will still be favorites to repeat as Pac-10 champs and be ranked in the top 10. Tennessee's running backs and linemen better grow up quick, or they will be slaughtered.
3. vs. Florida Gators, Sept. 18
The Vols haven't beaten Florida since 2004 and could not beat the Gators when they were led by Tim Tebow. Will it be any different with John Brantley at QB, who showed pocket passer ability when Tebow went down against Kentucky?
Like Oregon, Florida's strength is their run game. Their backfield is loaded with speedsters Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey and also power back Emmanuel Moody. All these guys averaged at least 6.5 yards per carry last year.
Their defense will lose seven starters, including NFL prospects like Carlos Dunlap, Brandon Spikes, Joe Haden, and Major Wright. However, Ahmad Black was second on the team in tackles and will be a heatseeking missile on defense a la Eric Berry. Linebacker A.J. Jones is also a playmaker (three interceptions) and will help mentor the new freshman and sophomore linebackers.
Because of their depth at tailback, experienced offensive line led by Mike Pouncey, and returning standouts in the secondary, the Gators will be ranked in the preseason top 10. Because Brantley is inexperienced and the defense lost so many standouts, Tennessee will hang with the Gators and lose a heartbreaker at home.
4. vs. UAB, Sept. 25
The Blazers went 5-7 with a .500 record in Conference USA. They lost to their only BCS opponent, a mediocre but bowl-bound Texas A&M team, 56-19.
UAB is missing its top playmaker Joe Webb, who was like the Tim Tebow of Conference USA (3,726 yards of total offense; 32 total touchdowns). They return all 11 starters on a previously inexperienced defense that finished 114th in the nation.
If Webb was still playing, the Blazers might hang with Tennessee in the first half. However, with the inexperienced David Isabelle at QB, the Vols will trample the Blazers and end their tough home stand with a victory.
5. at LSU, Oct. 2
The Tigers should definitely challenge 'Bama for the West title. They're led by Jordan Jefferson, who has taken his lumps including this year's spring game, but he has a great corps of receivers led by Terrance Toliver (734 yards) and up-and-coming sophomore Russell Shepard.
The Tigers will start freshman Michael Ford (four-star recruit) at tailback, and he will run behind an offensive line that returns three starters. The defensive line must be rebuilt, but Sam Montgomery showed great promise in spring (two sacks).
LSU's greatest asset is its secondary. Even though hard-hitting Chad Jones is gone, the Tigers return blanketing cornerbacks Patrick Peterson (15 passes defended) and Brandon Taylor (two interceptions).
In an emotional return to his home state, Derek Dooley's maturing running backs will have a career day against LSU's depleted defensive line. If Stephens doesn't make mistakes and the defense holds up against LSU's wideouts, Dooley should get his first SEC win.
6. at Georgia, Oct. 9
The Georgia Bulldogs were a great team in the early '00s, winning a couple of SEC titles (2002, 2005). But with the rise of Tim Tebow and Eric Berry in the East, and the loss of studs Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno, and a host of other players to the NFL, the Dawgs have taken a turn for the worse.
Tennessee has dominated Georgia the past couple years, but it should change this season. The Dawgs return 10 starters on offense, and All-SEC wide receiver A.J. Green should have a nice day against Art Evans, who was injured this spring. If the Vols are to have any chance, they must put pressure on inexperienced Logan Gray with pass-rushing ends Ben Martin (3.5 sacks) and Chris Walker (six sacks).
Georgia's inexperienced secondary will be carved up by Tennessee's talented wide receiver Gerald Jones (680 yards) and big-play threat Denarius Moore (540 yards). This game will be a shootout between the hedges, but the Dawgs will win because of their kicking game, led by All-SEC K Blair Walsh and All-SEC P Drew Butler.
Part Two is coming soon...