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VOL. 8 | NO. 33 | Saturday, August 8, 2015

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Dave Link

Preseason Analysis: Vols Will Defeat Oklahoma, Finish 8-4

DAVE LINK | The Ledger

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Tennessee’s football team has something to prove as it concludes the first week of preseason practices and moves forward to the 2015 season.

The Vols must prove they belong in the national picture in Butch Jones’ third year as coach.

UT landed at No. 25 in the USA Today/Amway Coaches Poll released July 30. It’s the first time the Vols have been in the coaches’ poll since the 2008 preseason when they were picked 18th.

UT hasn’t been in any national poll since they were No. 23 in the Associated Press poll on Sept. 12, 2012, after winning their first two games against North Carolina State and Georgia State in Derek Dooley’s third year as coach.

After that, the Vols went 3-7 and Dooley was fired before the last game of the 2012 season, a 37-17 victory against Vanderbilt.

Now, Jones is trying to right the program and seems to be making some progress.

The Vols start the season Sept. 5 against Bowling Green at Nissan Stadium in Nashville and play their home opener against No. 19 Oklahoma (coaches poll) Sept. 12.

Between now and then, Jones and his staff must gear the Vols up for another gauntlet that is the SEC season. Enough of preseason conditioning and weight training. The Vols are back, grinding it out on the practice field, seeking to build on their 7-6 season and victory over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

“Now, it counts,” Jones said during Monday’s pre-camp press conference. “It’s football time in Tennessee. This is where it matters, and now, we are playing for something. The leadership has to continue to grow.”

That’s what it takes to win in SEC football.

The SEC leads the nation’s conferences with eight teams ranked in the Amway Coaches Poll.

Five are in the West Division: Alabama (3), Auburn (7), LSU (13), Ole Miss (15) and Arkansas (20).

The three SEC East teams ranked are Georgia (9), Missouri (23) and Tennessee (25).

The Vols play five teams ranked in the top 25: Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri, and three other teams receiving votes in the poll: South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky.

“I think when you look at a body of work over a long period of time, it’s the best football conference in the country, and you really don’t truly get an appreciation for it unless you have either coached in the league or played in the league,” Jones explains.

“When you look at it, all the demands from the media to great passionate fan bases. Every time you go on the road, you’re playing in a hostile environment.”

Missouri has won the SEC East the past two seasons, but has been picked to finish third behind Georgia and Tennessee in a preseason media poll.

Asked if Missouri was again the team to beat, Jones gave a roundabout answer.

“The great thing and most challenging thing of the SEC is you never know what a long season is going to bring about,” he said. “I always tell our football this: the team that can manage the natural adversities that a long football season brings about will be the team that wins championships in December.

“Obviously, Missouri has won our side (the East) for (the past two seasons). They have our respect, but everyone has our respect because you never know which team is going to be the team that gets hot. We have so much talent in this conference, so it’s going to be a challenge week in and week out for us.”

With that in mind, let’s look at the Vols’ 2015 opponents, and make some predictions.

Sept. 5 vs. Bowling Green
at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium
Last year:
8-6, 5-3 Mid-American Conference, 1st (beat South Alabama 33-28 in Raycom Media Camellia Bowl)
Starters returning:
13 (nine offense, four defense)

Dino Babers’ first year as Bowling Green’s coach was a success despite losing starting quarterback Matt Johnson due to injury after the first game of the season. With Johnson back and full speed from the hip injury, the Falcons should be even better at QB with 2014 starter James Knapke also returning.

Bowling Green might have enough offense to make another run at the Mid-American Conference championship game (the Falcons lost to Northern Illinois 51-17), but defense could be a problem again this year.

The Falcons gave up 33.5 points per game last season, and managed to win eight games largely due to an offense that generated 30 points per game. Johnson and All-MAC receiver Roger Lewis (1,093 yards, 73 catches) will be matched against one of UT’s strengths, the secondary.

With rising star quarterback Joshua Dobbs and the Vols itching to start 2015 with a bang, this is a borderline blowout.
Pick: Tennessee 42, Bowling Green 13

Sept. 12 vs. Oklahoma
at Neyland Stadium
Last year: 8-5, 5-4 Big 12, t-4th (lost to Clemson 40-6 in Russell Athletic Bowl)
Starters returning: 12 (six offense, six defense)

This will be one of the best atmospheres in years in Neyland Stadium coming off the opener against Bowling Green. Don’t be surprised if the Vols unveil their new Nike Smoky Gray uniforms.

