KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee believes it's on the way to recapturing its former status as an perennial Southeastern Conference contender.
There's no shortcuts in the SEC and the Volunteers still have far to go.
This year's Tennessee team has more playmakers than the squad that went 5-7 in Butch Jones' debut season last fall, but it's much less experienced. The Vols also are facing a brutal schedule that includes trips to Oklahoma, Georgia, Ole Miss and South Carolina plus home games with Florida, Alabama and Missouri.
That could make it difficult for Tennessee to end a string of four straight losing seasons.
"The culture is in place and the language is in place, but there is still more to earning that right to win," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "It's not just hoping to win, but it's earning that right to win in your approach, team chemistry, leadership, your toughness or mental conditioning. It's players stepping up and making big-time plays."
Jones has stabilized Tennessee's program since his arrival last season. The Vols say it's only a matter of time before those efforts are rewarded. The first step is to earn a bowl bid, something that's eluded Tennessee since a 2010 Music City Bowl appearance.
"That's one of our main goals for our team - win a bowl game, not just get there," junior safety Brian Randolph said.
Whether the Vols take that step this year likely depends on how quickly their 32 newcomers adjust to SEC football. Tennessee is relying heavily on a jumbo-sized recruiting class that was ranked among the top five in the nation by multiple services.
"This team's got a bright future," said running back Jalen Hurd, one of the most highly touted recruits in Tennessee's freshman class. "We're working really hard. I think we're going to do well."
Here are five things to watch about Tennessee:
QUARTERBACK COMPETITION: Tennessee still hasn't decided on a starting quarterback among senior Justin Worley and sophomores Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman. Worley stared seven games, Dobbs made four starts and Peterman had one start last year. Tennessee needs more production from the quarterback position, as the three contenders combined for 16 interceptions and 12 touchdown passes last season.
YOUNG LINES: Tennessee is the only Football Bowl Subdivision team that has no returning starters on both the offensive and defensive lines. Nobody on either line started more than three games last season. The situation is particularly concerning at offensive tackle. The likely starting right tackle is freshman Coleman Thomas. Jacob Gilliam, a former walk-on who was just put on scholarship this summer, is competing with junior-college transfer Dontavius Blair at left tackle.
SPEED OVER SIZE: On defense, Tennessee is counting on its improved speed to make up for its diminished size as the Vols replace 361-pound tackle and sixth-round draft pick Daniel McCullers. Tennessee boosted its speed on defense with a variety of position switches that included moving Curt Maggitt from linebacker to end, shifting Jordan Williams from end to tackle and moving Devaun Swafford from nickelback to safety. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who alternated between linebacker and safety last year, is now a full-time linebacker.
KICKING CONCERNS: Jones has said the most valuable player of Tennessee's 2013 team was Michael Palardy, who kicked field goals, punted and handled kickoff duties for the Vols. Now that Palardy's completed his eligibility, the Vols must find new players to fill all those roles. Tennessee also must find a new long snapper and holder. Freshman Aaron Medley is competing with George Bullock and Derrick Brodus for the kicking job. Matt Darr appears to have the edge at punter.
DEMANDING SCHEDULE: After opening the season with home games against Utah State and Arkansas State - two teams that won bowl games last year - Tennessee has consecutive matchups with Oklahoma, Georgia and Florida. Later in the season, Tennessee faces Ole Miss, Alabama and South Carolina in consecutive weeks.
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