Tennessee believes it's ready to make major step forward
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) This is the season Tennessee has been pointing to for years.
Tennessee's revival started with the arrival of consecutive top-five recruiting classes in 2014 and 2015 that restocked the Volunteers' talent base. Tennessee ended a string of four straight losing seasons in 2014 and finished last season with a six-game winning streak and a Top 25 ranking.
The next step is to compete for a Southeastern Conference title and playoff berth. SEC media have picked Tennessee to win its first Eastern Division title since 2007.
''We want expectations high,'' Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. ''That's why you come to the University of Tennessee. That's why you coach here. To me, it's a compliment of your program, no more, no less. Now it's what you do with it.''
The Vols believe they can meet those expectations if they do a better job of protecting leads. Tennessee led in each of its four losses last season and was ahead by at least 13 points in three of them.
Only five starters from last season's 45-6 Outback Bowl blowout of Northwestern aren't back this year. Depth and experience could help Tennessee produce better in close games this season.
''You've just got to go into those situations with confidence, knowing that you're going to make a play, knowing your teammates got your back,'' linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. ''That's what we started getting toward the end of last year. We played with a lot more confidence at the end of those games.''
Perhaps the biggest challenge is to avoid getting consumed by the preseason hype.
''Honestly, all of that's just outside noise,'' defensive end Corey Vereen said. ''All we're focused on is bringing it to work every single day.''
Here are some things to watch this year:
RUNNING WILD: Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara and quarterback Joshua Dobbs return after combining to rush for 2,657 yards and 30 touchdowns last season. Hurd enters his junior season with 2,187 career yards rushing. He's well within reach of the school record held by Travis Henry, who rushed for 3,078 yards from 1997-2000.
SPECIAL-TEAMS SKILLS: Tennessee had the nation's leading kickoff returner (Evan Berry) and punt returner (Cam Sutton) last season. Both are back this year. Tennessee scored a combined six touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns last season. Tennessee also returns its kicker (Aaron Medley) and punter (Trevor Daniel) from a year ago.
NEW COORDINATOR: Bob Shoop takes over as defensive coordinator after previously filling the same role at Vanderbilt and Penn State. Shoop, a Yale alum and former Columbia head coach, said he wants to establish an ''in-your-face defense that's built on relentless pursuit and never-ending pressure.'' Vereen noted that Shoop is ''not real high on the swag-meter'' but added that the new coordinator has made a major impact with his philosophy that ''how we're going to be as a defense is going to look better than whatever you have drawn up on paper.''
PASSING CONCERNS; Tennessee must upgrade a passing game that struggled with consistency. Dobbs completed 59.6 percent of his passes last season, down from 63.3 in 2014. Tennessee doesn't return anyone who had more than 405 yards receiving last season.
FRONTLOADED SCHEDULE: Tennessee hosts Florida, visits Georgia and Texas A&M and hosts defending national champion Alabama on four consecutive weekends between Sept. 24 and Oct. 15. But the schedule gets much easier from there. Tennessee's final five opponents (South Carolina, Tennessee Tech, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt) had losing records last season.
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