The Sooners’ 2014 season can be considered a flop – they started the year with national championship aspirations – and it ended with an embarrassing loss to Clemson in a lower-tier bowl.

Sure, the Sooners beat the Vols 34-10 in Tennessee’s third game of 2014, but that was when Dobbs still planned to redshirt and the offensive line was struggling (Justin Worley was sacked five times).

Sooners junior quarterback Trevor Knight was inconsistent while throwing for 2,300 yards and 14 touchdowns with 12 interceptions in 10 games. Oklahoma, picked to finish third in the Big 12 behind TCU and Baylor this year, had a coaching overhaul in the offseason with four new coaches under Bob Stoops.

Give UT the Neyland edge.
Pick: Tennessee 32, Oklahoma 27

Sept. 19 vs. Western Carolina
at Neyland Stadium
Last year: 7-5, 5-2 Southern Conference, t-2nd
Starters returning: 20 (11 offense, nine defense)

Tennessee’s offense should have its way with a mismatch against Western Carolina’s under-sized offensive line and the Catamounts’ overall lack of size. This is UT’s “gimme” game against a fairly good FCS team that’s picked to finish second and third in two preseason Southern Conference polls.

Senior dual-threat quarterback Troy Mitchell threw for 2,541 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2014 while completing 65.6 percent of his passes and has amassed 6,565 yards of total offense in his career.

The Catamounts have good FCS running backs and receivers, but they’re not running or catching against Southern Conference-like competition inside Neyland.

Look for Dobbs and the running back duo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara to put up some good stats before taking their spots on the bench and giving backups some snaps.
Pick: Tennessee 48, Western Carolina 9

Sept. 26 vs. Florida
at Gainesville
Last year: 7-5, 4-4 SEC, 3rd East (beat East Carolina 28-20 in Birmingham Bowl)
Starters returning: 11 (four offense, seven defense)

Florida’s recent struggles in the SEC continued in 2014 and resulted in the firing of Will Muschamp, who was 17-15 against league foes in his four years. Still, Muschamp went 4-0 against Tennessee, which hasn’t beaten Florida since a 30-28 victory in Neyland Stadium in 2004.

Now, Jim McElwain takes over for Muschamp after an impressive three-year run as head coach at Colorado State.

The Gators started fall workouts looking for a starting quarterback – probably sophomore Treon Harris or redshirt freshman Will Grier – and must replace five players in the offensive line rotation.

Florida’s defense carried the team last year (allowing 21.1 points per game, 20th in the nation) and now has a new coordinator, Geoff Collins from Mississippi State, to replace D.J. Durkin.

This could be the best test so far for Dobbs against a staunch defense and loaded secondary led by All-American Vernon Hargreaves III. Florida has won 10 consecutive games against the Vols, and that’s hard to overlook, especially this year in The Swamp.
Pick: Florida 24, Tennessee 21

Oct. 3 vs. Arkansas
at Neyland Stadium
Last year: 7-6, 2-6 SEC, 7th West (beat Texas 31-7 in Texas Bowl)
Starters returning: 15 (eight offense, seven defense)

You could say Arkansas had a breakthrough season in 2014 after it finally ended a 17-game SEC losing streak. The Razorbacks snapped the streak in mid-November with a 17-0 victory over LSU and later posted a 30-0 upset against then-No. 8-ranked Ole Miss.

Arkansas averaged 31.9 points last season (42nd nationally) and could well put up those numbers again in 2015, thanks to the return of three-year starting quarterback Brandon Allen and two 1,000-yard rushers in Jonathan Williams (1,190 yards) and Alex Collins (1,100 yards).

The defense took some major hits, though, with the departure of middle linebacker Martrell Spaight, the SEC’s leading tackler in 2014, defensive end Trey Flowers, tackle Darius Phillips, and defensive backs Tevin Mitchell and Alan Turner.

