Five categories that matter …
1. “Splash” plays: It’s the term coach Butch Jones uses to refer to gains of 20-plus yards, and the Vols were severely lacking in the category in 2013. Tennessee managed just 26 such plays from scrimmage last season, which was tied for 100th in the nation. With some newcomers upgrading the talent at tailback, receiver and tight end, the hope is the Vols will be better at collecting big chunks of yardage.
2. Turnovers: The Vols forced 25 turnovers last season, but 17 of those were in the first seven games of the season as Tennessee’s defense was lit up by Alabama, Missouri and Auburn. Tennessee’s quarterbacks also combined to throw 16 interceptions. As Jones likes to say, the margin of error for this team will be small, so the offense must take care of the ball while the defense plays opportunistically.
3. Sacks: Tennessee finished last in the SEC in sacks in both 2012 and 2013. The Vols managed just 18 last season, and five of those came against Kentucky in the meaningless season finale. It’s up to defensive ends Curt Maggitt and Corey Vereen, primarily, to make more plays in the pass rush.
4. Experience: Tennessee has just 11 players with 10 or more career starts. One is punter Matt Darr, and two — receiver Marquez North and cornerback Cam Sutton — are sophomores. By the end of September, this team will have faced two top non-BCS teams and made trips to Oklahoma and Georgia.
5. Attendance: Tennessee saw an increase in attendance from last season — from a 33-year low 89,965 in 2012 to 95,311 — and season-ticket sales are at a five-year high entering 2014. It’s the best baseline to judge how a fan base feels about a program, and it shows the hope fans have in where Jones is headed with the Vols. Jones has said the collective patience will be tested this season, and attendance could be a gauge to how thin it’s wearing.
Expectations: Greatly improved
In a program’s second season, progress is the key, and it’s what Tennessee’s staff, players and fans hope to see in 2014. The Vols collectively have pointed to reaching a bowl game as the season’s goal, and it would be a tangible step considering Tennessee’s last bowl appearance came in 2010. Having one of the youngest teams in the nation makes tangible progress as the season progresses all the more important.
Curiosity shop: In the trenches
Having to replace an entire starting offensive line is one thing, but also having to replace four starters from the defensive line makes the chore all the more daunting. Multiple linemen on both sides of the ball have waited their turn to play significant roles, but that can go only so far. Jones said bluntly the Vols would go how the lines go, and he’s absolutely right.
Twists: Any 2014 addition
Tennessee could start freshmen or first-year players at receiver, tight end, potentially both offensive tackle spots, cornerback, safety and kicker. Five-star recruits Jalen Hurd and Josh Malone are the obvious names, but former three-stars Emmanuel Moseley and Coleman Thomas became first-teamers since the spring. How many of the new guys up front or in the back end defensively will step up?
Tale of two games: Utah State and Florida
Tennessee should beat Utah State in the Sunday night opener, but how the Vols fared against running quarterbacks last season and the way Aggies quarterback Chuckie Keeton played in 2012, prior to his knee injury, make it much more dicey. Obviously, it’s imperative the Vols take care of business to open the season. Florida looks to be at a crossroads of sorts under Will Muschamp after last season’s 4-8 debacle, but Tennessee hasn’t beaten the Gators, who come to Knoxville after the Vols’ trips to Oklahoma and Georgia, since 2004.
Christmas carol: Vols won’t be home for the holidays
While Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are touting hopes of competing for division titles, six is the number in the crosshairs for Tennessee this season. Home games against Utah State, Florida and Missouri and the trip to Vanderbilt are the swing games, unless the Vols can notch an upset like they did against South Carolina last season. Tennessee was close to a bowl last season, and the influx of young talent should get the Vols there this year.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...