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Front Page - Friday, September 2, 2016

Looks like 10-2, SEC title game for Tennessee

Losses to Alabama, Texas A&M

Dave Link, Knoxville based journalist covering UT sports

Tennessee’s football team and its fans have the best of both worlds this weekend.

They get to bask in a season-opening Thursday night win and enjoy a feast of college football all day Saturday.

The Vols, ranked No. 9 by the Associated Press and No. 10 by USA Today/Coaches in preseason polls, were 21-point favorites going into Thursday’s opener against Appalachian State at Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee could be favored in every game this season except for the Oct. 15 home game against Alabama.

Optimism abounds in Big Orange Country. Will this be the year the Vols break the 11-game losing streak against Florida, and/or the nine-game losing streak against Alabama? Can they win the SEC East for the first time since 2007? Can they win their first SEC championship since 1998?

My season predictions:

Sept. 1 

UT vs. Appalachian State, Knoxville

Last year: 11-2, 7-1 in the Sun Belt, 2nd (beat Ohio 31-29 in Camellia Bowl)

Starters returning: 16 (six offense, nine defense, punter)

This is not an easy opener for the Vols, despite being three TD favorites. Many pick Appalachian State to win the Sun Belt Conference after coming close last year when it became the first team to win 11 games in its first year of full FBS status. 

Junior quarterback Taylor Lamb, son of former Furman head coach Bobby Lamb, is on the coaches’ All-Sun Belt preseason first team. Lamb had a school-record 31 touchdowns and 2,387 yards last year. 

Senior guard Parker Collins was also on the preseason first team along with junior linebacker Eric Boggs and senior linebacker John Law, the preseason player of the year. Senior Marcus Cox returns after rushing for 1,423 yards, his third 1,000-yard season. 

Since upsetting Michigan 34-32 in the 2007 season opener, Appalachian State has gone 0-for-7 against Power-5 conference teams.

Pick: Tennessee, 42-17

Sept. 10

UT vs. Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway

Last year: 7-6, 4-4 in ACC, tied for 4th in Coastal, (beat Tulsa 55-52 in Independence Bowl)

Starters returning: 14 (eight offense, five defense, kicker)

There’s great buzz around this game, the “Battle at Bristol,” where 150,000 or so fans will make UT vs. the Hokies the most attended game in the history of college football. It’s also a game that should be played on a regular basis (Blacksburg is about 235 miles up I-81 from Knoxville). 

Virginia Tech is starting a new era under first-year coach Justin Fuente. Fuente replaces Frank Beamer, who in 29 years of coaching, had some big years at Tech before four lean years (they went 29-23 with no ACC division title since 2012). Fuente looks like a great hire after making Memphis – not exactly a football school – a contender in the American Athletic Conference. 

He’s got to replace several key players from the 2015 starting lineup, including quarterback Michael Brewer, three starters on the defensive line and top linebacker Deon Clarke. Junior college transfer Jerod Evans has been named starting QB.

 In a strange environment – remember, they’re playing on a race track – strange things can happen. It won’t be an upset of the Vols, though.

Pick: Tennessee ,38-14

Sept. 17 

UT vs. Ohio, Knoxville

Last year: 8-5, 5-3 in MAC, 2nd  East (lost to Appalachian State 31-29 in Camellia Bowl)

Starters returning: 14 (eight offense, six defense)

Several prognosticators pick the Bobcats to win the MAC East, including Lindy’s Sports and College Football News. At MAC media days, media picked the Bobcats second in the East behind Bowling Green (but barely, 136 votes to 134).

Fifth-year senior Greg Windham won the starting quarterback job in fall camp after a three-player competition, and he’s waited a while for the chance. He’s never started a game and has just 53 pass attempts for his career. 

