You get the feeling watching Tennessee football that Butch Jones has that program ready to break through in Knoxville. The Volunteers take up the No. 11 spot in Saturday Down South’s final SEC rankings, an unrivaled look at how the league’s 14 programs fared last season based on preseason expectations, on-field success, coaching stability, recruiting and program momentum.
As we approach the Top 10, don’t look at these rankings solely from a win-loss standpoint, but delve deeper.
Final SEC Rankings of 2013:
And enjoy the debate.
11. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6)
A third consecutive 5-7 isn’t what the Vols wanted in 2013, but the program took baby steps in Jones’ first season and got much-needed reps for most of its budding talent. The necessary pieces are in place to challenge in the East soon.
On-field performance: C; At home, Vols admirable
From Oct. 5 to Nov. 9, the Vols fought five opponents ranked in Top 11 — Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Missouri and Auburn. A two-point win over the Gamecocks kept Steve Spurrier’s team out of the SEC Championship Game and likely a BCS at-large spot. That’s not to mention a previous affair at second-ranked Oregon, the toughest non-conference tilt for any SEC school in 2013.
Tennessee battled through one of the most challenging schedules in college football to have a bowl shot heading into the final two games in need of a sweep. Instead, a late loss to Vandy solidified another losing season, one that ended on a good note at Kentucky.
Rajion Neal was Tennessee’s most consistent playmaker and finished with a career-high 1,124 yards in his final campaign. He registered five 100-yard games and scored a touchdown in 9-of-12 contests. When the Vols were bogged down through the air late in the season, Neal’s success on the ground was constant outside of an 8-carry, 8-yard implosion at Missouri. Big-play wide receiver Marquez North is a future star who will emerge as the East Division’s top No. 1 in 2014 alongside mainstays Dorial Green-Beckham and Shaq Roland. Tennessee has the physical specimen’s services for two more years until he hears his name called in the first round.
The Vols’ offensive line was its strongest personnel group throughout and gave up just 15 sacks all season — second to Arkansas’ total of eight.
Expectations: C; Injuries, youth lead to losses
Had junior starting quarterback Justin Worley not been sidelined for the season following a loss to Alabama, Tennessee may have hovered at or one game above .500. Freshman Josh Dobbs was unexpectedly throw into the mix late and tossed six interceptions in four starts with a 1-3 record. He didn’t have an established relationship with receivers and the Vols offense never got going with the dual-threat from Alpharetta, Ga. under center.
RELATED: Tennessee regular season recap
With that being said, Tennessee played stretches of solid football — overtime loss to Georgia and upset win over South Carolina — and periods of embarrassing defense. In losses to the Ducks and Auburn, the Vols gave up 114 points and 1,166 yards of offense. John Jancek’s first season as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator didn’t pan out like he had hoped with the Vols finishing second-to-last in the SEC against the rush (207.3 YPG), last in total sacks (18) and 11th overall in total defense.
A bright spot however was the unit’s ability to create turnovers. Had it not been for Tennessee’s sporadic play from the quarterback position, the Vols’ turnover margin would’ve been amongst the SEC’s best after the defense forced 25 turnovers.
Coaching: B-; November wasn’t kind
Tennessee’s late-season spiral began in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 26 when the Vols fell behind 35-0 at halftime. It appeared the program had turned a corner the previous week with its win over the Gamecocks but Alabama was quick to pound the Vols into an early submission.
The three consecutive setbacks that followed pushed Tennessee from 4-4 to three games under .500. The Vols were never competitive in a 28-point loss at Missouri, got steamrolled at home by the eventual SEC champion and suffered a crippling defeat in the final minute to Vandy. Jones and the Tennessee defense gave up a 12-play, 92-yard drive that included a controversial 4th-and-1 conversion that sank the season.
The Vols deserve credit for being the SEC’s most disciplined team last season and that’s commendable considering an all-new staff and head coach. Tennessee was penalized for a league-low 37.9 yards per game.
Recruiting: A; Vols goes nationwide for talent
Considering where the Vols are on a nationally-relevant scale, Tennessee’s done a tremendous job under Jones at pulling in some of the nation’s top players and convincing them to represent the T. Jalen Hurd is a name you won’t soon forget in Knoxville when he makes a splash as a true freshman this fall. The five-star Tennessee native tailback picked the Vols over Alabama, Florida and Ohio State among others and has tremendous size at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds with a track star’s speed.
Looking at this year’s class from top to bottom, Tennessee grabbed wideout Von Pearson from California, three standouts from Florida — Dillon Bates (OLB), Jakob Johnson (ILB), Ray Raulerson (OT) — and two others from Texas, Dimarya Mixon (DT) and Chris Weatherd (OLB). Tennessee’s recruiting staff logged a ton of miles and the late addition of four-star all-purpose back Derrell Scott from Havelock, N.C. — friend and former teammate of South Carolina rising sophomore Pharoh Cooper — was a huge get.
Program momentum: C+; Time to shake off 5-7 seasons
It’s been six years since Tennessee last won 10 games in a season, tough to imagine considering the Vols’ rich football history. They won’t win 10 in 2014, but a bowl game’s in the cards with several rising stars returning on both sides of the football.
Sophomore corner Cameron Sutton’s an All-American in the making who started every game as a true freshman for the Vols last season. He possesses great ball awareness and held every receiver he guarded out of the end zone. Sutton should exceed his first-year numbers and those were above average — nine passes defended, two interceptions and 39 tackles.
Sutton’s one of many talented players that return hoping to re-energize Rocky Top.
Photo Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports