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College Football Preview 2023: 15. Tennessee Volunteers

Joe Milton, Tennessee

15. Tennessee Volunteers

Are the Vols back? How this team handles going from the "hunters" to the "hunted" will determine whether or not they are a sincere threat to Georgia in the East

2022 Review
Following a strong showing from Josh Heupel and his staff during the debut 2021 campaign, there was a buzz around Tennessee football entering last season. And, the Volunteers quickly proved that excitement was well warranted. After splattering Ball State at home to begin the year, a road trip to Pittsburgh gave the program an opportunity to prove themselves against a quality Power Five team. Hanging on to win 34-27 to beat the Panthers may not have seemed like a statement victory at the time, but it did feel like a turning point, setting the stage for a magical season. The Vols would go on to hang 63 on Akron and then overcame Florida in their annual rivalry game, going into a critical two-game stretch with LSU and Alabama undefeated. While past Tennessee teams have folded under the immense hype, the 2022 edition kept on chugging. They went into Baton Rouge and dominated the eventual SEC West Champion Tigers, then outlasted Alabama in one of the best games of the season. It was their first victory in the "Third Saturday in October" rivalry game since 2007. A few weeks later, they rode into Athens for a game against Georgia as the No. 2 team in the country, but the magic ended "Between the Hedges" in Sanford Stadium, 27-13. The Voluneers still had a shot at the College Football Playoff, but were upset two weeks later by South Carolina, losing star QB Hendon Hooker for the season. They ended up playing in the Orange Bowl against Clemson, but proved the season was no fluke by rolling past the Tigers, finishing 11-2. It was the type of year Vol fans have been waiting a decade-and-a-half for, but leaves them wanting even more. Expectations have been taken up another notch and the program is eager to prove last fall wasn't a flash in the pan, but the new norm in Knoxville.

2023 Outlook
Offense: Tennessee's offense rewrote record books last fall, scoring the most points (599) in a single-season in school history. It was the most fun offense to watch in college football, and one that never shied away from its competition. On the contrary, the Volunteers reached another gear in some of their most important games, dropping 40 against LSU, 52 against Alabama, and 44 against Kentucky.

The engine behind the offense was quarterback Hendon Hooker, a former Virginia Tech transfer who looked on his way to a Heisman Trophy before the late-season injury. He would finish with 3,135 yards and 32 total touchdowns, while throwing just two interceptions. Unfortunately, Hooker has exhausted his eligibility, meaning that there will be a new figure at the controls of Josh Heupel's offense.

Joe Milton, who began his career at Michigan and actually beat out Hooker for the starting job in early 2021, is expected to get the first crack at running the show. Milton has one of the strongest arms you'll ever find in the collegiate ranks, but has struggled with accuracy and decision-making. He doesn't have to be Hooker for this offense to succeed, but has to learn to reel in all that arm strength and play more in control. If he doesn't, Tennessee happens to have one of the most hyped recruits in program history waiting behind him in Nico Iamaleava, who may be the most talented signal-caller to put on a Tennessee uniform since Peyton Manning.

Fortunately for Milton, he has no shortage of weapons at his disposal. Although top receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman have moved on to the NFL, Bru McCoy proved that he could handle being a top option in the passing game, recording 667 yards on 52 receptions in 2022. He's had a strange career up to this point, but clearly has NFL talent and seems to have found the right fit here in Knoxville. He could be one of the top receivers in the SEC in 2023.

Veteran Ramel Keyton and rising sophomore Squirrel White are also back, and Tennessee added reinforcements in the form of Oregon transfer Dont'e Thornton. Keyton is more of your traditional boundary receiver, while White is a speedster who had a huge showing in the bowl and seems to be just scratching the surface of his potential. Meanwhile, Thornton is a big-bodied option who never seemed to get the targets he needed on the West Coast, but could reach another gear in this wide-open offense.

With how dominant the passing attack was throughout nearly all of 2022, it was easy to forget about this Tennessee ground game. However, tailbacks Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small formed a potent 1-2 punch that took advantage of the major gaps afforded to them by stretched-out defenses, both tallying 700-plus yards. Add in sophomore Dylan Sampson, who ran for 397 yards on his own, this is arguably the deepest running back room in the SEC.

