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Athlon picks Tennessee to finish second in the SEC East

Tennessee v Florida Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

It’s not exactly a hype train, but there’s some optimism growing around Tennessee football. Josh Heupel did about as much as you could have realistically asked for in year one, taking Tennessee to a seven win season after a dreadful final year under Jeremy Pruitt in 2020.

Heupel’s offensive philosophy was a game changer for the Volunteers, and quite honestly, maybe a bit of a talent-leveler. Heupel took a bottom-dwelling offense and transformed it into a top ten unit in just a single offseason. The challenge now focuses on closing the gap between Georgia and Alabama, just like the rest of the SEC.

Baby steps, though. There’s no shame with establishing yourself as the second best team in the East, trailing the defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs. Tennessee has a chance to do that with Florida in transition. According to Athlon, that’s what’s expected to happen.

The publication picked Tennessee to finish second in the East, narrowly edging out Kentucky. Expect the Volunteers or Wildcats to fill that No. 2 spot in most predictions, including those coming next month at SEC Media Days.

Here’s Athlon on Tennessee in 2022.

The Volunteers showed marked improvement on offense, averaging 39.3 points a game – up from 21.5 the previous year. Also, thanks to the emergence of quarterback Hendon Hooker, Tennessee led the SEC in plays of 40-plus yards (23) after collecting just three the previous fall. Hooker and receiver Cedric Tillman top the list of reasons for optimism in Knoxville, with four starters back along an offensive line hoping to improve after allowing 44 sacks last year.

Although scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for Tennessee, the defense has to make major progress to push for nine wins. This unit allowed more than 200 rushing yards and 33.6 points a game in SEC play last season. However, the Volunteers simply need more talent, depth and improvement to have any shot at pushing Georgia for No. 1 in the East.

The author, Steven Lassan, notes that it was a tough choice between Tennessee and Kentucky for the No. 2 spot. Tennessee returning so much on the offensive side of the ball was likely the deciding factor, along with the Volunteers getting the Wildcats in Knoxville this season.

Tennessee’s defense is absolutely the question, but Tim Banks is hoping Byron Young and Tyler Baron both take big steps forward. He’s also banking on transfers Wesley Walker and Andre Turrentine to patch-up a secondary that just lost Alontae Taylor and Theo Jackson to the NFL. The offense will lead the way, Josh Heupel just needs his defense not to be a glaring issue in year two. For the most part last season, they held their own. However, that Music City Bowl performance without Taylor on the field has plenty of fans and analysts left concerned.

Athlon’s SEC East Predictions

1. Georgia

2. Tennessee

3. Kentucky

4. Florida

5. South Carolina

6. Missouri

7. Vanderbilt