Arkansas will be a tough nut, but the Vols will be pumped to be back in Neyland after their trip to The Swamp.
Pick: Tennessee 34, Arkansas 27

Oct. 10 vs. Georgia
at Neyland Stadium
Last year: 10-3, 6-2 SEC, 2nd East (beat Louisville 37-14 in Belk Bowl)
Starters returning: 13 (seven offense, six defense)

The Bulldogs have reloaded again under Mark Richt, who’s in his 15th season as head coach. Like Florida, Georgia has had the Vols’ number the last few years with five consecutive wins in the series.

However, games have been tight; the last four were decided by eight points or less.

As usual, Richt will replace departed talent with more talent. One of those departures is quarterback Hunter Mason, who threw for 2,168 yards and 21 touchdowns with just four interceptions last year.

Brice Ramsey, who played in eight games in 2014, is one of several candidates for the QB’s job. Regardless, there’s talent around him.

Sophomore power runner Nick Chubb is back after posting huge numbers last year (1,547 yards, 7.1-yard average, 14 touchdowns) along with Sony Michel, who ran for 413 yards (6.4-yard average) in eight games.

Four offensive linemen return, too. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo is gone – hired at Colorado State as head coach – and new hire Brian Schottenhemier was left with a loaded offense. So is the defensive unit, especially with ends/outside linebackers Leonard Floyd, Lorenzo Carter, and Jordan Jenkins, and a secondary with lots of starting experience.

The Bulldogs streak vs. Vols continues.
Pick: Georgia 28, Tennessee 24

Oct. 24 vs. Alabama
at Tuscaloosa
Last year: 12-2, 7-1 SEC, 1st West (lost to Ohio State 42-35 in Sugar Bowl in CFP Semifinal)

At least Tennessee has an open date before going to Alabama to end this grueling four-game SEC stretch. But that won’t make the trip to famed Bryant-Denney Stadium any easier.

The Tide will roll out another stern defense – it allowed 18.4 points per game last year, sixth nationally – with the return of its entire defensive front and senior linebacker Reggie Ragland, a first-team All-SEC player and semifinalist for the Butkus Award.

The front seven on defense is big, strong, and fast.

In the secondary, sophomore cornerback Tony Brown might be the next star of the Tide secondary.

Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin must find a quarterback to replace Blake Sims, but has several options, and there will be three new starters on the offensive line. Regardless, Alabama will once again field an efficient offense and a power running game led by junior Derrick Henry (990 yards, 5.8-yard average, 11 TDs). Alabama has an eight-game winning streak against the Vols, and don’t look for it to end this year.
Pick: Alabama 34, Tennessee 20

Oct. 31 vs. Kentucky
at Lexington
Last year: 5-7, 2-6 SEC, 6th East
Starters returning: 14 (seven offense, seven defense)

Mark Stoops is back for his third year as the Wildcats coach and should have his best team yet in Lexington.

Starting quarterback Patrick Towles is back after throwing for 2,718 yards and 14 touchdowns, but his stats sagged after the Wildcats started 5-1 and ended with a six-game losing streak.

Also returning is leading rusher Stanley “Boom” Williams and top receiver Ryan Timmons, but they’re working under a new coordinator in Shannon Dawson. The Vols’ run game could be punishing against a Kentucky defensive front that returns one starter.

While the Wildcats’ linebackers and secondary are decent, the Vols will be hungry to take on an underdog again.

UT has won 29 of its last 30 games against them in the series with the only loss in 2011 (27-21 in overtime) in Derek Dooley’s second year as the Vols’ coach. This is a game the Vols can’t lose (and won’t lose) as they head down the stretch seeking bowl eligibility.
Pick: Tennessee 38, Kentucky 17

Nov. 7 vs. South Carolina
at Neyland Stadium
Last year: 7-6, 3-5 SEC, t-4th East (beat Miami 24-21 in Independence Bowl)
Starters returning: 12 (four offense, eight defense)

Nobody draws the ire of Vol fans more than Johnson City native Steve Spurrier, and he’s back for his 11th season at South Carolina after his run at Florida.

Spurrier’s biggest task offensively is replacing quarterback Dylan Thompson, who set the school’s single-season passing record in 2014 with 3,564 yards and led the SEC in passing yards per game (268.6).

Sophomore Connor Mitch is the projected starter with Perry Orth also competing. No matter the quarterback, he will have a huge target in Pharoh Cooper, the SEC’s leading returning receiver with 1,136 yards last year.

