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Front Page - Friday, August 25, 2017

Looks like another 8-4 season for Vols

Tennessee snapped an 11-game losing streak against the Gators last year, but their six-game losing streak at Florida will likely continue this season. - Photograph | Jerry Denham

Oops. I goofed last year. So did lots of other people who thought Tennessee’s football team would win the SEC East Division and go to the league championship game for the first time since 2007. I predicted the Vols would go 10-2 in the regular season, 6-2 in the SEC, tie Georgia for the East Division title, go to the SEC Championship Game, lose to Alabama for a second time and go to the Orange Bowl.

We all know the reality by now. Tennessee was 8-4 in the regular season, 4-4 in the SEC (three-way tie in East), and beat Nebraska 38-24 in the Music City Bowl.

Tennessee had six players drafted in the first four rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft, among them defensive end Derek Barnett (Philadelphia Eagles), quarterback Joshua Dobbs (Pittsburgh Steelers), and wide receiver Josh Malone (Cincinnati Bengals). Another three Vols from the 2016 roster signed as free agents with NFL teams.

Despite all the attrition, I predict the Vols will go 8-4 this year, 4-4 in the SEC, and finish third in the East behind Florida and Georgia. My bowl prediction is the Liberty.

For the record, my predictions for Tennessee’s regular-season records were correct in 2014 (6-6) and 2015 (8-4). However, I had the Vols going 4-4 in the SEC in 2015, and they went 5-3. My SEC prediction for 2014 of 3-5 was correct.

Here are my predictions for 2017:

UT vs. Georgia Tech

Atlanta, Sept. 4

Last year: Tech was 9-4 overall, 4-4 in ACC, 5th place in Coastal Division (beat Kentucky 33-18 in TaxSlayer Bowl).

Starters returning: 15 (eight offense, seven defense)

Paul Johnson begins his 10th season as Georgia Tech’s coach, and it’s no secret his triple-option offense is coming at opponents. Still, it’s not easy to stop. The Yellow Jackets were ninth in the nation last year in rushing offense (258.1 yards per game), but they’ll have a new quarterback running the system this year with the departure of three-year starter Justin Thomas.

Junior Matthew Jordan was Thomas’ backup last year, has more than 100 career carries, and was used often in goal-line situations because of his size (6-2, 208). However, junior TaQuon Marshall (5-10, 185) was the No. 1 quarterback in spring when Jordan was out with a foot injury.

Sophomore fullback Dedrick Mills, who rushed for 771 yards and 12 TDs in nine games, was kicked off the team last week. He had been suspended twice before.

Junior slotback Clinton Lynch averaged 11.2 yards per carry and 30.6 yards per catch and scored a combined eight TDs. Defensively, the Jackets need improvement after giving up 401.6 total yards per game (59th nationally). All five starters return in the secondary, but there are holes to fill on the D-line. Junior linebacker Brant Mitchell, who played at Webb School of Knoxville, started all 13 games for Georgia Tech last year.

Pick: Tennessee 24, Georgia Tech 21: A tough opener for the Vols, but they’ve had plenty of time to prepare for the triple option. Good thing this one is in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, not the Georgia Dome.

UT vs. Indiana State

Neyland Stadium, Sept. 9

Last year: Indiana State was 4-7 overall, 2-6 in Missouri Valley, ninth place.

Starters returning: 11 (five offense, four defense, kicker, punter)

Curt Mallory makes his debut as a head coach after 22 years as an assistant, taking over for Mike Sanford, who resigned after the 2016 season. Mallory played at Michigan under legendary Bo Schembechler, and from 2011-14 was secondary coach at his alma mater under then-head coach Brady Hoke, now UT’s associate head coach and defensive line coach.

The Sycamores’ new coach made wholesale schematic changes with a new 4-3 defense and pro-style, one-back offense. Starting quarterback Isaac Harker returns, but Mallory opened up competition in spring. Running backs LeMonte Booker and Marlon Fleming II are back from season-ending injuries in 2016 and give the Sycamores a loaded backfield. Top defenders are linebackers Katrell Moss and Jordan Jackson and nose tackle Norvell McGlaun.

Pick: Tennessee 47, Indiana State 6: It’s a quick turnaround for the Vols, fortunately against a below-average FBS opponent. Rest up, Vols. You’ve got a biggie next week, and it’s on the road.

UT vs. Florida

Gainesville, Florida, Sept. 16

Last year: Gators were 9-4, 6-2 in SEC, 1st East (beat Iowa 30-3 in Outback Bowl).

Returning starters: 15 (nine offense, four defense, kicker, punter)

Tennessee snapped an 11-game losing streak against Florida with last year’s 38-28 win in Knoxville, but hasn’t won in Gainesville since 2003. Two years ago, the Vols led 20-7 in the third quarter before Florida rallied for a 28-27 win. Last year, UT trailed 21-3 at halftime before making a comeback.

Junior Luke Del Rio started six games at quarterback last year for Florida before being shelved with a shoulder injury. With Del Rio still out, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks was No. 1. But as of last week, the battle for the starting QB’s job was still open between Del Rio, Franks, and Malik Zaire.

Third-year coach Jim McElwain stressed strength in the offensive line when he arrived in Gainesville, and he thinks it will show this year led by junior Martez Ivey, who can play guard or tackle. Junior wide receiver Antonio Callaway is a big playmaker – if he can stay out of trouble. His latest dustup was an arrest on charges of misdemeanor marijuana possession in Gainesville in May.

Junior Jordan Scarlett rushed for 889 yards last year for an offense that ranked No. 116 nationally in total offense (344 yards per game).

The Gators defense, meanwhile, was nasty, ranking No. 5 in total defense (293 yards allowed) and No. 2 in rush defense (148.5 yards). But there was lots of turnover. Almost its entire front seven will have new starters. Senior safeties Marcell Harris and Nick Washington lead the secondary.

Pick: Florida 30, Tennessee 24: It’s hard to imagine the Gators having a defense like last year’s, so the offensive-minded McElwain will turn to his forte this year. They’ll find enough offense, and the Vols’ woes in The Swamp will continue.

UT vs Massachusetts

Neyland Stadium, Sept. 23

Last year: Massachusetts was 2-10 overall (Independent, no bowl).

Returning starters: 15 (six offense, seven defense, kicker, punter).

Massachusetts is in its fifth year as an FBS member. Its record in those years is 10-50. After playing in the Mid-American Conference in 2015, the Minutemen have competed the last two seasons as an independent with a daunting schedule. Nine of its 2016 opponents played in bowl games. Coach Mark Whipple is in his second stint as coach; during his first, he led UMass to the Division I-AA (now FBS) national championship in 1998, the same year Tennessee won a national championship.

Junior Andrew Ford threw for 2,655 yards and 26 TDs last season, and his top two receivers return in tight end Adam Breneman and wide receiver Andy Isabella. Ford began his career at Virginia Tech and Breneman began his at Penn State. Junior Marquis Young is back after rushing for 898 yards last year.

Still, UMass was No. 109 in total offense last year (356.2 yards per game); the defense was almost as bad – No. 99 (452.7 yards allowed). Whipple made a change at defensive coordinator in the offseason, replacing Tom Masella with Ed Pinkham, who came from Western Michigan.

Pick: Tennessee 55, Massachusetts 9: Perfect timing for one of the worst teams in FCS. Vols need to heal up and get ready for next week.

UT vs. Georgia

Neyland Stadium, Sept. 30

Last year: Georgia was 8-5 overall, 4-4 in SEC, tied-2nd East (beat TCU 31-23 in Liberty Bowl).

Returning starters: 17 (five offense, 10 defense, kicker, punter)

There’s plenty of game experience on this year’s Bulldogs’ team, particularly on a defense where the 10 returning starters are juniors or seniors. Offensively, sophomore Jacob Eason returns after starting 12 of 13 games for an offense that ranked No. 87 in overall (384.7 yards per game).

Senior Nick Chubb rushed for 1,130 yards and eight TDs last year, and fellow senior Sony Michel had 840 yards and four TDS. Eason completed only 55.1 percent of his passes last year, and the ‘Dogs ranked No. 97 in passing offense (193.5 yards per game). If Eason isn’t getting it done, freshman five-star Jake Fromm might get his shot. The passing game took a hit when Isaiah McKenzie left for the NFL, and the offensive line must prove itself. Georgia should field a stout defense again after ranking No. 16 nationally last year (327.5 total yards per game).

The linebacker corps is loaded led by Lorenzo Carter and David Bellamy on the outside and Roquan Smith, Natrez Patrick, and Reggie Carter inside. So is the secondary led by senior free safety Dominick Sanders, who needs five interceptions to break the school record of 16.

Pick: Georgia 17, Tennessee 13: The Bulldogs are ready to bite after blowing leads the last two years in losses to the Vols. There won’t be another Hail Mary to beat the ‘Dogs this year.

UT vs. South Carolina

Neyland Stadium, Oct. 14

Last year: South Carolina was 6-7 overall, 3-5 in SEC, 5th East (lost to South Florida 46-39 in Birmingham Bowl).

Returning starters: 17 (10 offense, seven defense)

The Gamecocks should have no trouble improving on the 2016 offense, which ranked No. 116 in scoring (20.8 points per game) and 115th in total offense (347 yards per game). Sophomore Jake Bentley started the last seven games and threw for 390 yards in the bowl win.