Senior J.D. Sprague, who started 10 games the past two seasons, and redshirt freshman Quinton Maxwell will be waiting if Windham can’t get it done. Junior tailback A.J. Ouellette returns after rushing for 687 yards and six touchdowns last year, while senior wideout Sebastian Smith is back after catching 65 passes for 777 yards and seven TDs. Junior middle linebacker Quentin Poling led the team in tackles last year (69) and had 10.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. The Bobcats have the players to compete for a title in the MAC East, but not the SEC East.

Pick: Tennessee 44-18

Sept. 24 

UT vs. Florida, Knoxville

Last year: 10-4, 7-1 SEC, 1st East (lost to Michigan 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl)

Starters returning: 11 (four offense, six defense, punter)

Tennessee begins a rugged four-game SEC stretch with no bye week and carries the burden of the 11-game losing streak to the Gators. Plus, word is Florida is better than many might think. 

Remember what the Gators did last year under first-year coach Jim McElwain? They won 10 of their first 11 games – including a rally from 27-14 to beat UT 28-27 – before losing its last three to Florida State (regular-season finale), Alabama (SEC title game) and Michigan (Citrus Bowl). 

Third-year sophomore Luke Del Rio, son of Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, was named the starting quarterback Aug. 22. Luke sat out the 2015 season as a transfer from Oregon. Offensive linemen Martez Ivey and David Sharpe were on the media’s All-SEC preseason second team. Junior cornerback Jalen Tabor, suspended for the season opener vs. UMass due to a fight in practice, was on the preseason first team with linebacker Jarrad Davis, and defensive lineman Bryan Cox was on the second team. 

Questions loom large on offense, but the Gators’ defense should be good enough to keep them in games. Not good enough to keep the streak going against Tennessee, though.

Pick: Tennessee, 20-17

Oct. 1 

UT vs. Georgia, Athens

Last year: 10-3, 5-3 SEC, 3rd East (beat Penn State 24-17 in TaxSlayer Bowl)

Returning starters: 13 (eight offense, five defense)

Longtime head coach Mark Richt is out, and longtime Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is in for Richt. Georgia will be itching to get the Vols between the hedges inside Sandford Stadium after blowing a 24-3 lead and losing 38-31 last year at Neyland. 

Junior Nick Chubb returns from a gruesome knee injury against the Vols that cost him the rest of the season, but was chosen to the coaches’ preseason All-SEC team. Sony Michel, who gained 145 yards on 22 carries against UT, also returns after rushing for 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns. Senior Greyson Lambert is back as the starting quarterback but spent fall camp fending off freshman Jacob Eason and junior Brice Ramsey for the job. 

The ’Dogs need to develop a passing game to complement the run game under former Vols offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. While the secondary returns three starters – led by safeties Quincy Mauger and Dominick Sanders – the front seven will consist mostly of first-year starters. The Bulldogs were one of the best pass defenses in the nation last year, but Tennessee’s power run game will be the difference.

Pick: Tennessee, 28-24

Sept. 8 

UT vs. Texas A&M, College

Station, Texas

Last year: 8-5, 4-4 in SEC, 5th West Division (lost to Louisville 27-21 in Music City Bowl)

Returning starters: 12 (six offense, six defense)

Tennessee has never played a football game at Texas A&M, so there’s lots of questions around this game – and the opponent. The Aggies are picked anywhere from fourth to sixth in the rugged SEC West.

Their offense gets a big boost this season from two Oklahoma transfers, junior running back Keith Ford and senior quarterback Trevor Knight, who threw for 3,424 yards in three seasons with the Sooners. He’s expected to give the Aggies a good run-and-pass threat they haven’t had since the days of Johnny Manziel. Noel Mazzone takes over as offensive coordinator, the fourth OC in Kevin Sumlin’s five years as head coach. A strong group of receivers led by Christian Kirk will make Knight’s new job easier. 

Junior defensive end Myles Garrett could be the first player taken in the 2017 NFL Draft, but the linebacker corps is suspect, like in 2015. Aggies defensive coordinator John Chavis, former assistant/DC at Tennessee, is in his second year rebuilding the Aggies’ defense. Chavis will have his side amped for the Vols. In a new environment, Tennessee is set up for a trap game. 

