Our ranking: No. 22 TENNESSEE
Coach: Butch Jones (30-21, entering fifth season; 80-48 in 10 seasons overall)
2016 record: 9-4 overall, 4-4 Southeastern Conference; tied for second in East Division
Look back: Tennessee started with a promising 5-0 start, including the program’s first win against UF in 12 tries, but a late season slide once again triggered questions about Tennessee’s direction under coach Butch Jones. An overtime loss at Texas A&M was followed by a 39-point home loss to Alabama and a stunning 24-21 defeat at rebuilding South Carolina.
The Vols responded with three consecutive wins, but a 45-34 regular season-ending loss at Vanderbilt might have been the most bitter pill for fans to swallow. A Music City Bowl win against Nebraska did little to appease them, especially considering the Vols were losing their best players on offense (QB Joshua Dobbs) and defense (DE Derek Barnett).
Offensive starters returning: 5
Offensive starters lost: 6
Defensive starters lost: 5
Key losses: QB Joshua Dobbs, DE Derek Barnett, RB Alvin Kamara, RB Jalen Hurd, WR Josh Malone, CB Cam Sutton
Top returnees: RB John Kelly, WR Jauan Jennings, G Jashon Robertson, LB Darrin Kirkland, DE Jonathan Kongbo, S Todd Kelly Jr., TE Ethan Wolf, Returner Evan Berry
Strengths: Gone are the play-making Dobbs, Vols’ all-time sacks leader Barnett and nine other starters. But Jones has recruited well and much talent remains.
WR Jauan Jennings, a junior, is as explosive as any SEC receiver, as evidenced by his Hail Mary touchdown against Georgia and momentum-shifting 67-yard score against the Gators. John Kelly showed he could be a feature back after disgruntled TB Jalen Hurd bolted. Kelly averaged 6.4 yards per carry during the 2016 season’s second half.
The Vols’ O-line has evolved from a weakness to a strength. Seven players have logged multiple starts, with senior OG Jashon Robertson the anchor.
But beyond DT Kendal Vickers, questions abound on the defensive front. LB Darrin Kirkland is a force when healthy, but a high-ankle sprain ruined his 2016 season. S Todd Kelly Jr. and S Micah Abernathy return after registering 71 and 69 tackles, respectively.
Weaknesses: Dobbs’ poise and production are impossible to replace. He accounted for 87 touchdowns for the Vols, including 39 last season. At SEC Media Days, Jones did not rule out using both redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano and junior Quinten Dormady.
Barnett leaves a legacy himself after recording 13 sacks to break Reggie White’s school record, with 33 total. DE Jonathan Kongbo was the nation’s top-rated junior college prospect in 2016 and will have the chance to fill the void.
The Vols will miss CB Cam Sutton. He was banged up in his final season, one reason Tennessee tried 11 different starting secondary combinations. Opponents capitalized with 37 plays of 30 yards or longer.
Outlook: Under Jones, the Vols have won three consecutive bowl games, continue to sign top recruiting classes and finally beat the Gators. But the perplexing losses have turned up the heat during Jones’ fifth season. The 49-year-old is well aware and retooled his his staff, replacing four assistants and promoting two others. Even so, the Vols will have a tough time matching last year’s nine-win season. The schedule includes an early season visit to the Swamp and matchups with SEC West powers Alabama and LSU.