The line is another component of the offense that often got overlooked last season, but is a crucial ingredient of this team's success. Losing Darnell Wright, who went in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft stings, but three starters are back to lead the way. Junior center Cooper Mays will anchor the unit in the middle, while Gerald Mincey and Javontez Spraggins offer proven commodities at both tackle and guard, respectively. Expect Texas transfer Andrej Karic to also slide into a starting role, although he just didn't get much of a chance to show what he could do in Austin.

Heupel has been known as an offensive savant for some time now, but with Tennessee he now has a staggering amount of talent at his disposal. The 2023 group might have a tough time replicating last season's success only because the bar was set so high, but this should remain one of the most explosive offenses in the country. Quarterback feels like the only potential problem area and all that position needs to do in this offense is get the ball out to these playmakers and let them do their thing.

Defense: Any defense is going to have a tough time when paired with this type of offense when you consider how long they have to be on the field. However, the 2022 group did about as well as you could ask, although the 63 points they allowed to South Carolina in the late-season upset likely provides an extra bit of motivation.

Third-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks will rely once again on an aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme that will give up the occasional big play - but force ample turnovers. It's very much a bend-not-break philosophy as the Volunteers allowed a reasonable 22.8 points per game in 2022, despite teams averaging over 400 yards against them.

Up front, the big news is the departure of end Byron Young, who was drafted in the third round of the NFL Draft. He led the team with seven sacks last fall and was their most consistent defender for most of the year. With LaTrell Bumphis, the end opposite of him, also moving on, the chief priority for Tennessee will be finding some new faces to pressure off the edge.

Arizona State transfer Omarr Norman-Lott was a quality addition over the offseason, while holdovers like Tyler Baron, Roman Harrison, and Joshua Josephs will be counted on heavily. Baron has proven to be an effective disruptor who can also make his presence felt in run support, but the lack of depth could be a concern as the season wears on.

The linebacker corps isn't as naturally talented as other position groups on the roster, but boasts a proven veteran in Aaron Beasley and also added a big-name newcomer in the form of Keenan Pili. Beasley, the team's middle linebacker, led the Vols in tackles and should be cleaning up early and often once again. He's also going to get into the backfield and make plays; he notched 10 TFL and nine quarterback hurries during the 2022 campaign. Pili was a longtime contributor at BYU who should be able to make the jump to SEC ball without too much difficulties. He spent the spring in Knoxville, which should be crucial in helping him acclimate to this system.

Although Tennessee's pass defense was leaky throughout most of last season, there's reason to believe it might actually be the strength of the unit this fall. They dealt with a barrage of injuries last season throughout the secondary, including losing starting corner Warren Burrell in September. That allowed youngsters on the roster to see important snaps and now, there's loads of experience.

Corners Kamal Hadden and Doneiko Slaughter are expected to run it back as the starters, after making 13 starts between them, although Burrell and former Alabama transfer Brandon Turnage will also feature in heavily. Burrell has made 22 starts throughout his UT career and appears to be healthy; he could be one of the team's leaders this season.

The rest of the secondary also appears locked in, with senior Jaylen McCullough manning the strong safety spot and hard-hitting Tamarion McDonald back at nickel. The only spot up in the air heading into fall camp is at free safety, where Trevon Flowers departs after a highly productive career in a Vols uniform.

I'd be surprised if Tennessee sees significant improvement in their defensive numbers this fall based purely on their style of play, but it's unfair to consider this is a weakness, either. There's plenty of pieces back at every level and if they can find identify some new pass rushers, there's reason to believe it can climb into consideration as one of the better defenses in the SEC.

Special Teams: The biggest question mark for Tennessee entering 2023 isn't quarterback, or defensive end, or even the overall pressure of replicating such a magical season. No, it's their special teams. They lose their kicker, punter, and kick returner, which can create some real concerns when so many SEC games are deciding on the margins. Landing Charles Campbell from Indiana to take over at kicker was a great start, as he brings a proven veteran, but both punter and return game remain serious problem areas to consider heading into the new season.

