This time last year Tennessee was gearing up for the season as SEC East favorites.

Fast forward to 2017, and the Vols are predicted to finish third in the division.

The change from first to third in a span of 12 months is due to replacing six players drafted to the NFL on top of surprising losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

Can Tennessee surprise many and make a run to Atlanta as SEC East champion, or will the Vols miss out on Atlanta for the 10th consecutive season?

Dreaming the good dreams

1. The offensive line: Without doubt, the offensive line is the best unit on Team 121. Butch Jones and first-year offensive line coach Walt Wells have depth across the board upfront.

Breaking in a new quarterback and having newcomers behind running back John Kelly, first-year offensive coordinator Larry Scott can benefit from a line providing extra time for the less experienced players to adapt to the speed of the game.

Drew Richmond, Jashon Robertson, Brett Kendrick, Coleman Thomas, Jack Jones, Venzell Boulware, Chance Hall, Marcus Tatum and Trey Smith all face a crucial fall camp to determine which pieces fit in the right places.

2. Quinten Dormady is the real deal: He’s favored to be the starter when the Vols take the field Labor Day night in Atlanta – and the junior signal caller may not relinquish the role.

Dormady has the arm and the athleticism, and should have the protection and solid receivers to throw to. What’s not to like about this situation?

He will have talent around him that could create a passing attack on par with Missouri’s, with Jauan Jennings and Brandon Johnson securing the X-wide receiver spot, Marquez Callaway and Jeff George making up the two-deep for the Z-wide spot, and Tyler Byrd and Josh Smith in the slot.

A trio of freshmen has arrived this summer in Jordan Murphy, Josh Palmer and Jacquez Jones.

Dormady will also have a security blanket in senior tight end Ethan Wolf, who will once again be a presence in the passing game and as a blocker.

Dormady’s arm can make a thin running back unit better by causing defenses to defend the pass more, opening up more opportunities on the ground.

3. The receivers step up: There’s no Josh Malone this season for Tennessee, but that’s okay if the receivers who were behind Malone step up – and Malone thinks they can.

“With the entire wide receiver room, I expect them to step up,” Malone told Saturday Down South. “They all know what they are doing, and most them have been there at least a year. The freshmen that came in last year just need to go out and play how they are supposed to play.”

If the players who have been in the program all step up, the passing game game can be much better.

It is realistic for Tennessee to improve on its passing yards per game from last season (234.08, 5th SEC) and passing touchdowns (27, T-first SEC).

4. Lock Down U: The players are there in the secondary, and now a new coach is there to oversee them. Charlton Warren is in and Willie Martinez is out as defensive backs coach, part of a staff overhaul by Jones.

Rashaan Gaulden and Baylen Buchanan will hold down the nickel corner position. Graduate-transfer Shaq Wiggins will join Emmanuel Moseley, Justin Martin and Marquil Osbourne at corner back.

Todd Kelly Jr., Nigel Warrior, Micah Abernathy and Evan Berry will make up the safety position.

There is plenty of experience to match Bob Shoop’s second-year direction. This can be a secondary that opponents will have a hard time moving the chains against through the air.

5. Strength and conditioning paying off: Injuries that occurred last season had to be addressed. Twenty-two injuries down the stretch could not go unnoticed, and Jones made the change to bring in long-time friend Rock Gullickson from the NFL to oversee the conditioning program.

All of the players of Team 121 have spoken highly of Gullickson during media sessions. And as for the players themselves, they have passed the eye test this spring.

Benefits from progress under Gullickson can lead to production on both lines — causing havoc in the opposing backfield and dominating the line offensively to provide protection and running lanes.

Nightmare scenarios

1. Quarterback play doesn’t pan out: The ultimate disaster to the 2017 season for Tennessee will occur if the quarterback situation does not pan out.

How will Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano react? That is the biggest question when the first game kicks off in Atlanta against Georgia Tech.

If Dormady or Guarantano do not perform at a high level, the season could turn south.

2. Injuries in the backfield: Without question, John Kelly is the leader in the backfield this season – and rightfully so. He’s earned it after stepping in and stepping up when Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara were not available at times last season.

But what happens if Kelly does not make it through a grueling season and a trio of freshman running backs do not produce enough to field a stable running attack? That is why it’s critical for Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan and Trey Coleman to provide enough depth to not only produce on the field, but also to give Kelly enough support to sustain his body for a long regular season. The same goes for sophomore Carlin fils-Aime to get better in his second season.

3. No presence in the middle: On defense, especially in the SEC, linebacker play is a necessity to keep the opposition’s running game in check.

The question remains if Tennessee has enough horses to field a linebacker unit deep enough to contain opponents’ ground games.

Darrin Kirkland Jr. has quickly become a leader of the linebacker unit. But he will need Daniel Bituli and Colton Jumper to provide reliable depth behind him at strong-side linebacker.

Senior Cortez McDowell had a good spring and needs to bring his three-year experience and lead the weak-side linebacker position. Quart’e Sapp and Elliott Berry will also need to play a role at the weak-side spot.

4. Losses on defensive line: Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen are big losses. It’s not the end of the world, but first-year defensive line coach Brady Hoke will need players to be productive.

Jonathan Kongbo has moved back to the outside, and UT coaches have raved about his offseason work. Kongbo will need to back it up on the field and will need Darrell Taylor, Kyle Phillips and Deandre Johnson to do the same at defensive end.

On the inside, it’s a wait-and-see approach if Khalil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle can both go through the season healthy. Regardless, Quay Picou and Kendal Vickers are there and will need to provide a presence at defensive tackle.

5. Kicking game struggles: The Vols need senior Aaron Medley to have a clutch season. Can he finally break through and have a complete season of being reliable? The leg strength is there, but the consistency still is not.

Medley has converted 71.2 percent of his career field goal attempts and has  97 touchbacks on kickoffs as a three-year starter. His career-long field goal is 47 yards, but his accuracy is still in question — especially on pressure, game-swinging kicks.

With the game on the line, like it was at Florida in 2015 and at South Carolina last year, Medley must reverse the outcome.