Pull out your 2014 schedules, UT fans.
Fall camp is done, and it’s time to get in game-week mode with the season opener against Utah State fast approaching.
So go to the little box next to each of UT’s opponents on the 2014 schedule and pick the winner.
I predict the Vols finish 6-6 and become bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.
Tennessee Coach Butch Jones, who has proven his ability as a recruiter, will get a chance to see what those young players can do against the SEC and Oklahoma.
(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
Aug. 31: Home vs. Utah State
Good for Vols: UT has its best receiving corps in years, and senior quarterback Justin Worley will be throwing into an Aggies secondary that lost three starters from last year’s 9-5 team.
The Aggies also lost top receivers Travis Van Leewen and Travis Reynolds (combined for 103 catches, 1493 yards, seven touchdowns last year) and top two tailbacks Joey DeMartino and Robert Marshall (combined for 1,636 yards, 15 touchdowns) – along with four of five starting offensive linemen.
Bad for Vols: Aggies senior quarterback Chuckie Keaton has almost 6,000 career passing yards, more than 1,100 rushing yards and 70 total touchdowns, so the Vols’ youthful defense will be tested by a proven QB right away. Utah State defensive front seven is stout, led by end B.J. Larson (All-Mountain West second team), and it will challenge the Vols’ new offensive line. Aggies strength is at linebacker. Even with the loss of leading tackler Jake Doughty, three other starting linebackers are back from 2013 team that was seventh in the country in scoring defense and sixth in red-zone defense.
UT 45, Utah State 38: Vols have more athleticism and the Neyland Stadium edge.
Sept. 6: Home vs. Arkansas State
Good for Vols: The Red Wolves return only two players with starting experience on the offensive line and took a huge hit when center Bryce Giddens opted not to play this year due to concussions.
Depth is also a problem on the defensive front with only two starters back, end Chris Stone and tackle Dexter Blackmon. UT’s run game should flourish against a Red Wolf defense that gave up 194 rushing yards per game last year – including two 300-yard games. The Vols and Red Wolves both lack game experience on the lines, but UT is bigger and more physical on both sides.
Bad for Vols: Eight starters return to the Red Wolves’ defense, which employs multiple looks. The team’s strength is at linebacker and in the secondary with only one starter gone from 2013.
Junior J.D. McKissic is a multi-purpose offensive threat at wide receiver, wildcat QB and return specialist after racking up 1,575 all-purpose yards and six TDs (four receiving, one rushing, one kick return) in 2013.
Leading rusher Michael Gordon also returns after averaging 6.7 yards per carry, one of the highest averages in the nation for a back with more than 100 carries.
UT 38, Arkansas State 24: Vols have too much firepower for a Sun Belt team.
Sept. 13: At Oklahoma
Good for Vols: An open date (Sept. 20) is just what the Vols will need after their trip to Norman. Seriously, it’s hard to find what edge UT might have against the Sooners, ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press preseason poll and a pick to contend for the national championship.
The Sooners lost their top two running backs from last season, Clay Brennan (957 yards, six TDs) and Damien Williams (553 yards, seven TDs), and top receiver/punt returner Jalen Saunders (61 catches, 729 yards, 10 TDs).
Oklahoma’s top two returning rushers were quarterbacks in 2013: sophomore Trevor Knight (445 yards, two TDs) and Blake Bell (255 yards, no TDs). Bell is now listed as a 6-6, 259-pound tight end.
Bad for Vols: The 6-1, 201-pound Knight is a big-time playmaker as a passer and runner. Need evidence? Knight threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns with one pick in the Sooners’ 45-31 victory over Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl, and ran for 123 yards on just 10 carries in a Nov. 16 victory over Iowa State.
While Saunders is gone, the Sooners still have junior receiver Sterling Shepard (51 catches, 703 yards, seven TDs). Defensively, Oklahoma returns all 11 starters and most of their backups, which represents 80 percent of their 2013 tackles and 79 percent of their sacks. The pass rush will be a scary task for UT’s new offensive line. Lastly, Sooners coach Bob Stoops makes it no secret he’s anti-SEC. He and the Sooners will be ready.
Oklahoma 63, UT 14: Sooners take control early and are never threatened.
Sept. 27: At Georgia
Good for Vols: Finally, quarterback Aaron Murray is gone, and the Bulldogs will roll out an unproven quarterback, senior Hutson Mason. His only starts were the last two games of 2013 after Murray tore his ACL.
Defensively, Georgia was not good last season, and coordinator Todd Grantham left/was told to leave for the same job at Louisville. Former Florida State coordinator Jeremy Pruitt takes over a defense that allowed 29 points per game in 2013 and was 86th nationally in red zone defense.
Bad for Vols: Georgia features two of the nation’s premier tailbacks in juniors Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall – if they stay healthy, which didn’t happen in 2013. Marshall’s season ended with a torn ACL sustained in the sixth game, a 34-31 Georgia win at UT. Gurley rushed for 989 yards and 10 touchdowns in 10 games, but was limited by injuries the second half of the season.
