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100 Days to Kickoff: 2017 Opponent Previews - Tennessee Volunteers

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After an exodus of talent to the NFL, how will Tennessee respond to a disappointing 2016 season?

Tennessee v Georgia Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Countdown to Kickoff: 35 days

As our 100 Days to Kickoff continues on, we begin our opponent previews to provide a quick look at each of the teams coming up on our schedule this season. Each team has changed and provides new challenges than in years past, so this week is all about learning about those changes and learning exactly what Georgia Tech’s opponents have to offer.

2017 Tennessee Volunteers

Who’s Gone?

Tennessee lost six players to the 2017 NFL Draft, the most for UT since 2010. Replacing that talent is the biggest challenge for the Vols heading into the 2017 season.

DE Derek Barnett was selected 14th overall by the Philadelphia Eagles after leaving Tennessee as the school’s all-time sacks leader, passing College and Pro Football Hall of Famer Reggie White.

Alvin Kamara, Cam Sutton, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Josh Malone were all selected in the third and fourth rounds. Kamara and Malone have capable players ready to step in this season, while Sutton and Reeves-Maybin leave behind a few more question marks on the defensive side of the ball.

Though he was the last of Tennessee’s six picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, QB Joshua Dobbs is the most critical loss for the Vols. Dobbs anchored Tennessee’s offense from the latter part of the 2014 season through 2016 and amassed career totals of over 7,000 passing yards, more than 2,000 rushing yards and 87 total touchdowns.

Who’s Back?

Even with the loss of the aforementioned players, Tennessee still has plenty of talent on the roster.

RB John Kelly will be the Vols’ feature back in 2017, after seeing his role expand last season following Jalen Hurd’s mid-season departure. Kelly rushed 98 times for 630 yards and five touchdowns in 2016. His 6.4 yards per carry - though he did not officially have the 10 carries per game to qualify - would have ranked 20th in the country, ahead of backs like Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey.

Also on the offensive side of the ball, Tennessee returns WR Jauan Jennings, whom you may remember for his heroics in the Vols’ last-second comeback win against Georgia. Jennings tallied 580 yards and seven touchdown on 40 receptions last year - and a passing touchdown and interception for good measure. But he is now the clear number one option for whoever ends up winning Tennessee’s quarterback battle, meaning those numbers will only go up.

On defense, Tennessee returns a handful of starters, including junior LB Darrin Kirkland Jr. and senior SS Todd Kelly Jr. The Vols will be relying on younger and less experienced guys on defense, so the leadership of those guys in addition to senior DT Kendal Vickers will be critical to Tennessee’s success.

Who’s New?

Tennessee adds a solid 2017 recruiting class, but the most important newcomer for the Vols comes in the way of a graduate transfer - former Louisville CB Shaq Wiggins. Wiggins will be a huge addition to the Tennessee secondary, adding experience at the safety position alongside Todd Kelly Jr.

In terms of freshmen, UT has several first-year players who could see a bit of time on the field this season. OL Trey Smith enrolled during the spring after being the #1 ranked player in the 2017 class by ESPN and a consensus 5-star. He will most likely start on Tennessee’s offensive line, though just where has yet to be determined.

RB Ty Chandler comes in as a U.S. Army All-American, and Tennessee needs one of its young backs to fill in behind John Kelly.

Tennessee also had a rash of injuries along the defensive front in 2016, so DT Eric Crosby might be a good bet to see some action if that lack of depth persists.

Season Outlook

Tennessee is a difficult team to predict. It has been well-documented how the Vols began last season 5-0 only to stumble to an 8-4 regular season finish before beating Nebraska in the Music City Bowl.

While the talent Tennessee lost is obvious, the Vols have good players ready to step up.

Where I truly believe Tennessee’s 2017 will be won or lost is on the sideline. Butch Jones appears to be taking a more hands-off approach this season, with the hiring of new position coaches Brady Hoke, Mike Canales, Walt Wells and the promotion of Larry Scott to offensive coordinator.

If Jones can be a team manager and allow his assistants - who seem to be drawing rave reviews and several of whom have head coaching experience - to deal with the X’s and O’s, I think Tennessee could put a good product on the field this season.

Projected Record: 9-3 (5-3 SEC)