Gage Arnold, Chief Copy Editor
Prediction: 6-6 (3-5 SEC) Key Game: South Carolina
If Tennessee Volunteer football fans have gleaned one point of perspective over the past three seasons, it could be to temper their historically lofty expectations. That notion will continue to be true for the 2013 Vols.
An 8-4 record is essentially out of the realm of possibility. The Vols lost their top three offensive performers – Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson – to last April's NFL Draft and return a handful of starters on a defense that found itself statistically situated in the cellar of the SEC last season. Not necessarily a recipe for next season success. Couple the roster turnover with a complete upheaval of the entire coaching staff, scheme and culture surrounding the team and the squad is left with a myriad of questions that yield few concrete answers.
Back-to-back early season road trips to Oregon and Florida may serve as a dose of reality to Vol fans who are expecting strides towards bowl eligibility in head coach Butch Jones' first season at the helm of the Vols.
The lack of true playmakers on offense may lead to crowded running lanes for running backs Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal, forcing Justin Worley and a corp of inexperienced wide receivers to pick up the slack -- presenting a difficult task for an offense that lost 60 percent of its total offensive contributions from last season.
The Vols Oct. 19 matchup with South Carolina, where UT will be coming off of a bye week, remains the team's best shot at an upset. A win here would reverberate deeply with a fan base that has not seen a major upset in Neyland Stadium since Lane Kiffin's 2009 squad – clad in black jerseys – knocked off the No. 22 ranked Gamecocks.
Butch Jones reiterated in fall camp that his team would need to overachieve this season and they will flirt with that challenge.
Austin Peay, Western Kentucky and South Alabama are sure-fire wins, but Tennessee will struggle offensively out of the gates early in the season. However, the squad will close strong, beating Auburn, Vanderbilt and Kentucky to close out the season, earning the team a well-deserved bowl berth.
A trip to the Music City Bowl followed by a close loss to an ACC squad, like Georgia Tech, would still be considered a success for a team that has failed to reach postseason play the last two seasons.
"The process" takes time. It boils down to whether or not UT fans will be willing to support a team that very well may endure its fourth straight losing season. And that answer will not be revealed until Nov. 30.
David Cobb, Sports Editor
Prediction: 5-7 (2-6 SEC) Key Game: Auburn
Twitter followers and success in recruiting do not equate to wins. If they did, Butch Jones and Tennessee would be a top 10 team in 2013.
Those things do indicate momentum though, and there is no denying that as a program, the Vols have plenty of that heading into Jones' first season at UT.
The only problem is that the 2013 season could hurt momentum a lot more than it helps.
In games against Austin Peay and South Alabama, the Vols will be heavy favorites. Against Kentucky and Western Kentucky they should be favored, but not by as much as history dictates.
For every other game, UT will either be the underdog or slight favorites at best. That includes a critical three game stretch in November against Missouri, Auburn and Vanderbilt.
If Tennessee can win two of those three games, it should close the season with a win at Kentucky to become bowl eligible, a feat that would be cause for celebration amongst fans.
What if they lose all three? Or what if Western Kentucky pulls an upset on an Oregon-minded UT team?
If that happens, a 4-8 season is in the cards, and the future of the program will hinge on the loyalty of a heralded group of high school seniors that have bought into Jones' message about "the process" before ever seeing what that actually means on a Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
With a quarterback that will be looking over his shoulder at his backups, and a defense that bears the scars of a prolifically awful 2012 season, there is no reason to expect the Vols to surprise anyone.
Besides, when is the last time Tennessee caught a significant break on the football field? You had to think way too hard to answer that question.
Barring the unthinkable – an all too common phenomenon within the UT athletic department – 2013 will not seriously derail UT's momentum; it will simply be the first step in "the process" that leads to a location which has yet to be determined.
Troy-Provost Heron, Assistant Sports Editor
Prediction: 6-6 (3-5 SEC) Key Game: Western Kentucky
Butch Jones has injected new life into the Tennessee football program, and the expectations of bringing this program back to elite status are looming. But let's hold those lofty hopes off for a year or two.