The receiving corps returns almost intact led by its top two from 2013, Chris Conley (45 catches, 651 yards) and Michael Bennett (41 catches, 538 yards). The nine starters from the 2013 defense have been pushed by backups/newcomers since their poor showing a year ago.
Georgia 35, UT 24: The Vols’ young defense will have a tough time dealing with Bulldogs’ talent.
Oct. 4: Home vs. Florida
Good for Vols: Depending on health of its QBs at this stage, UT should put up some big passing numbers against the Gators. Three starters are gone from the 2013 Gators secondary (even though returnee Vernon Hargreaves has NFL talent).
The Gators have a new offensive coordinator, former UT assistant Kurt Roper, and he’s in charge of fixing a unit that couldn’t score more than 20 points in a game during a seven-game losing streak to end the 2013 season. It’s the first big SEC game of the season in Neyland Stadium, which will be electric.
Bad for Vols: Another imposing defensive front comes after the Vols’ line, which could be battered after facing Oklahoma and Georgia. Six of the top seven starters from the front seven of Florida’s defense are back, led by linemen Dante Fowler Jr. and Jon Bullard, two NFL prospects.
By the time the Gators get to Knoxville, their offense should be much improved behind junior quarterback Jeff Driskel, who is 6-4, 230 pounds. Driskel has thrown for 2,271 career yards and 14 career touchdowns, and is 12-3 as a starter – including a 37-20 victory at Neyland Stadium in 2012 when he rushed for 81 yards on eight carries. Leading rusher Mack Brown (543 yards, four TDs) also returns.
Florida 21, UT 17: Gators have too much defense and just enough offense.
Oct. 11: Home vs. Chattanooga
Good for Vols: This is Chattanooga, a Football Championship Subdivision team (previously known as Division I-AA). The Mocs won’t have the size or speed or talent as the Vols. Six defensive starters are gone from the 2013 Mocs’ team that went 8-4 and claimed a share of the Southern Conference title. Chattanooga will be a better test for the Vols than Austin Peay last year (45-0 at Neyland Stadium), but again, they’re the Mocs, and they’re in town for a paycheck.
Bad for Vols: Mocs feature junior quarterback Jacob Huesman, the 2013 Southern Conference offensive player of the year and son of head coach Russ Huesman. The QB threw for 1,637 yards and 16 touchdowns last year with five interceptions and completed just more than 68 percent of his passes. Both lines have experience: four starters return on the defensive front, three on the offensive front. Senior Davis Tull, who played at Knoxville Bearden High School, had 26.5 sacks in his first three seasons with the Mocs and was selected preseason conference defensive player of the year.
UT 42, Chattanooga 7: Vols needed this one after Oklahoma, Georgia, and Florida.
Oct. 18: At Ole Miss
Good for Vols: Ole Miss and UT have at least one thing in common in 2014: An unproven offensive line. Laremy Tunsil earned a starting job at left tackle as a true freshman last year, and junior Justin Bell started all year at left and right guard. Otherwise, the Rebels have three new starters on the line with one potentially being center, Ben Still, former Memphis University School standout.
The kicking game is suspect with the loss of punter Tyler Campbell and place-kicker Andrew Ritter. The Rebels will be counting on another former MUS player, Gary Wunderlich, to take over kicking/punt duties as a freshman.
Bad for Vols: Senior quarterback Bo Wallace is back, and that’s not good news for any Rebel foe. Wallace has thrown 40 touchdown passes and ran for 14 TDs during his career, which includes more than 6,000 yards passing. He’s also over some shoulder issues that hampered him last year.
Sophomore Laquon Treadwell is a huge target (6-2, 229 pounds) after catching 72 passes for 608 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013. Wide receiver Donte Moncrief (59 catches, 938 yards) left after his junior season for the NFL, but senior Vince Sanders and sophomore Quincy Adeboyejo will take up his catches. Defensively, Rebels return 10 starters. Enough said there.
Ole Miss 24, UT 21: Wallace at QB and playing in Oxford give Rebels the edge.
Oct. 25: Home vs. Alabama
Good for Vols: No A.J. McCarron to contend with at quarterback. McCarron threw for 3,063 and 28 touchdowns last season with just seven interceptions. The defensive front lacks game experience with senior tackle Brandon Ivory (former Memphis East player) having the most playing time.
The linebacker corps also took a hit from graduation, but returns senior Trey DePriest, who was third on the team in tackles last year (30 solo, 35 assists). The Vols can hope the Tide is a bit beat up after playing Florida, Ole Miss, Arkansas, and Texas A&M – and hopefully is looking ahead to the Nov. 8 showdown at LSU.
Bad for Vols: Former Florida State quarterback Jake Coker should take over right where McCarron left off. Coker graduated Florida State in May [and transfered to Alabama] after playing behind Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston last year; Coker will be ready to show what he’s got. Once again, the Tide is loaded in the offensive backfield led by junior T.J. Yeldon (1,235 yards, 14 TDs), the team’s leading rusher last season, and sophomore Derrick Henry (382 yards, three TDs), third in rushing.
