Normally, seventeen returning starters is a pretty solid number for any team on a 26-man team (counting the specialists, as the Tennessee official numbers do). The problem that the Volunteers have this year is that the half of the team that was pretty good last year isn't where most of returning starters can be found, and those players that will come back for the 2013 season were on the half of the team that arguably got Derek Dooley fired.
Only five starters return to the offense that churned out 5,711 yards and 434 points last season. Four of those are offensive linemen -- which is nice, but a lot nicer if at least a few of the skill players return -- and the other is Rajion Neal. (Marlin Lane is not listed as a returning starter in Tennessee's spring guide, but is still listed as a returning letterman.) The intriguing possibility that raises is that Tennessee's defense could improve enough to pass the regressing Tennessee offense -- or that if the offense puts it together quickly, that the Vols could surprise to the upside.
BIGGEST RETURN | LB A.J. Johnson
As you might imagine with all the offensive losses, the most important player who comes back is likely on the defensive side of the ball. Johnson was one of the best linebackers in the SEC last season -- and Tennessee is hoping he can be even better this year. That might be difficult from a purely statistical standpoint -- Johnson had 138 tackles, 8.5 of those for losses, in 2012. (He also rushed for six touchdowns on offense, but that's neither here nor there right now.) But Johnson had a single sack, and will end up in the important middle linebacker position as the Vols transition back to the 4-3 defense. If Tennessee is going to improve significantly on the defensive side of the ball -- and they will have to in order to have a successful season -- then Johnson will be a big part of that.
BIGGEST LOSS | The passing game
I can't recall the last time an offense in the SEC was so thoroughly decimated in one season -- though Arkansas comes close over the last two. The top four wide receivers and the only quarterback who attempted more than 23 passes in 2012 are gone. That's not a small matter for a team that got nearly two thirds of its offense in 2012 through the air. Justin Worley, who had the second-most pass attempts last season behind Tyler Bray, threw for fewer yards per completion than the top four receivers had yards per catch. With those sorts of numbers, it's hard to isolate which loss will hurt Tennessee the most this year. In fact, you could make the argument that the Vols' offense could have moved forward if one or even two of these players had left -- but with all five gone, it's going to be almost impossible to not skip a beat.
BREAKTHROUGH POSSIBILITY | RB Rajion Neal
There are two things that have conspired to increase Neal's potential to be the biggest turnaround on the field for Tennessee this season. The first is the disappearance of the passing game, and the likelihood that the coaching staff is going to feel more comfortable leaning on the running game, at least for the first few weeks of the season. The second is that Neal might get more carries given the still-unsure footing of Marlin Lane with the coaching staff, though Lane appears to be on the road to getting back in Butch Jones' good graces. Lane had better numbers last year on average -- he gained an average of a yard more per carry -- but the question is whether he can regain the coaches' trust. And if he can't, Neal could end up as the man for the Vols' offense.