In the last week we've had a lot of conversation in our comments about Tennessee's projected win total next season and what is a fair expectation of Butch Jones with Team 118. In the spirit of those conversations (and because there's no football to look forward to around here until spring practice), here's a brief look at each of the twelve opponents on the Vol slate in 2014. Obviously recruiting rankings are subject to change and returning starters are subject to early entrants to the NFL Draft; we've tried to mention notable candidates for leaving school early. The only non-Alabama player from a 2014 opponent currently projected in SB Nation's latest mock first round is Clowney.
UTAH STATE - August 30, Knoxville
2013: 8-5, Division Champions
Returning Starters: 4 Offense, 4 Defense
The big question here is the status of senior-to-be quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who was lost for the year with a knee injury in an October 4 loss to BYU. Freshman Darrell Garretson performed admirably in his absence, completing 60.3% of his passes at 7.3 yards per attempt with a 9/5 TD/INT ratio. The Aggies ran off five straight wins after an October 12 loss to Boise State, finishing 7-1 in conference to take the division crown from the Broncos. But they'll have other issues here: the top two pass catchers, top two rushers, and four starting offensive linemen all graduate. The defenses graduates four of its top five defensive backs but does return some young talent at linebacker. The Aggies were 7th nationally in yards per play allowed this season; there will still be some talent around on that side of the ball. This is by zero means an automatic win, and we'd all do ourselves a favor by treating it like the real test it is.
ARKANSAS STATE - September 6, Knoxville
2013: 7-5 (T-1st Sun Belt)
Returning Starters: 4 Offense, 8 Defense
The Red Wolves went 5-2 in the Sun Belt but lost head-to-head with Louisiana-Lafayette. They were blown out by both Auburn and Missouri (hey, us too!) and also had a troubling 24 point loss to Memphis in September, but rebounded to give themselves a shot to win the Sun Belt before a 34-31 loss to Western Kentucky in the finale. Like us their defensive numbers are a little skewed having played Auburn and Missouri, finishing 93rd nationally in yards per play allowed. The offense must replace almost all the pieces, including a dual threat quarterback, two of the top three pass catchers, and our old friend David Oku. But an experienced defense should be better.
OKLAHOMA - September 13, Norman
2013: 10-2, BCS at-large
Returning Starters: 6 Offense, 9 Defense
Rivals 2014 Recruiting Rank: 30
The six returning starters on offense include four linemen and quarterback Blake Bell. OU graduates its top three running backs and three of its top four wide receivers. Defensively they'll take a hit in the secondary with the loss of Gabe Lynn and Aaron Colvin but could return everyone else. Oklahoma had the big upset loss to Texas and got worked by Baylor 41-12, but did beat three ranked teams in Notre Dame, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State last Saturday. It'll be a different challenge than traveling to Oregon, but a big challenge nonetheless. Is this another "nothing to lose" game?
GEORGIA - September 27, Athens
Returning Starters: 6 Offense, 10 Defense
Rivals 2014 Recruiting Rank: 8
A much-maligned defense loses end Garrison Smith and that'll be it unless someone goes pro. The Dawgs had a middle of the road defense overall because they got much better after September against everyone but Auburn. The defense and the ground game will be the obvious strengths of the 2014 edition as Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall return to help ease the transition from Aaron Murray to Hutson Mason, who was 22 of 36 for 299 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Georgia Tech. Tennessee and Georgia have played three straight one possession games. The Dawgs will have already played Clemson and South Carolina again before playing us; Tennessee is coming off a bye and will have four weeks of football before opening conference play.
FLORIDA - October 4, Knoxville
Returning Starters: 7 Offense, 10 Defense
Rivals 2014 Recruiting Rank: 15
There are huge questions here, of course, but you have to believe huge talent still resides in Gainesville as well. Who lands the offensive coordinator job may have a lot to say about who plays quarterback. The 10 returning starters on defense is a bit misleading because so many of those guys were thrown into action later in the season because of injuries, but on the plus side for Florida now those guys are experienced. Florida still finished 10th in total defense but 41st in yards per play allowed, gashed late by not just Florida State but Georgia Southern. The Gators do get an off week before coming to Knoxville where they will be two weeks removed from hosting Alabama. Right or wrong, despite the nine year losing streak because of what happened to the Gators this year this will be a game many Tennessee fans expect Butch Jones to win.
CHATTANOOGA - October 11, Knoxville
The Mocs finished the year ranked 21st in FCS.
OLE MISS - October 18, Oxford
Returning Starters: 9 Offense, 8 Defense
Rivals 2014 Recruiting Rank: 13
The most roller coastery team in the league this year, Ole Miss started 3-0 with wins at Vanderbilt and at Texas. Then they lost three straight in an insane gauntlet: shutout at Alabama, an eight point loss at Auburn, a three point loss to Texas A&M. Then they rebounded to upset LSU in the first of four straight wins. Then the offense disappeared in season ending losses to Missouri and Mississippi State, scoring just ten points in each game. The Rebels finished 38th in offensive yards per play, though that's slightly inflated by insane numbers against Troy, Idaho, and Southeast Missouri State. The Rebels were 45th in yards per play allowed. 2014 will be year three for Hugh Freeze with more time for a bunch of young talent to mature. If you like gauntlets, check out Ole Miss's road in the early going: Boise State in Atlanta and at Vanderbilt in the first two weeks, then an October stretch of Alabama, at A&M, Tennessee, at LSU, Auburn. Still, this bunch has a lot of upside in my opinion.
