KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee coach Butch Jones realizes that returning a storied Volunteers program to Southeastern Conference contention is going to be a gradual process.
Jones is trying to rebuild a program that has posted three straight losing seasons, the first time that's happened at Tennessee since 1909-11. An unforgiving early-season schedule will make it tough to end that streak. Five of Tennessee's first eight games are against teams ranked ninth or higher in last year's final Top 25.
"This team will be defined by how we handle adversity, how resilient we are," Jones said. "As we know, the schedule is a great challenge. I know you guys get tired of hearing me say it, but it's all process oriented. Everything in this football program is process oriented."
Tennessee's offense lacks proven skill-position players. The defense is trying to bounce back from a season in which it allowed the most points (35.7) and yards (471.4) per game of any SEC team.
But the Volunteers believe they can turn things around after winning just one SEC game each of the last two years.
The defense expects to benefit from a return to a 4-3 alignment after a disastrous experiment with the 3-4 last season. The offense should get a boost from a veteran line that ranks among the nation's best and features potential first-round draft pick Antonio "Tiny" Richardson at left tackle.
Tennessee's players also say the new coaching staff has instilled a new attitude that should help them respond better in close games. The Vols were ahead or tied in the second half of three losses last season and were within three points in the fourth quarter of two other losses.
"We really fixed our focus," senior center James Stone said. "I feel like we have a lot more attention to detail. I feel like guys are starting to understand that you have to hold each other accountable on the field and off the field as well. I've seen that. I feel like the team has grown together. We're a closer team."
Now they want to prove they're closer to competing for bowl bids again.
Five things to watch in Jones' first year at Tennessee:
1. WHO'S PASSING AND CATCHING?: The star power disappeared from Tennessee's passing game when quarterback Tyler Bray, first-round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson and second-round choice Justin Hunter all bypassed their senior seasons. The Vols also must replace tight end Mychal Rivera and receiver Zach Rogers, who had a team-high seven touchdown catches last year. The Vols don't have any wideouts who caught more than 13 passes or accumulated more than 149 receiving yards last season.
2. LINE STRENGTH: Tennessee returns four starters from an offensive line that allowed only eight sacks last season. North Texas and Middle Tennessee were the only Football Bowl Subdivision programs that yielded fewer sacks. Richardson, a junior left tackle, is regarded as a potential first-round draft pick. The line also features at least three senior starters in Stone, guard Zach Fulton and right tackle Ja'Wuan James. Fifth-year senior Alex Bullard and junior Marcus Jackson, who both have starting experience, are competing to replace third-round draft pick Dallas Thomas at one guard spot.
3. DEFENSIVE SOLUTIONS: Last year, the Vols allowed the most points per game of any Tennessee team since 1893. They also gave up the most yards per game of any Tennessee team since at least 1950, the earliest year the school's sports information department has that statistic on file. The Vols insist things will be different this year. They welcome the return to a 4-3 scheme and say they're using last season's struggles as motivation. The return of free safety Brian Randolph from a torn anterior cruciate ligament should help.
4. JOHNSON'S LEADERSHIP: Linebacker A.J. Johnson returns for his junior season after making 138 tackles last season and ranking fourth among all FBS players with 11.5 tackles per game. Jones wants Johnson to develop into more of a leader this season and has pointed out that the Mike linebacker should be the "alpha male" of the defense.
5. SCARY SCHEDULE: By the time November rolls around, Tennessee already will have faced Oregon, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and defending national champion Alabama. The Vols travel to Oregon and Florida on consecutive September weekends.
Predicted order of finish: Sixth in seven-team in SEC East.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/