Sophomore wide receiver Bryan Edwards had 44 catches last year and junior Deebo Samuel had 59. North Carolina transfer T’Son Williams will bolster the running backs group, and sophomores A.J. Turner and Rico Dowdle got experience in the backfield last year. However, the offensive line must improve for the running game to improve.

Defensively, the Gamecocks wilted in the late stages of 2016, giving up about 32 points per game in the second half of the season. Senior linebacker Skai Moore, who led the team in tackles for three years, is back to lead the linebackers. Three seniors are projected to start in the secondary, where junior college transfers Kaleb Chalmers and Keisean Nixon should contribute.

Pick: Tennessee 35, South Carolina 31: The Vols’ 24-21 loss at Williams-Brice Stadium was their worst of 2016 – until the loss to Vanderbilt. Like last year, the Vols have a bye week before South Carolina. They’ll be ready this time.

UT vs. Alabama

Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Oct. 21

Last year: Bama was 14-1, 8-0 in SEC, 1st West (beat Washington 24-7 in Chick-Fil-A Bowl-CFP Semifinal; lost to Clemson 35-31 in CFP National Championship).

Returning starters: 12 (six offense, five defense, punter)

No secret here. The Tide is heavily favored to win its fourth consecutive SEC title and reach the College Football Playoffs. Sophomore Jalen Hurts returns at quarterback after leading Alabama to the national championship game as a true freshman, and the last-second loss to Clemson will serve as motivation to all wearing Crimson.

Hurts, the SEC Offensive Player of the Year (2,780 passing yards, 23 TDS, 954 rushing yards, 13 TDs), has a new offensive coordinator in Brian Daboll to replace Lane Kiffin, now the head coach at Florida Atlantic. Alabama has seasoned running backs in juniors Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough; Harris rushed for 1,037 yards last year and Scarbrough 812 yards. Junior Calvin Ridley returns after catching 72 passes for 769 yards and seven TD passes.

There was lots of attrition from the 2016 defense that led the nation in scoring defense (13.0), rushing defense (63.9 yards), and was second in total defense (261.8 yards). But the Tide will be formidable once again. Junior safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was a consensus All-American last year, and the Tide is loaded at linebacker. Junior tackle Da’Ron Payne is the only returning starter on the line, but several have been waiting their turn. As usual.

Pick: Alabama 51, Tennessee 13: The Tide put a beat-down on the Vols last year, 49-10 in Neyland Stadium. Won’t change at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama wins its 11th consecutive game against Tennessee.

UT vs. Kentucky

Lexington, Kentucky, Oct. 28

Last year: Kentucky was 7-6 overall, 4-4 in SEC, tied-2nd East (lost to Georgia Tech 33-18 in TaxSlayer Bowl).

Returning starters: 18 (eight offense, eight defense, kicker, punter)

It was a nice run for the Wildcats last season – four SEC wins and a bowl bid – but a loss to Georgia Tech in the bowl game was a damper. Senior quarterback Stephen Johnson returns as the starter, but senior Drew Barker, the previous starter who missed the final 10 games last year with a back injury, is also vying for the starting job.

Kentucky returns eight of its top nine offensive linemen from 2016, which bodes well for sophomore running back Benny Snell Jr., who rushed for 1,091 yards and 13 touchdowns despite not getting a carry the first two games.

The Wildcats’ youthful defense took its lumps last year – it ranked No. 85 nationally in total defense (432.2 yards per game). Eight of the top 10 tacklers return. Coach Mark Stoops hired Matt House as the new defensive coordinator; House previously held the same position at Florida International.

Outside linebackers Josh Allen and Denzil Ware are players to watch, and three starters return to the secondary. So, does senior kicker Austin MacGinnis, who booted game-winning kicks to beat Louisville and Mississippi State last year.

Pick: Tennessee 34, Kentucky 31: Vols have won 31 of their last 32 games against the Wildcats in football. The hiccup was 2011 when Derek Dooley’s second UT team lost 10-7 at Commonwealth Stadium. Won’t happen this year.

UT vs. Southern Mississippi

Neyland Stadium, Nov. 4

Last year: Southern Miss was 7-4 overall, 4-4 Conference USA West, 3rd place (beat Louisiana-Lafayette 28-21 in New Orleans Bowl).

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

The Golden Eagles and Vols have one thing in common. Both must replace a very talented quarterback. Nick Mullens graduated Southern Miss as the program’s career passing leader, leaving sophomore Keon Howard and redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs battling for the job. Neither won it in spring. Howard started two games last season when Mullens was hurt; Griggs sat out last year with academic issues.

Senior Allenzae Staggers had 63 catches for 1,165 yards and seven TDs last season, including 11 catches for 230 yards in the bowl game. Senior Ito Smith was 16th in the nation last year in rushing yards with 1,459 and scored 19 touchdowns (17 rushing). The defense gave up only 324.8 yards per game last year (No. 15 nationally) but also allowed 29.5 points per game (tied for No. 74). Three all-conference defenders are among the eight starters gone.

