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SEC Football Preview 2014: Can Tennessee Overcome the Loss of Its Lines?

There's not a ton of experience returning to Knoxville this year, and the location of the losses makes things even worse

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

There are plenty of questions about Tennessee's roster this season. The quarterback position is unsettled, the Volunteers lose their top rushers from 2013, and while six of Tennessee's top seven tacklers return, the next seven tacklers won't be back in 2014. Butch Jones is starting to get some top-grade talent into Knoxville, but it's going to take some time and perhaps a few lumps for that talent to show all its potential.

That lack of experience is really the biggest ding on Tennessee right now. Counting the loss of three specialists, the Vols are down 15 starters from last year, including a half-dozen each on the offense and defense. Where those losses came from is even more significant. If the SEC is truly won in the trenches, then Tennessee's chances might be even worse than you think.

BIGGEST RETURN | LB A.J. Johnson
For a team that is losing its entire starting offensive line -- more on that in a moment -- experience and leadership from the linebacking corps is about the most that the front seven could have going for it. Enter Johnson, who lead the team in 2013 with 106 tackles -- the next-highest Vol had 75 -- and 8.5 tackles for loss. Johnson was one of two Tennessee players to make the All-SEC preseason team, and the only one to grab first-team honors. He's going to have to play well for the Volunteers' defense to have any chance, particularly early in the season.

BIGGEST LOSS | The lines
It's hard to select any one player when literally every starter from last year's offensive and defensive lines is gone. Mitigating that a bit is that Tennessee wasn't exactly stacked with top-flight producers on those units; only two of the departing players, both offensive lineman, made the AP postseason All-SEC team in 2013. The offensive line was actually great at keeping the quarterback upright at a solid clip. But it was only mediocre when it came to clearing the way for running backs. Meanwhile, the defensive line had some serious issues; opponents ran for 5.3 yards a carry on the Vols, and Tennessee's 18 sacks were dead last in the SEC. Still, particularly on the offensive line, it's better to have some experience than none, and the learning curve for linemen in the SEC is pretty steep.

BREAKTHROUGH POSSIBILITY | WR Marquez North
Yeah, this is not exactly a unique thought. But if the eventual Tennessee starting quarterback (probably Justin Worley) can get some time to make throws, North is a good target. The sophomore caught 38 passes for 496 yards and a touchdown in his true freshman season; 19 of those catches and 315 of those yards came in his last four full games before an injury against Vanderbilt essentially ended his season. Particularly with running back Rajion Neal gone, North is likely key to whatever offensive success Tennessee is going to have in 2014.