Tennessee's lopsided schedule this year is going to make the season interesting, to say the least.
On the one hand, Tennessee gets easy opponents in Montana, Cincinnati, Buffalo and Middle Tennessee State.
On the other hand, Tennessee also has to face LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas.
That kind of a schedule makes predicting statistical leaders practically impossible. Having one good game against a lesser opponent could net a player some ridiculous numbers, but on the flip side, any of the top teams could completely shut out a player as well.
Still, speculation is fun, so why not give it a shot? Here are my predictions for who will lead the 'Vols in every major statistical category this upcoming season.
Well quarterback Tyler Bray is obviously going to lead the team in passing yards unless he suffers a major injury.
Bray threw for over 1,800 yards last year, despite only playing five games—that's an average of about 360 yards per game.
I do not think his average will be that high this season. He will certainly put up big numbers, but I expect him to come into 2011 as less of a gunslinger and more of a pro-style quarterback. He'll be looking to improve his accuracy and avoid interceptions.
Still, with four very weak teams on the schedule (Montana, Cincinnati, Buffalo and MTSU), as well as SEC bottom dwellers Vanderbilt and Kentucky, Bray will have opportunities to make receivers happy.
On the down side, he'll also have to throw against some of the best corners in the country in Dre Kirkpatrick, Stephon Gilmore, Morris Claiborne and Casey Hayward, so the season will not be free of interceptions.
2011 Stats: 3,600 passing yards, 30 touchdowns, 15 interceptions.
Again, this is a pretty easy one to call.
Sophomore running back Rajion Neal has shown promise, but Poole is the starter this year unless he gets hurt.
Last year, Poole rushed for 1,034 yards, and averaged over five yards per carry. This year I expect his performance to be similar. I don't see him drastically improving, but I don't see him regressing either.
Now that Tennessee has a very respectable passing attack, I think there will be less pressure on Poole to carry the team like there was in early 2010. But, on the flip side, he will get fewer carries. I expect his average number of yards per carry to improve as well.
Expect Poole to be as reliable as ever and quietly have a great season.
2011 Stats: 1,100 rushing yards, 14 touchdowns.
I like everything about Justin Hunter and I think he's ready to step up and be Tennessee's No. 1 wide receiver. Yet it will be a battle all season long between him, Da'Rick Rogers and DeAnthony Arnett for that honor.
That being said, Hunter seems to have the edge in practices, and he had some respectable numbers last year as well (415 yards on 16 receptions). He also seems to have put on a little weight, which is good considering who he'll be up against.
As Bray's primary target, Hunter will be facing a lot of talented corners, so he may not see that many balls come his way when the Vols face Alabama, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. Still, I think he'll get enough to be Tennessee's best receiver in all the important statistical categories.
2011 Stats: 850 receiving yards, 13 touchdowns
This one is difficult to predict because the identity of Tennessee's kick returner for next year is still up in the air. However, if I had to bet money on it, I'd put it all on Da'Rick Rogers.
Last season, Rogers returned 12 kicks for almost 300 yards. That's not too bad, but the team could use improvement.
Since Rogers will probably be the main guy at kick returner this season instead of splitting time with Rajion Neal, I think it's safe to say that his numbers will at least double. Still, special teams was a weak area for Tennessee in 2010, so hopefully 2011 will see some improvement.
2011 Stats: 600 return yards, one touchdown
I'm not going out on a big limb here by projecting Malik Jackson as the guy with the most tackles and tackles for loss, but it's a harder decision than you might think.
Starting at defensive end will be Jacques Smith, who had a terrific freshman year and will be a beast this season as well. Then there's linebacker Herman Lathers who may blow up the competition when he's healthy again. Austin Johnson is the middle linebacker, a position that usually leads a team in tackles. But I think that, in the end, it goes to Jackson.
Last year, Jackson had 48 tackles in his first year as a defensive tackle. This year, he'll be a little heavier, a little more experienced and, as a senior, way more motivated to make NFL scouts take a second look at him.
I expect Tennessee's big defensive tackle to be in the backfield a lot, and in turn, he'll end up with quite a few tackles (many for a loss) under his belt by season's end. With questions surrounding the linebacking corps, they will see a lot of different players on the field, so I doubt any one of them puts up huge numbers.
2011 Stats: 75 tackles, five sacks, 15 tackles for a loss
This decision was tough. On the one hand, I thought Malik Jackson would be in the backfield enough to get big sack numbers. Then I thought that he'd more likely settle into a true defensive tackle role and focus on stopping the run first.
Next I thought about Lathers, who plays the right position (outside linebacker) to get a lot of sacks. But he won't be ready for the beginning of the season when Tennessee faces two of its weakest opponents.
Then I ultimately decided that it had to be defensive end Jacques Smith.
He only had a pair of sacks in 2010, but he was also playing a backup role as a freshman. Now, a year after making the Freshman All-SEC squad, Smith will be looking to tear offenses a new one.
With Lathers out for a while, Smith will be Tennessee's biggest edge rushing threat. I think he'll take advantage of that fact and become the team's leader rather quickly. He'll also give Malik Jackson a run for his money in the tackles for loss category.
2011 Stats: 45 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 10 sacks
An unfortunate event last week (the release of defensive back Janzen Jackson) made this decision a lot easier.
Waggner had led the 'Vols with five interceptions in 2010, and he was also able to turn three of those into touchdowns.
This year, he has moved from cornerback to free safety, which may cause a hiccup in his play, but will also make better use of his ball-hawking skills.
Even without Janzen Jackson, Tennessee's defensive backfield looks impressive. Brent Brewer did a great job in his six starts last year at strong safety, and Marsalis Teague continues to be a solid corner.
But Waggner will be the unquestioned leader of the backfield now that Jackson has been dismissed.
2011 Stats: Eight interceptions, 120 yards, four touchdowns