Pick: Tennessee 38, Southern Mississippi 20: If the Golden Eagles can solidify the quarterback situation, they might have a shot at the C-USA West title. The QB can’t beat UT in Neyland. Vols go to 6-0 against Southern Miss.

UT vs. Missouri, Columbia

Missouri, Nov. 11

Last year: Missouri was 4-8 overall, 2-6 SEC, 7th East.

Returning starters: 16 (10 offense, four defense, kicker, punter)

Missouri rolled up 740 total yards in last year’s 63-37 loss to the Vols at Neyland Stadium, and the majority of the same offensive players are back – including junior quarterback Drew Lock.

The Tigers led the SEC and were 13th nationally in yards per game (500.5). Lock played a huge role, throwing for 3,399 yards and 23 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions. Also, back is senior J’Mon Moore, the SEC’s only returning 1,000-yard receiver. While the offense took off last year, the defense took a nosedive. Missouri ranked 15th nationally in total defense in 2015 and plummeted to 118th in 2016, allowing 479.7 yards per game.

Second-year coach Barry Odom brought in four junior college defensive linemen for immediate help. Malik Young was a first-team JUCO All-American defensive tackle last year, and JUCO lineman Rashad Brandon enrolled in January and practiced in spring. Odom made some changes in his defensive staff and schemes with hope of solidifying the defense. If the Tigers improve on that side, they can count on Luck and Co. to score some points.

Pick: Tennessee 42, Missouri 37: This has been a streaky series since Missouri joined the SEC in 2012. The Tigers won the first three. Tennessee won the last two. Give the Vols the edge again with Missouri coming off a Nov. 4 game against Florida.

UT vs. LSU

Neyland Stadium, Nov. 18

Last year: LSU was 8-4 overall, 5-3 in SEC, t-2nd West (beat Louisville 29-9 in Citrus Bowl).

Returning starters: 13 (seven offense, five defense, punter)

New head coach Ed Orgeron, who spent much of last season as interim head coach, wants to put some pop in the offense that was lacking under Les Miles, so he retooled the staff in the offseason. Among the changes was the hiring of offensive coordinator Matt Canada from Pitt.

Senior Danny Etling took over as the starting quarterback in the second game of last season and should retain the job; he threw for 2,123 yards and 11 TDs with five interceptions and completed 59.5 percent of his passes.

Sophomore Justin McMillan and true freshman Lowell Narcisse are behind Etling in the QB depth chart. Junior Derrius Guice rushed for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns last year, seizing the opportunity when Leonard Fournette was hurt.

There were departures in the front seven of the defense with five starters gone, but the Tigers had talent waiting behind them. Juniors Donte Jackson and Kevin Toliver II and senior John Battle lead a talented secondary. True freshman JaCoby Stevens of Murfreesboro Oakland High was rated the No. 1 safety in the nation by 247Sports Composite.

Pick: LSU 27, Tennessee 22: Folks in Big Orange Country remember the fiery Orgeron, who spent the 2009 season as the Vols’ defensive coordinator under Kiffin in his only year as UT’s head coach. Orgeron’s hiring of Canada appears to be a crucial move. LSU’s defense will be tougher than the one they saw the previous week in Missouri.

UT vs. Vanderbilt

Neyland Stadium, Nov. 25

Last year: Vandy was 6-7 overall, 3-5 in SEC, 6th East (lost to N.C. State 41-17 in Independence Bowl).

Returning starters: 18 (nine offense, seven defense, kicker, punter)

All-SEC running back Ralph Webb is back after rushing for 1,283 yards and 13 TDs last year, and so is junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who took over as the starter seven games into the season. Shurmur threw for 416 yards and two TDs and Webb rushed for 114 yards and two TDs in Vanderbilt’s 45-34 win over the Vols last year in Nashville.

The receiving corps is solid, but the biggest question offensively in preseason was the line. Defensively, the Commodores must replace All-America linebacker Zach Cunningham, a second-round pick (No. 57 overall) by the Houston Texans.

Seniors Nifae Lealao (tackle) and Jonathan Wynn (end) lead the defensive front, and three starters are back in the secondary led by All-SEC candidate Ryan White at strong safety.

Fourth-year coach Derek Mason’s biggest task in fall camp was filling three starting linebacker spots in the 3-4 defense. Senior Oren Burks is the returning starter at linebacker.

Pick: Tennessee 32, Vanderbilt 25: This rivalry isn’t what it used to be: one-sided. Vanderbilt has won three of its last five games against the Vols. Tennessee’s loss last year in Nashville knocked it out of a trip to the Sugar Bowl. The Vols haven’t forgotten.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.