Pick: Texas A&M,  27-21

Sept. 15 

UT vs. Alabama, Knoxville

Last year: 14-1, 7-1 in SEC, 1st in West (beat Clemson 45-40 in CFP National Championship)

Returning starters: 13 (six offense, five defense, kicker, punter)

By this time, Alabama will have settled on a starting quarterback to replace Jake Coker, either junior Cooper Bateman or Jalen Hurts. But don’t count out the possibility the Tide could use both. 

Kiffin, in his third year as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, must replace Heisman Trophy winning back Derrick Henry (2,219 yards, 29 touchdowns) and his backup, Kenyan Drake (408 yards, one TD). It’s been years since Nick Saban hasn’t had an experienced tailback, but he’s got plenty of receivers led by 2015 freshman All-American Calvin Ridley and tight end O.J. Howard, a star the national championship game. 

As usual, Alabama has an imposing offensive line anchored by All-SEC tackle Cam Robinson. Jeremy Pruitt, who was Richt’s defensive coordinator for two years at Georgia, was let go along with Richt and hired by Alabama, where he served as an assistant for six seasons (2007-12). There are some holes to fill from the 2015 defense, but also All-SEC talent returning in lineman Jonathan Allen, linebacker Reuben Foster, and safety Eddie Jackson. Once again, the Tide has too much for the Vols.

Pick: Alabama, 24-20

Oct. 29 

UT vs. South Carolina, Columbia

Last year: 3-9, 1-7 SEC, 7th East (no bowl)

Returning starters: 11 (four offense, five defense, kicker, punter)

Steve Spurrier is gone, and so is the fear factor of the Gamecocks, at least for now. Will Muschamp takes over as head coach for Spurrier, who quit midway through a disastrous season. Muschamp went 28-21 in four years at Florida, which isn’t good enough in Gainesville. 

Now, the question: Is Muschamp a better coach than he showed at Florida. He’s starting out with a pretty thin roster, thanks to Spurrier’s slack recruiting down the stretch. Muschamp says he won’t announce his starting quarterback until the Sept. 1 opener at Vanderbilt (either senior Perry Orth or two freshmen, Brandon McIlwain or Jake Bentley). Orth was the starter last year and threw for 1,929 yards with 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions. 

South Carolina’s top returning rusher is David Williams, who rushed for 299 yards last year. All-SEC receiver Pharoh Cooper is gone, too. Sophomore Deebo Samuel is the top returning receiver (12 catches, one TD). Linebacker/safety Skai Moore, the team’s leading tackler last year, decided to return for his senior season instead of testing the NFL Draft. 

That’s one of the few plusses for Muschamp. Tennessee has beaten the Gamecocks with a late field goal each of the past three seasons, but this one won’t be that close. Not with the Vols rested from an Oct. 22 open date.

Pick: Tennessee, 34-20

Nov. 5 

UT vs. Tenn. Tech, Knoxville

Last year: 4-7, 3-4 in OVC, 6th

Returning starters: 12 (seven offense, five defense)

Marcus Satterfield, who played at Greenback High School and East Tennessee State University, got his first head coaching job at Tech, where he replaced veteran Watson Brown. Satterfield was a graduate assistant at Tennessee in 2002-03 on Phillip Fulmer’s staff and most recently was offensive coordinator at Temple from 2013-15. 