Brandon Wilds and David Williams will be ample replacements for tailback Mike Davis, who ran for 982 yards last season.

The Gamecocks’ offense bailed out the defense as much as possible last season, and Spurrier says it’s improved with new defensive coordinator Jon Hoke doing co-duties with Lorenzo Ward.

Linebackers are solid with Skai Moore and Jonathan Walton, but the defense has been overhauled and is a question.

UT rallied from a 42-28 deficit with less than five minutes to play and won 45-42 last year in overtime at South Carolina, but won’t need another miracle this time.
Pick: Tennessee 38, South Carolina 31

Nov. 14 vs. North Texas
at Neyland Stadium
Last year: 4-8, 2-6 Conference USA, 5th West
Starters returning: 12 (six offense, six defense)

After beating SMU 43-6 in the 2014 season opener, North Texas took a big-time slide the rest of the season – quite an abrupt turn for a team that a year earlier won nine games and the Conference USA title.

Quarterback problems persisted through the first half of 2014 before the Mean Green settled on now-senior Andrew McNulty, who threw for 1,295 yards with six TDs and seven interceptions.

McNulty is the leader to start again, and has a good receiving corps led by Carlos Harris (70 catches for 863 yards).

However, the offensive line has undergone a reconstruction, and four new starters will be there. Leading rusher Antoinne Jimmerson (589 yards) returns, and sophomore Jeffrey Wilson will be a good complement with him.

The defense was OK last year, giving up 369.4 yards per game (42nd nationally) and three of four linemen return in Jarrian Roberts, Austin Orr, and Fred Scott.

North Texas might be better this year, but not better than the Vols.
Pick: Tennessee 42, North Texas 17

Nov. 21 vs. Missouri
at Columbia
Last year: 11-3, 7-1 East, 1st (beat Minnesota 33-17 in Citrus Bowl)
Starters returning: 12 (six offense, six defense)

Talk about no respect. Missouri won the SEC East for the second consecutive season – losing to Alabama 42-13 in the SEC championship game – and despite winning its bowl game, was picked to finish third in the East behind Georgia and Tennessee this preseason.

Gary Pinkel is in his 14th season as the Tigers’ coach, and they’ll be hungry for a third trip to Atlanta for the SEC title game. Junior quarterback Maty Mauk has started 18 games for the Tigers, but three starting wideouts are gone from the 2014 team, so that unit is untested.

Five seniors return with starting experience on the offensive line, and 1,000-yard rusher Russell Hansbrough also returns.

Two of the best defensive ends in Missouri history are gone in Markus Golden and All-American Shane Ray, who combined for 24.5 sacks last year. Junior Harold Brantley is a force at tackle and probable future NFL player.

Linebackers Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer were the top two tacklers in the SEC last year, and veteran cornerbacks Aarion Penton and Kenya Davis top a solid secondary. Missouri has won three straight against the Vols since joining the SEC; make that four now.
Pick: Missouri 27, Tennessee 20

Nov. 28 vs. Vanderbilt
at Neyland Stadium
Last year: 3-9, 0-8 SEC, 7th East
Returning starters: 17: (eight offense, nine defense)

There are loads of players with starting experience returning, but keep in mind, they’re coming back from a bad Vanderbilt team that didn’t win an SEC game under first-year coach Derek Mason.

Sophomore Wade Freebeck is one of four quarterbacks who started for the Commodores in 2014 and could be the No. 1 with Johnny McCrary as backup. Redshirt sophomore Ralph Webb rushed for 912 yards last year, a freshman school record, and Steven Scheu led SEC’s tight ends in catches with 39 for 525 yards. Four starters return on the line, which should be improved.

The linebacker corps tops the defense with Nigel Bowden, Zach Cunningham, Darreon Herring and Stephen Weatherly. Mason canned defensive coordinator David Kotulski and offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell after the team finished 122nd in the nation in offense (288.3 yards per game) and 68th in defense (402.1 yards). Mason is the new defensive coordinator and Andy Ludwig offensive coordinator.

Mason’s rebuilding project at Vanderbilt is way behind Jones’ at UT.
Pick: Tennessee 34, Vanderbilt 13

FINISH: 8-4, 4-4 SEC (3rd East)

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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