September 01, 2015

While the offensive and defensive lines may not be settled, all the other pieces appear to be in place for Tennessee to finally rejoin the elite of the Southeastern Conference.

The 25th-ranked Volunteers begin a season of high expectations Saturday when they face Bowling Green in Nashville.

Tennessee has yet to name its starting defensive tackles, center and right tackle spots, and the offensive line is a concern considering the Vols allowed an SEC-worst 43 sacks last season. Additionally, starting guard Marcus Jackson is likely out for the season with a biceps injury.

''Our offensive line has really worked hard,'' coach Butch Jones said. ''They've made great, great progress, tremendous strides moving forward. It's a great, great situation that we have right now, that we still have individuals battling it out, and they'll continue to battle it out. I look at us having eight, nine starters.''

While the interior of the defense is in flux, the edge will be places opposing offenses avoid as Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt return.

After sitting out the 2013 season to recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Maggitt bounced back last year to post 11 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. Barnett had 10 sacks and 20 1/2 tackles for losses, setting Tennessee freshman records in both categories.

According to STATS LLC, Tennessee is the first FBS team to return two players who produced double-digit sack totals the previous year since the 2013 Arizona State squad brought back Will Sutton and Carl Bradford. Sutton had 13 sacks and Bradford had 11 1/2 in 2012.

''We have big expectations as a D-line unit,'' said Maggitt, who alternates between end and linebacker. ''We want to lead the SEC in sacks.''

Quarterback is another area of strength as Joshua Dobbs prepares for his first full season under center. The junior stepped in for the injured Justin Worley last season and guided the Vols to a 4-1 mark in his five starts, including their TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Iowa. Dobbs finished with 1,206 passing yards and nine touchdowns while running for 469 yards with eight TDs.

Jones played 23 true freshmen last season, the most of any team in the FBS, but he's also relying on this year's highly rated class to make an immediate contribution, noting that ''just about everyone in our (freshman) class will play.'' Freshman Jauan Johnson likely will be a starting wide receiver after switching from quarterback upon his arrival in Knoxville, while fellow first-year wideout Preston Williams is available after missing all of camp waiting for an NCAA ruling on his eligibility.

That may be crucial considering Jason Croom, who had 305 receiving yards and four TDs in 2014, will miss this game after undergoing knee surgery last week. Still, the Vols have six other returnees who caught at least 20 passes last season.

Bowling Green was the coaches' preseason pick to win a third straight East Division title in the Mid-American Conference and returns all 11 starters from an up-tempo offense that averaged 30.0 points and 432.9 yards. The Falcons finished 8-6 after winning the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl in coach Dino Babers' first season. Quarterback Matt Johnson played only one game due to a broken hip but did throw for 3,467 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2013.

Johnson has plenty of targets - six returning players hauled in at least 27 passes for the Falcons - and Roger Lewis is looking to build on an impressive season in which he had freshman school records of 73 receptions and 1,093 yards. Senior tailback Travis Greene ran for 949 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing two contests due to injuries and forms a potent backfield tandem with Fred Coppet (764 yards, 6 TDs).

"I told the quarterbacks, I said, 'It's a racing car, and I want to hear the tires sing. When we go into a curve, they're supposed to sing - tires are supposed to make noise,'" Babers said. "That's not the time to get off the gas, that's the time to accelerate through the curve so we can come out and get going."

That fast-paced offense, though, exposed a porous defense which ranked 11th-worst in the FBS last season, allowing 493.6 yards per game along with an average of 33.5 points.

The Vols have won their last six season openers and the last 20 openers they've played in Tennessee. Bowling Green has lost its last seven games against ranked non-conference opponents since a 27-17 win at then-No. 25 Pittsburgh in 2008.

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