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Tennessee Volunteers preview

Tennessee is hoping for a big season from quarterback Joshua Dobbs. AP Photo/Richard Shiro

The Volunteers return 18 starters from the program’s first winning season since 2009, and Butch Jones is coming off back-to-back top-five recruiting classes. The expectations are easily the highest they’ve been on Rocky Top in a decade—but September tilts with Oklahoma and Florida could bring hopes down in a hurry.

Offense

How the Vols beat you: Joshua Dobbs added a new dimension to the Vols’ zone-read system in ’14 when he replaced Justin Worley at QB after seven games. Opponents had to respect his athleticism (469 rush yards, 8 TDs), which spread the field and kick-started the offense: With Dobbs, UT scored 34.2 ppg and gained 423.5 ypg compared with 24.4 ppg and 325.1 ypg with Worley. New O-coordinator Mike DeBord, a former Chicago Bears assistant, was even more impressed by Dobbs’ development this spring. “He’s a sponge,” DeBord says. The return of RB Jalen Hurd (1,120 all-purpose yards as a true frosh) and juco RB Alvin Kamara (formerly at Alabama) should make the Vols more dangerous on the ground (146.4 ypg, second fewest in the SEC).

How you beat the Vols: Dobbs is at his best on the move but must develop in the pocket, especially with WRs Pig Howard (54 catches, 618 yards), Marquez North (30 catches, 4 TDs in 10 games) and Josh Malone returning. “For us to be successful, he has to play with great consistency, day in and day out,” Jones says. A big part of Dobbs’ progression depends on his line’s improvement. The Vols allowed an SEC-high 43 sacks in ’14. If Dobbs doesn’t get time to make reads, it won’t matter how many playmakers are around him.

Defense

How the Vols beat you: UT returns two of the most productive sack artists in the SEC last season in soph DE Derek Barnett and senior LB Curt Maggitt, who combined for 21 sacks, more than any returning tandem. Maggitt, versatile enough to line up at multiple spots on the front seven, and Barnett, who had 18 TFL in SEC games as a true frosh (six more than anybody else in the league), are a major reason the Vols had the No. 22 pass D in the FBS (196.2 ypg). “The best thing about [Barnett] is that he’s nowhere near as good as he’s going to be,” says Jones, who is also bringing in heralded prep reinforcements in Kahlil McKenzie (ESPN 300 No. 5 DT; Concord, California) and Shy Tuttle (No. 7 DT; Lexington, North Carolina).

How you beat the Vols: Despite significant upgrades on the line, the Vols lost two key front seven cogs in DT Jordan Williams and LB A.J. Johnson (9 TFL), which doesn’t bode well for the SEC’s No. 9 run D last season (168.4 ypg). In fact, in conference games, UT allowed 181.6 rush ypg. But more important, the Vols must find a way to keep teams out of the red zone— opponents converted 67.6 percent of drives inside the 20 (No. 108 in the FBS) and allowed 24.2 ppg, a respectable 35th in the FBS but ninth in the defensive-minded SEC.