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Tennessee ranks 56th in Athlon’s 2021 College Football Preseason Rankings

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NCAA Football: Florida at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Once again, Tennessee is starting from ground zero. The Volunteers fired Jeremy Pruitt following an investigation into his recruiting, spurring a mass exodus via the transfer portal. Josh Heupel is the new man tasked with dragging Tennessee out of the ashes, and he’ll be relying on quite a bit of unknown entering the 2021 season.

Athlon Sports ranked all of the FBS teams from 1 to 130 ahead of the season, and Tennessee checked in at 56th overall.

“New coach Josh Heupel hopes 2021 is the first step to getting Tennessee back on track,” Athlon Sports said of Tennessee. “The Volunteers have depth concerns at a few positions but also enough talent to get to a bowl.”

Tennessee will have new starters at quarterback, running back, a couple of receiver spots, along with center and left tackle. They’ll have an entirely new pass rush, along with new faces at middle linebacker. Top cornerback Bryce Thompson exited to the NFL, so you can add that to the long list of replacements for Josh Heupel to find.

Tennessee fans are hopeful that Heupel’s X’s and O’s can mask some inexperience, as he brings his potent offense up from UCF.

“Heupel’s track record on this side of the ball should provide optimism after the Volunteers averaged only 21.5 points a game,” Athlon explained. “There are options at quarterback and good skill players, along with two building blocks – Cade Mays and Darnell Wright – up front.”

We’re all banking on some offensive uptick in 2021, but a big issue will be the defense. Playing defense with a no huddle offense is already a challenge of its own, but Tennessee will be doing it after losing Henry To’o To’o, Quavaris Crouch, Deandre Johnson and Bryce Thompson — four main contributors from last season.

The Volunteers gave up 30 points per game last season, and that number likely won’t get much better under Heupel and new defensive coordinator Tim Banks this fall.

“Depth is a concern at linebacker and in the secondary,” Athlon noted. “The overall performance has to improve after giving up 30.1 points a game and struggling versus the pass (11th in the SEC).”

For reference, week two opponent Pittsburgh ranked 44th in Athlon’s rankings. Alabama (1), Georgia (5), Texas A&M (6) and Florida (11) illustrate just how tough it’s going to be for Heupel to build in the SEC. The Volunteers are ranked 12th in the SEC, beating out only South Carolina and Vanderbilt for the bottom spot in the league.