KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The timing may be right for Tennessee to reclaim its status as a Southeastern Conference contender.
Tennessee has restocked its talent base and has ended a string of four straight losing seasons just as many of its SEC East Division rivals have entered a state of transition. That combination has led to questions about whether the Volunteers can challenge for their first division title since 2007. A preseason poll of SEC media has Tennessee finishing second in the East, behind Georgia.
The Vols can't help but hear about the heightened expectations from fans eager to see this storied program return to relevance after a prolonged slump. But they vow not to get distracted by preseason prognostications suggesting Tennessee's on the rise.
"We're not getting big-headed," senior safety Brian Randolph said. "We're not coming out thinking that we already won the SEC East. We're just working hard and just trying to stay focused and not listen to all the clutter."
Tennessee raised plenty of optimism by winning four of its lasts five games, including a 45-28 rout of Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. The surge coincided with Joshua Dobbs' emergence as the Vols' starting quarterback.
Vols coach Butch Jones has upgraded the roster by signing two straight recruiting classes rated among the nation's top five by multiple services. The Vols played the most true freshmen of any Football Bowl Subdivision program last season and likely will give featured roles to plenty of newcomers again this season.
"We still have a lot of true freshmen that are in the mix to play," Jones said. "And we know that being in this conference, looking at the teams that have had success... they've been junior- and senior-dominated football teams."
Some things to know about Tennessee.
CAPABLE AT QUARTERBACK: For the first time in Jones' three-year tenure, Tennessee isn't having a preseason quarterback competition. There's no doubt the job belongs to Dobbs,. Tennessee went 4-1 in the five games Dobbs started after a torn labrum sidelined Justin Worley, who has since completed his eligibility. During a season in which most SEC teams have quarterback questions, Dobbs' presence gives Tennessee an edge on its league rivals.
POTENT PASS RUSHERS: Senior linebacker/defensive end Curt Maggitt and sophomore end Derek Barnett give Tennessee one of the nation's most productive pass-rushing tandems. Barnett had 20 ½ tackles for loss and 10 sacks last season. Maggitt had 15 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. The defensive line should be even deeper this fall due to the arrival of heralded recruits Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle at tackle and Kyle Phillips at end.
MORE PLAYMAKERS: Tennessee returns all seven players who caught at least 20 passes or accumulated at least 200 yards receiving last season. The addition of junior-college transfer Alvin Kamara, who began his college career at Alabama, also should add some diversity to Tennessee's rushing attack. Kamara will team up in the backfield with Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd, who rushed for 899 yards as a freshman last season.
QUESTIONS ON THE LINE: Tennessee won't contend in the SEC unless it gets better production from its offensive line. The Vols gave up an SEC-high 43 sacks last season. The Vols will be more experienced on the line this season, but they already got some bad news at this spot with a training-camp injury to senior guard Marcus Jackson that likely will knock him out for the entire season.
STAFF CHANGE: Mike DeBord takes over as offensive coordinator for Mike Bajakian, now the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' quarterbacks coach. Jones was an offensive coordinator on DeBord's Central Michigan staff from 2001-03. DeBord has a long resume that includes two stints as Michigan's offensive coordinator, but he hasn't coached in the college ranks since 2007 and hasn't coached at all since 2012. His arrival won't result in any major scheme changes.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.