New coach Butch Jones takes over for Derek Dooley after a miserable 1-7 season in conference play. He'll essentially be starting over at quarterback, and revamping a defense that gave up a startling 35.7 points per game last season. With a rabid fan base excited for a new regime but also short on patience, Jones faces a tough short-term task.
Any success UT has this year will almost certainly be derived from a veteran offensive line expected to be one of the nation's best. Most, if not all, of that line will find its way into the NFL in time. The Vols placed four players in the 2013 draft, led by receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (a first-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings). Receiver Justin Hunter went to the Tennessee Titans five picks later, and with both turning pro a year early a significant void has been left at that position in Knoxville.
Look for Jones' recruiting efforts to reinvigorate Tennessee's draft-day contributions. From 2006-2010, the Volunteers produced one or two first-round picks in five consecutive drafts. Patterson started that streak anew in April.
Top senior prospects
OL Zach Fulton: Another experienced front man, Fulton (6-foot-5, 323 pounds) has 28 career starts. The right guard should make a Sunday living, but his draft status isn't easily pegged yet. The new UT staff apparently thinks highly of Fulton's versatility as well.
OL Ja'wuan James:The Vols' right tackle (6-6, 318) has started all 37 UT games since his arrival as a true freshman. Strongly considered turning pro early.
DL Daniel McCullers: The Georgia Military Academy product anchors the Vols' line at a trimmed-down 6-8, 351 pounds this fall. He made 5.5 tackles for loss last year and won the job in the 2012 preseason at a weight of 377. McCullers would best fit a 3-4 NFL club in need of a nose guard.
DB Byron Moore: The 210-pound safety piled up 86 tackles as the last line of resistance in a porous Vols defense. He intercepted five passes, one of which he took for six points against rival Georgia. Could be a nice special-teams fit in the NFL as well.
OL James Stone: The 6-foot-3, 291-pound center is one of at least four future pros on the Tennessee offensive line. A Rimington Trophy candidate, Stone has 27 career starts at UT and could also play guard at the next level. Direct snaps with one hand and shotgun snaps with the other.
LB A.J. Johnson: The junior (6-2, 242) has amassed 218 tackles over the past two seasons and is a fairly certain future NFL Draft pick. But those close to the program don't believe he will merit the sort of grade from the Draft Advisory Board that would compel him to turn pro early. He isn't particularly fast, but has the talent to improve his stock.
RB Marlin Lane: The junior averaged 5.5 yards per carry last year, a full yard more than part-time starter Rajion Neal, but Lane is smallish for the NFL at 5-11, 205. Would likely need to find his way to a team with special-teams and/or third-down back needs. After a rocky start to his relationship with the new UT coaching staff, Lane is now in good standing.
LB Curt Maggitt: The junior linebacker (6-3, 239) plays in the middle and flashes impressively at times. Missed three games last season, contributing to limited production (30 tackles). Maggitt will likely need two more seasons in college to reach the peak on his pro stock.
OL Antonio Richardson: Far and away the best NFL prospect on the roster, it will be more surprising if Richardson stays for his senior season than if he leaves early. At 6-6, 327, Richardson is a massive presence at left tackle. He had an all-eyes-on battle with South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney last year, and is looking forward to the rematch. The true junior is the best player at his position in the SEC East, and has earned preseason All-SEC honors all summer.
Three must-see games of 2013
Sept. 14 at Oregon: New UT coach Butch Jones matches his new team with the post-Chip Kelly Ducks. For Jones, it should be a measuring stick for how far his program has to go.
Nov. 9 vs. Auburn: Don't look for this one to impact the top of the standings, but for two proud programs that hit bottom a year ago, a lot of pride will be at stake.
Nov. 23 vs. Vanderbilt: Beating Vanderbilt is supposed to come easy for Tennessee, especially at home, but Butch Jones will quickly find out the Commodores aren't as easy to handle as they used to be.