The receiving corps is outstanding as leader Amari Cooper returns (45 catches, 736 yards). The defensive secondary is deep led by safety Landon Collins, a preseason All-America pick. Another top-five recruiting class by Nick Saban should help plug the holes in the front seven.
Alabama 41, UT 13: Reloading a roster is Alabama coach Nick Saban’s specialty, and he’s done it again.
Nov. 1: At South Carolina
Good for Vols: At least the Vols won’t have to deal with Jadaveon Clowney, the Gamecocks’ defensive end who left after his junior year and was the No. 1 pick by the Houston Texans in the 2014 NFL Draft. Also gone is Kelcy Quarles, who led the Gamecocks in sacks last year with 9.5, and two starting cornerbacks, Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree. Same for Conner Shaw, the winningest quarterback in school history. Shaw was 27-5 as the starter, 17-0 at home, and completed 63.4 percent of his passes in 2013 for 2,447 yards with 24 touchdowns and one interception. Leading receiver Bruce Ellington (49 catches, 775 yards) also left early after his junior year for the NFL.
Bad for Vols: Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier has assembled one of the best offensive lines in the SEC, if not the best. They’re among eight returning starters on the offense. Tight end Rory Anderson (6-5, 230 pounds) is a big threat after catching 17 passes for 235 yards last season. Junior tailback Mike Davis (5-9, 223) was a workhorse in 2013, rushing for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns on 203 carries and earning All-SEC second-team honors. On the defensive side, safeties Brison Williams and Chaz Elder will hold down the secondary until the new cornerbacks settle in. Spurrier hasn’t forgotten the 23-21 loss at Neyland Stadium last year.
South Carolina 35, UT 21: The ole’ ball coach from Johnson City gets revenge on the Vols. Again.
Nov. 15: Home vs. Kentucky
Good for Vols: Kentucky returns to Neyland Stadium, a sure remedy for any ailments the Vols may have. UT is 28-2 in the last 30 meetings; Kentucky broke a 26-game losing streak against the Vols in 2011 with a victory in Lexington. The Wildcats defense was ranked 91st nationally and last in the SEC in 2013 – and its leading tackler, linebacker Avery Williamson (102 tackles) is gone. Quarterback Maxwell Smith threw for 1,275 yards and nine touchdowns last year, but is coming off shoulder surgery, missed the spring, and spent preseason battling for the starting job. Sophomore Patrick Towles was the starter after spring workouts. The defense returns eight starters, but the unit allowed 31.2 points per game in 2013.
Bad for Vols: If the Wildcats can get their quarterback situation settled, they have the three leading receivers back from last season: Javess Blue (43 catches, 586 yards, four TDs), Ryan Timmons (32 catches, 338 yards, two TDs) and Jeff Badet (22 catches, 285 yards, one TD). Kentucky’s only other strength unit is defensive end with the return of seniors Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith, who combined for 120 tackles and 13 sacks last year.
UT 28, Kentucky 17: Wildcats might be better than last year (2-10), but not by much.
Nov. 22: Home vs. Missouri
Good for Vols: Veteran quarterback James Franklin was a senior last year, and also gone are his top three receivers: Dorial Green-Beckham (kicked off team), Marcus Washington and L’Damian Washington (seniors in 2013). They combined for more than 2,400 receiving yards and 25 TD catches last year. Henry Josey, who rushed for 1,200 yards in 2013, is also gone. Six starting defenders must be replaced, including veteran cornerbacks E.J. Gaines and Randy Ponder and defensive end Michael Sam, the SEC’s defensive player of the year in 2013.
Bad for Vols: The Tigers have some experience at quarterback in sophomore Maty Mauk, who started four games last year as a redshirt freshman and played in 13 games. He threw for 1,071 yards and rushed for 290 yards. Running backs Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy also return after combining for 1,300-plus yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Even with the loss of Sam and end Kony Ealy (also left early for NFL), Tigers are OK at end with Markus Golden and Shane Ray, and also return interior linemen Matt Hoch (41 tackles, three sacks) and Lucas Vincent (34 tackles, five tackles for loss).
UT 21, Missouri 20: Vols are thinking bowl eligibility, and so are Neyland Stadium fans.
Nov. 29: At Vanderbilt
Good for Vols: Coach James Franklin rejuvenated the Vanderbilt program, and UT is glad he took a step up the career ladder to Penn State. Franklin had his team convinced it could compete in the SEC; new coach Derek Mason can only hope to put that mindset in the Commodores. Jordan Matthews earned All-America honors as a senior last year when he caught 112 passes for 1,477 yards and seven TDs. Vandy must replace starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, who threw for 2,268 yards and 11 touchdowns last year.
Bad for Vols: Junior linebacker Darreon Herring was a force last year with 84 tackles last year, and starting defensive lineman Kyle Woestmann is back after posting six sacks. Junior tailback Jerron Seymour returns after leading Vandy in rushing last year (744 yards, 14 TDs). Vols will win their sixth game and become bowl eligible at Vanderbilt Stadium, so they’ll have to wait a couple of hours to celebrate in Knoxville.
UT 21, Vanderbilt 10: Might take some time for the Commodores to reach the level Franklin took them.
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.