Chris Stephens

Can Tennessee Move In The Right Direction In The SEC?

Aug 30, 2014 5:54 AM EST

The last six seasons have been none too kind to the Tennessee Volunteers.

With an overall record of 33-41 and an SEC record of 14-34, the Volunteers have struggled ever since Phillip Fulmer left Knoxville.

Second-year head coach Butch Jones has confidence in his bunch, believing that his team is ready to turn the corner in 2014. But every head coach is supposed to say that. So let's look at reality and see if the Volunteers are truly moving in the right direction.

The biggest thing to look at is the fact that Tennessee is the only team in the Football Bowl Subdivision that is not returning a starter on the offensive or defensive lines. That is a big deal.

While quarterback Justin Worley returns, that's not saying much since the Vols ranked in the bottom third of the SEC in scoring last  season, averaging 23.8 points per game.

The running game shouldn't see much of a dropoff, even with Raijon Neal gone. Marlin Lane should easily slide into the starting role while five-star running back Jalen Hurd could come in and make an immediate impact as a freshman.

The receiving corps looks a little stronger with five-star receiver Josh Malone in addition to Alton "Pig" Howard and Marquez North. But the issue is going to be on the offensive line and if it can give Worley enough time in the pocket to make his throws.

Defensively, the Volunteers have a decent linebacking corps led by A.J. Johnson. The secondary returns its starters from 2013, but outside of safety Brian Randolph, none were huge difference-makers.

When looking at the defense, there is a lot of youth, both starting and at major backup positions. There are 13 freshmen and sophomores in starting or backup roles. That might be good for 2015 and beyond, but it doesn't bode well for Tennessee in 2014.

Then there's the schedule the Volunteers will play. They travel to Oklahoma and Georgia in weeks three and four while having to travel to a humbled South Carolina on Nov. 1. Throw in the fact that their crossover games are against Alabama and Ole Miss, and you don't like the Vols' chances.

Jones has Tennessee moving in the right direction, but that isn't going to make a difference in 2014. The young players are going to learn the hard way this season, but it will only serve to benefit them in 2015 and beyond.