ALABAMA - October 25, Knoxville
2013: 11-1, BCS at-large
Returning Starters: 5 Offense, 6 Defense
Rivals 2014 Recruiting Rank: 1
This assumes Cyrus Kouandijo and Ha-Ha Clinton Dix both go pro early. Alabama returns T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper but must replace A.J. McCarron. Kevin Norwood will graduate but otherwise Bama returns every other major pass catcher. The bigger questions will be on defense, where Bama was legendary pre-Malzahn in 2013. Along with the presumed departure of Clinton-Dix the Tide will graduate C.J. Mosley and Ed Stinson. It will be difficult for the Tide to duplicate this year's success, but they're still Alabama and still bring in the nation's best recruiting class on the back end. Find even a game manager at quarterback and they'll have every chance to win it all again next year. Alabama remains Tennessee's toughest test, by far.
SOUTH CAROLINA - November 1, Columbia
Returning Starters: 9 Offense, 6 Defense
Rivals 2014 Recruiting Rank: 31
Clowney will leave, and in this listing he's joined by DT Kelcy Quarles and CB Victor Hampton. That certainly changes things for the Carolina defense, though I'm intrigued by a potential Ewing Theory here without Clowney and so many distractions in 2014. Their schedule gets more difficult next year however; the Gamecocks went 10-2 this year but played Mississippi State and Arkansas from the West. Next year they open a new (possibly temporary) "traditional" rivalry with Texas A&M in Columbia in the season opener, then must travel to Auburn. Connor Shaw graduates and should give way to Dylan Thompson, but every other offensive weapon returns along with four offensive linemen. There's no reason Carolina shouldn't be in the mix again, but also no reason Tennessee can't play yet another competitive game with them to the wire.
KENTUCKY - November 15, Knoxville
Returning Starters: 8 Offense, 8 Defense
Rivals 2014 Recruiting Rank: 9
It's a big schedule change for Tennessee, with Missouri falling between Kentucky and Vanderbilt to break up the usual late season finale. The Vols get a week off after South Carolina before the three game finish. The Cats beat Miami (OH) and Alabama State this year, losing every other game by at least two possessions other than a six point setback against Mississippi State. Their kids played hard but came up short at every turn last year. The good news is a bunch of young players are back and what is, for now, a Top 10 recruiting class is coming in. The Cats may be in for better days, but in 2014 they should still be a clear victory for Tennessee, perhaps even more than Utah State or Arkansas State.
MISSOURI - November 22, Knoxville
2013: 11-2, SEC East Champions
Returning Starters: 7 Offense, 5 Defense
Rivals 2014 Recruiting Rank: 28
Now the home finale, Missouri loses James Franklin and Michael Sam, along with several other defensive contributors, but returns Henry Josey, DGB, and a lot of experience from Maty Mauk. Mizzou gets a lighter load on the schedule, trading Ole Miss for Arkansas, and they managed the schedule just fine in 2013, a doink away from an undefeated regular season. Perhaps the biggest question here is how Pinkel and company will handle success after such an electrifying and validating season that should certainly keep any of us from assuming victory here.
VANDERBILT - November 29, Nashville
Returning Starters: 6 Offense, 3 Defense
Rivals 2014 Recruiting Rank: 18
Let me first say how much I hope James Franklin doesn't leave, because I'd very much like to beat him again. Having said that, if one was to make a move away from Nashville this offseason might be the time. The Dores are looking at a total rebuild on defense and will be without Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause and Wesley Tate, their top three pass catchers. Patton Robinette is clearly capable at quarterback, but without Matthews the challenge certainly increases. The Dores again dodge the SEC West heavyweights, playing the state of Mississippi from the other side. Will that be enough to help Franklin keep this thing moving forward if he stays? And can Tennessee break Vanderbilt's two year run?
Here's a question that interests me: who's the favorite in the SEC East in 2014?
Every team has major questions, major flaws, and I would argue major upside. Missouri and South Carolina have to replace a ton of defensive production. Georgia and Vanderbilt have to replace record setting offensive performers. Tennessee and Kentucky both bring in freshman classes better than anything either has seen in recent memory. And Florida has to separate fact from fiction between 2012 and 2013. All have reason for concern, and all have reason for optimism. I don't know if Tennessee can be good enough to win a wide open field - we really don't know much about Team 118 at all at this point because there will be so many freshman contributing, plus questions at quarterback - but I do think Tennessee can be good enough to compete. If it turns into a round robin beatdown, who will come out on top?
Winning the East isn't Tennessee's outright goal in 2014, it's a top shelf dream. Tennessee's primary goal is improvement. But what will that improvement look like one year from now?
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