Bottom Line
When you're a proud program that has suffered through a decade-and-a-half of misery, it's easy for fans to push the narrative that you're "back" after one special season. Unfortunately, the path back to national relevance isn't always a linear one. Texas won a New Year's Six bowl under Tom Herman. Miami was in the National Title hunt deep into November under Mark Richt. Nebraska was at one point 9-0 under Mike Riley and thinking of Big Ten Titles. But, I don't believe 2022 was some flash in the pan for Heupel and company. There's been a complete attitude shift around the program and not just a belief that this team can once again compete for SEC Titles, but a system in place to get them there. Does that mean Tennessee is going to get as high as No. 2 in the AP Poll again in 2023? Maybe not, but without another serious threat inside the division at the moment, the Volunteers remain the greatest challengers to Georgia in the SEC East. The schedule sets up perfectly for them to once again hover near that 10-win plateau and give the Bulldogs reason to watch over their shoulders, especially when you consider that game will be at Neyland Stadium this fall.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Josh Heupel enters Year Three as the man in charge of Tennessee football, fresh off winning SEC Coach of the Year honors. The former Oklahoma quarterback won a National Title as a player under Bob Stoops and although he's still looking for the same hardware as a coach, he's done a superb job at Tennessee and UCF, with a 46-16 overall record. After offensive coordinator Alex Golesh left to take the South Florida job, Joey Halzle will take over as OC, while retaining his duties as QB coach. Halzle has followed Heupel through stops at Oklahoma, Utah State, UCF, and now Tennessee, serving as QB coach over the last two seasons. On defense, Tim Banks will be entering his third season as the team's defensive coordinator. Prior to this current role, Banks was co-DC and safeties coach at Penn State, overseeing a safety room that sent several Nittany Lions to the NFL.

Recruiting Breakdown
The Volunteers did a good job capitalizing on their on-field success by securing a Top 10 Class nationally. It's a group headlined by none other than Nico Iamaleava, one of the most hyped recruits to ever step foot on UT's campus. The 6'5", 195-pound gunslinger would be the top QB in just about any other class other than 2023, as he comes in just behind Arch Manning. He signed a massive NIL deal in March of 2022 that could earn him as much as eight million over three years. Iamaleava is the major name offensively, but this staff did a fine job beefing up the defensive side of the ball throughout the rest of the class. Four-star defensive linemen Daevin Hobbs is a Top 100 prospect from the state of North Carolina, while edge Caleb Herring could realistically see immediate playing time at a need position. Athlete Cameron Seldon could be one of the most fascinating pieces from the group, a four-star prospect who could play multiple different spots. Running back, receiver, linebacker, defensive back, the Volunteers are going to find some way to utilize his talents and the explosive Seldon has the build to star at all of them.

2023 Schedule Analysis
For the second straight year, Tennessee will travel to play an ACC team in the non-conference, although this game will be closer to home than their Pittsburgh matchup in 2022. Instead, they get Virginia in Nashville, which should be extremely winnable considering that it's essentially a home game for the Vols and the Cavaliers are widely considered among the worst in the ACC. The rest of the non-conference September slate includes Austin Peay and UTSA, which is split by the annual Florida rivalry game on the 16th. The Volunteers then welcome South Carolina and get a much-needed bye before the stretch that will decide their season. Tennessee gets Texas A&M at home and then goes on the road to Alabama for the "Third Saturday in October" and Kentucky a week later. After a slight reprieve with UConn, SEC play concludes with a three-game stretch that is on the road against Missouri, at home against Georgia, and at home against Vanderbilt. Getting UGA at home is huge, but the trio of road games - Florida, Alabama, and Kentucky are what matters here. If they can come out with two victories in that three game series, it sets up nicely for a successful season on Rocky Top.

2023 X-Factor: Charles Campbell, K
It's not often you see me label a kicker as an X-Factor, but Charles Campbell has some big shoes to fill. Chase McGrath was a multiyear weapon for the Volunteers after coming over from USC earlier in his career. In 2022, he not only went 16-20, but hit the game-winning field goal against Alabama that secured Tennessee their first victory in the series in 15 years. Fortunately, Campbell does bring plenty of experience, making 32 starts over four years at Indiana and hitting 39 of 51 field goal attempts. But, is he ready to handle the overwhelming pressure of life in the SEC? It's one thing to be the placekicker at Indiana, but handling the raucous environments of the SEC each week takes more than a big leg - it's such a mental game. If Campbell isn't up to the task, this feels like it could be the type of nagging issue that becomes an Achilles Heel for a team with big dreams this fall.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (5-3 SEC)
Offensive MVP: WR Bru McCoy
Defensive MVP: LB Aaron Beasley
Impact Freshman: DE Caleb Herring
Impact Transfer: LB Keenan Pili
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Squirrel White

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