This Tennessee team is young, and that was proven when Jones said up to 16 freshman could play this year. That is a lot of inexperience to have in a conference like the SEC.
With that said, you can never really tell how a young team will play once the season starts. We do not know what this offense will look like with Justin Worley under center, and we definitely do not know how trustworthy this young group of receivers will be, especially against the rigid competition.
The offensive line should continue to be one of the best in the SEC, and I truly believe Butch will whip the defense into shape. The Vols should be much better on that side of the ball than they were last year, which is not a difficult task in the first place -- but then again you never know.
That is why, in my opinion, the Western Kentucky game at home on Sept. 7 is so huge. Are the Hilltoppers the best team in the country? Most definitely not, but they are still a Division 1 football team and it will prove to be the first real test for the Vols. That is the game where, at the very least, we will be able to see this team's potential for the rest of the season.
Potential can only take you so far, however. The Vols will take on five of the Associated Press' top 10 opponents in the span of seven weeks, presenting a difficult challenge where I cannot see the Vols leaving any of those games with a victory. The biggest questions becomes how this team will regroup after such a tumultuous stretch of the schedule. Games against Missouri, Auburn and Vanderbilt coming down the homestretch of the season are all toss-ups, and I believe that they will find a way to win both home games (Auburn and Vanderbilt). Throw in a victory against Kentucky to end the year along with wins against Austin Peay and South Alabama and you get a 6-6 season. More importantly, you get a bowl berth for the first time since 2010.
Dargan Southard, Copy Editor
Prediction: 6-6 (3-5 SEC) Key Game: Auburn
A revamped coaching staff full of motivational and energetic individuals. A top-5 unanimously-ranked recruiting class for 2014. A modernized addition to the game day attire, expanding upon a previously forgotten school color.
This has been the list of accomplishments for first-year Tennessee head coach Butch Jones in less than nine months on the job. Fans are undoubtedly impressed with his progress so far, but all of Volunteer nation still has one more monumental demand.
How about some wins?
Those wins will eventually come and in the multitudes Tennessee fans are accustomed to.
Just not in 2013.
The scores will look better as I do not expect this year's defense to give up over 30 points per game, a sight all too common a season ago. But a new starter under center and a plethora of unproven wide receivers, along with a schedule that pits UT against five Associated Press top 10 teams in a seven week stretch will result in countless struggles throughout the year.
The first two weeks should go without hiccups as victories over Austin Peay and Western Kentucky -- do not read too much into the Bobby Petrino upset hype -- will provide a nice 2-0 start to the Butch Jones era.
Then come the big boys.
Back-to-back road trips to Eugene, Ore. and Gainesville, Fla. will even up the Vols' record as the explosive Oregon offense and stifling Gator defense will create all sorts of problems for UT. A brief intermission from top competition exists in Week 5 with South Alabama, but as the calendar flips to October, the Volunteers will again find themselves at the mercy of the SEC's top competitors. Georgia, South Carolina and a visit to Tuscaloosa will undoubtedly put Tennessee on a three-game losing streak, with the trip to Bryant-Denny getting particularly ugly. Don't be surprised if UT racks up its fourth consecutive 31-point loss to Alabama.
November, however, is where Jones will showcase his coaching abilities as four winnable contests give the Volunteers a chance salvage a bowl berth for the first time since 2010. Nevertheless, I see a loss at Missouri for a UT team that has yet to beat an SEC team not named Kentucky or Vanderbilt away from Neyland Stadium since 2007.
Next comes Auburn and in my opinion, the most important matchup of the season. The Nov. 9 contest will be the Tigers' third road game in four weeks, so Tennessee will have every chance to take advantage of a weary team. An additional wave of excitement could push UT over the hump -- insert "smokey gray" uniforms.
Ultimately, I believe UT gets the win and rides the newly-acquired momentum for the rest of 2013. There is no repeat of the two previous seasons as in-state rival Vanderbilt and Kentucky are easily taken care of. Butch Jones squeaks into either the Music City or Liberty Bowl in year one.