KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee heads into the season as the likely Southeastern Conference Eastern Division favorite thanks in part to a defense loaded with experience.
Whether the Volunteers earn that first division title since 2007 depends on how much that defense has learned from last year's experience.
Tennessee went 9-4 last season, but led in each of its losses. In three of those defeats, Tennessee was in front by at least 13 points.
Those blown leads prevented a good season from becoming great. No wonder finishing has been a point of emphasis throughout Tennessee's offseason.
''I would say it's kind of a little motivation because we know we're right there,'' senior cornerback Cam Sutton said. ''We've just got to get over the hump.''
Sutton, entering his fourth year as a starter, exemplifies the tested nature of Tennessee's defense. The Vols return five of their top six tacklers from last season. The only defensive starters from last season's Outback Bowl blowout of Northwestern who departed are tackle Owen Williams and safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil. The defense's most notable newcomer is coordinator Bob Shoop, who previously held the same positions at Vanderbilt and Penn State.
Tennessee's defense boasts so much experience that players occasionally help each other on the practice field or playing field by referring to situations they encountered together in games that may have taken place years before.
''It helps our communication a lot more,'' said senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who joins Sutton as one of four team captains. ''Sometimes it gets hard to describe things that happen, and we usually relate it to something we've seen in the past. We've been on the same page for so long, it makes it that much easier.''
Reeves-Maybin doesn't mention numbers when discussing his goals for this defense because he wants to avoid placing a ceiling on this group's potential.
''I don't want to put any expectations or limitations on what we can do,'' said Reeves-Maybin, who will have earned his degree by the time he begins his senior season. ''I know we can be the best team in the country. I just want to be the best team in the country, the best defense in the country. I want us to have each other's backs and play like I know we can play every week.''
That means delivering a knockout blow when it has an opponent on the ropes.
Tennessee lost in overtime to Oklahoma last year after leading 17-0 in the first half and 17-3 with 9 minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Vols led 27-14 with 5 minutes left in a 28-27 loss at Florida. They had an early 14-0 lead in a 24-20 setback to Arkansas, and allowed the winning touchdown with 2:24 left in a 19-14 road loss to eventual national champion Alabama.
Sutton notes that the Vols didn't let those blown leads define their season; they ended the year on a six-game winning streak. They have the pieces in place to respond better in tight situations this fall.
Derek Barnett is back at defensive end after getting 10 sacks each of the last two seasons. The linebacker corps features a rising star in Darrin Kirkland Jr., who won a starting spot and ranked fourth on the team in tackles as a true freshman last fall.
But the success of this defense could ultimately rest on the leadership skills of Sutton and Reeves-Maybin, who have combined for 64 career starts. They lived through the pain of going 5-7 and getting left out of a bowl as freshmen. They passed up the opportunity to enter the NFL draft to take one last shot at an SEC championship.
Now they want to prove this defense can finish off games against top-level competition while producing an ideal finish to their college careers.
''Adversity hit my class and the rest of the guys pretty early,'' Sutton said. ''Over the years, we were able to progress and get better. Finally to get what we've been working for since we got here... to finally finish it off, complete it and get it done, that would be something special.''
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