THREE THINGS WE KNOW
1. Who everybody is.
It's not just about continuity in the coaching staff, though that is a big thing for the program as a whole. The starting lineup is littered with familiar faces from last year. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the point is to highlight the positions where there are the fewest returning starters. The Vols lost their top two wide receivers from last year, but stepping in their places are Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers, guys who saw action in 13 and 11 games last year, respectively. The defensive line has only one returning starter in Malik Jackson, but new starters Jacques Smith and Corey Miller appeared in every game last year. Smith particularly had an impact with a pair of sacks and five tackles for loss. For the first time in a few years, Tennessee should look fairly familiar this fall.
2. The O-line should be better.
If you're planning out a season, you do not want your offensive line learning its third different blocking scheme in three years. You definitely don't want to have to replace all five starters and have just three starts combined among the new replacements. That's what Tennessee had to deal with last year, though, and it definitely showed. Adjusted for sacks, Tennessee averaged 131.46 rushing yards per game, which was about 27 yards behind 11th place Georgia in the conference. Speaking of sacks, Tennessee quarterbacks were sacked a remarkable 41 times, six more than 11th place Vanderbilt (though in one more game than the Commodores played in). The unit returns four starters this year, and it has nowhere to go but up. That means good things for Tauren Poole, who rushed for over 1,000 yards on the season and hit the century mark six times anyway last year.
3. This is Tyler Bray's team now.
Bray came in as a heralded recruit from California, representing the future of the program. He was supposed to sit behind the older Matt Simms and learn for a while, but like his older brother at Texas, Simms couldn't hold on to the starting job. Bray beat out Simms midway through the season, compiling a more-than-respectable 142.7 passing efficiency score on the year. He never posted a mark below 134 in the games he started, which is outstanding for a freshman. He'll need to get his completion percentage up and interception rate down, but that should come with experience. There's no doubt he's the man at the most important position on the field, and he'll need to grow into a leader for Tennessee to maximize its potential.
THREE THINGS WE DON'T KNOW
1. What to expect at linebacker.
Tennessee lost two of its three starting linebackers from last season, including the unlikely leader of the group in the undersized former walk on Nick Reveiz. Herman Lathers is the one guy back from last year, and he was supposed to anchor the unit. Unfortunately, he missed spring with a shoulder injury and recently fractured his ankle. He won't be ready for the beginning of the season, meaning the Vols essentially will have three question marks backing up the D-line to start the season. Perhaps the best way to highlight that fact is to point out the the guy in line to start at middle linebacker, Austin Johnson, was a fullback as recently as 2009. The Vols have to hope Lathers can get healthy sooner than later, and they might end up playing a true freshman or two in the rotation.
2. What to expect from the whole defense, actually.
When Derek Dooley hired Justin Wilcox from Boise State to run Tennessee's defense, it raised some eyebrows. It made sense that Dooley would think of him, as BSU's defense dominated the WAC in the years that Dooley was at Louisiana Tech. The defense was pretty middle-of-the-road in Wilcox's first year. Name a defensive stat, and UT was no better than sixth in conference play except for passing efficiency defense and red zone score percentage. With a young defensive line and the aforementioned issues at linebacker, it might be tough for Tennessee's defense to be above average even if Wilcox is a genius. That's especially true if Janzen Jackson doesn't make it back to campus for this fall. If Tennessee can noticeably improve over last year, Wilcox will have earned every last dollar of his paycheck.
3. How they'll handle adversity again.
Last year was not an easy year for the Vols. They came into the season short handed, were 2-6 through October (with the wins coming against UT-Martin and in overtime over UAB), and lost to every bowl team they faced except Kentucky. They also had to deal with a crazy ending to the LSU game (their fault) and the bowl versus North Carolina (not their fault). Hope invariably springs forth in September, but a 3-5 start is not to difficult to imagine. Getting Arkansas instead of Ole Miss in November hurts, and they could easily be in the same place as last year needing wins over Vandy and Kentucky just to get bowl eligible. It's one thing for Tennessee to go through that once. Can they deal with it twice in a row? Can they make another November rebound? Will the fans remain patient with Dooley? The program is almost certainly going to face these questions, and I'll be interested to see how they're answered.