Junior Colby Brown and Temple transfer Michael Birdsong were vying for the starting quarterback job in preseason. Junior wide receiver Brock McCoin returns as one of the OVC’s top receivers after averaging 5.5 catches per game (61 catches, 747 yards). He played quarterback the last three games, and has moved back to receiver. Tech must replace leading rusher Ladarius Vanlier, who had 754 yards and six TDs. McCoin is the top returning rusher with 271 yards followed by tailback Dorian Carter (176 yards, five TDs.) Maleek Hall is one of the OVC’s better cornerbacks. After the grueling SEC, the Vols have it easy against an FCS team

Pick: Tennessee, 45-9

Nov. 12 

UT vs. Kentucky, Knoxville

Last year: 5-7, 2-6 in SEC, 5th East

Returning starters: 15 (nine offense, five defense, kicker)

Mark Stoops returns for his fourth year as the Wildcats’ coach, but he’s got new co-offensive coordinators in Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw, who left Cincinnati. Gran was a UT assistant in 2009 and Hinshaw was from 2010-12. Stoops scrapped OC Shannon Dawson and the “Air Raid” offense after the 2015 season for a pro-style offense. It looks like a good move with the return of the top four running backs led by Stanley “Boom” Williams, who rushed for 855 yards and six touchdowns. 

Sophomore Drew Barker is the new quarterback with the departure of Patrick Towles, now at Boston College as a graduate transfer. Barker completed 35 of 70 passes for 364 yards last year. There is plenty of experience at receiver with the return of Dorian Baker, Garrett Johnson and Jeff Badet. 

Nebraska transfer Courtney Love should be an impact player at middle linebacker. Other top defenders are junior tackle Regie Meant and sophomore cornerback Chris Westry. UT has won 30 of the last 31 games against Kentucky, which beat Derek Dooley’s Vols 10-7 in 2011. Won’t happen to Butch Jones.

Pick: Tennessee, 42-17

Nov. 19 

UT vs. Missouri, Knoxville

Last year: 5-7, 1-7 in SEC, 6th East

Returning starters: 14 (five offense, eight defense, punter)

Former defensive coordinator Barry Odom was promoted to head coach to replace Gary Pinkel, who announced his retirement late in 2015 due to his battle with lymphoma. 

Odom’s defense was second in the SEC in yards allowed (302 per game) and second in points given up (16.2 per game). Most of last year’s starters return except linebacker Kentrell Brothers, the nation’s leading tackler with 12.7 per game. All-SEC end Charles Harris returns along with tackle Terry Buckner Jr., a freshman All-American. 

Sophomore Drew Lock retained his starting quarterback job with a good spring, but his 2015 season was less than memorable (he threw for 111 yards per game and completed 49.1 percent of his passes). Therefore, the offense was the worst in the SEC, averaging 13.6 points and 280.9 yards per game. Will it be better this year? Not much.

Pick: Tennessee, 35-13

Nov. 26 

UT vs. Vanderbilt, Nashville

Last year: 4-8, 2-6 in SEC, 4th East

Returning starters: 14 (six offense, seven defense, kicker)

It’s year three of the Derek Mason era, and he’s 7-17 overall and 2-14 in the SEC. There’s optimism, however, for better days. There are playmakers back on offense and defense. 

Sophomore Kyle Shurmur, son of former Cleveland Browns head coach Pat Shurmur, got the starting nod at quarterback in the seventh game of 2015 and retained the job during fall camp. Wide receiver C.J. Duncan, a top receiver two years ago, returns this year after missing most of 2015 with an Achilles injury, and tight end DeAndre Woods is back after missing the last seven games with an ACL injury. 

Junior tailback Ralph Webb, second-team All-SEC in the preseason, rushed for 1,152 yards and five TDs. He’s got a shot at breaking the school’s career rushing record. Junior Zach Cunningham is an All-SEC preseason linebacker. 

VU could be playing for a bowl game, but the Vols will be playing for a spot in the SEC championship game in Atlanta.

Pick: Tennessee, 45-17

Season Prediction: 10-2 overall, 6-2 East. The Vols tie Georgia (10-2, 6-2) and go to the SEC championship game with the head-to-head victory against the Bulldogs. 

Tennessee loses to Alabama for a second time in the SEC championship and goes to the Orange Bowl.