For the first time with Derek Dooley as coach, Tennessee passes the football eye test. Just look at 6-foot-6, 332-pound left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson and nose tackle Daniel McCullers, who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 377 pounds.

Does that guarantee the Volunteers will be better on the field this fall?


But there's no excuse for this Tennessee team to come close to having a third consecutive losing season.

"It's been a tough four years in Tennessee," Dooley said. "I know the SEC has enjoyed taking advantage of our tough times, but there's a nice mood on our team right now that you're not going to have Tennessee to kick around anymore.

"I feel like we got a team that can go toe-to-toe for four quarters with all the teams in our league."

The Vols return 19 starters, including 10 on offense, and should have one of the best passing games in the country led by junior quarterback Tyler Bray.

If Tennessee has any semblance of a running game (the Vols finished last in the SEC running the ball in each of the past two years) and new coordinator Sal Sunseri's aggressive defense can generate big-plays and keep opponents out of the end zone, a 10-win season and eastern division title are well within striking distance.

Of course, having a successful ground game and relying on a first-year defensive system in the toughest conference in America are far from idle question marks.

Those two unknowns are big reasons why Tennessee was picked to finish 5th in the east by the media at SEC Media Days in July. The Vols had four votes to win the division. (Journalism transparency: I wonder who the other three votes were from.)

Tennessee received three points in the USA TODAY coaches' preseason poll. That was good for a 44th-place tie alongside Florida International and new conference member Missouri. The SEC had seven schools in the top 25, five in the top 10 and the No. 1 and No. 2 teams: LSU and Alabama.

"Not only are people looking down on us — we've got low expectations — but we have high expectations for ourselves," junior All-SEC wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers said. "We really want to go out there and compete against the top talent in the country."

Tennessee hasn't been ranked since the first week of the 2008 campaign. Even worse, the Vols haven't won a game outside the state of Tennessee in two seasons.

The first game this year against North Carolina State in the Georgia Dome gives Tennessee a chance to change that.

It's the biggest season-opener for the Vols since hosting California in 2006, and arguably the most important game Tennessee has played since the 2007 SEC Championship Game.

A win against the Wolfpack gives the Vols a much-needed win over a quality opponent. A loss could be a crippling blow to the season and Dooley's future in Knoxville.

In recent years, Tennessee essentially laid down when adversity struck. Whether it was giving up a big play early in the second half or an injury to a key player, the Vols haven't found a way to respond when momentum goes against them.

"We're going to try and get them comfortable being uncomfortable so that they are ready for this season to handle all of the adversity that you are going to face over the course of 12 games," Dooley said. "No matter how hard you train, how good you are or how experienced you are, what makes this sport special is that you are going to get knocked on your tail. You are going to have times when you are struggling, it's hard."

Losing to N.C. State would be demoralizing to the Vols, especially the fan base. Fair or not, many of the Vol Nation's high aspirations for the season would be out the windows similar to how they were last year when star wide receiver Justin Hunter suffered a season-ending knee injury against Florida early in the third game.

Speaking of the Gators, who have won seven straight meeting against the Vols, the Sept. 15 showdown in Neyland Stadium sets up as the perfect opportunity for Tennessee to win a big SEC game and become a factor in the eastern division race. Florida returns a very talented defense, but its offense has few proven play-makers. The Gators also play at Texas A&M the week before in the Aggies' first SEC league game.

The rest of the schedule also favors Tennessee. Including Florida, seven of the Vols' eight SEC opponents play a key conference road game the week before playing Tennessee.

With the margin for error so small in college football, playing teams at the right time can take a six or seven-win team and turn it into an eight or nine win squad.

In addition to N.C. State, the rest of Tennessee's out-of-conference schedule is homes games against Georgia State, Akron and Troy. All potential blowout victories for the Vols.

But Dooley isn't coaching the Vols to beat up on mid-major schools.

He's at Tennessee to compete for and win championships.

Dooley is 11-14 in his two years in Knoxville. Another losing season would most likely be his last. National media has Dooley at or near the top of the coaching hot seat.

Everyone has an idea of the mess his inherited in 2010. Realistically, this is the first season in Dooley's tenure where the Vols have enough talent, depth and experience to compete with the top teams in the SEC.

While Dooley had yet to prove he could win consistently at Tennessee through his first 24 games as coach, he beat the teams he was supposed to beat and lost to the teams he was supposed to lose to.

Then came that November afternoon in Lexington where the Vols lost to a horrible Kentucky team that had no business winning.

For the first time under Dooley, Tennessee lost a game is shouldn't have.

But not just any game. Not just a game that took away a bowl bid. Not just a game that ended a 26-game winning streak.

It's arguably the worst loss in Tennessee football history, in terms of the aftermath of destruction it caused.

The perception of the Vols program under Dooley changed. Seven assistant coaches left in the offseason.

Before the Kentucky loss, Dooley was given patience in his rebuilding job. Based on the lack of overall talent and quality depth on the roster he took over in January 2010, it was — and still is fair — to wait until at least Dooley's fourth season to evaluate his job security.

But losing to Kentucky was never in the back of anyone's mind.

The loss to the Wildcats made year three a make-or-break season for Dooley. Meaning the Vols better win some games this fall they haven't in recent years or new athletic director Dave Hart has his first important football coaching decision to make.

Barring major injures or bad luck, both of which have plagued Dooley and the Vols, I expect Tennessee to win at least eight games this year.

I also predict the Vols will play in the Georgia Dome twice this season.

The first is the opening game against N.C. State.

The second? That'll be decided on the field. The SEC Championship Game and the Chick-Fil-A Bowl are both also played in the Georgia Dome. What separates those two games is likely an eight-win season or a 10-win season.

This season, Tennessee at least looks like an SEC title contending team, according to the winning guest head coach in April's Orange and White Game.

Some think the Vols can be an SEC Championship contender.

"Tiny" is one of them, and a large reason why.

"We know how much talent we have, and we know that we can do some good things, it's just coming together and just making it happen," Richardson said. "Just practicing, coming together as a unit and believing in each other, I believe we can do some special things."