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Tennessee’s trip to the top could be rocky

This is the fifth team in the SEC football preview series:
The Tennessee Volunteers have improved each season under the direction of Butch Jones.
In the past four years, the Volunteers were, 5-7, 7-6, 9-4 and 9-4.
There was all kinds of hype heading into last season as the Vols seemed poised to win the East and finish in the top 10 –maybe higher.
The highs were wins over Florida, Georgia and Virginia Tech.
That should have put them near the top of the heap.
But losses to Vanderbilt and South Carolina send them crashing down the side of the mountain.
To get past Georgia and Florida and win the SEC East is the goal that has escaped Tennessee since 2007.
The Vols have been in five SEC title games but their last win was in 1998 – 19 years ago.
So can Tennessee win more than nine games in 2017?
The Vols should win the first two games against Georgia Tech (68.3 precent chance of winning) and Indiana State (98.9).
Then comes a trip to Swamp to face the Florida Gators.
An upset win over Florida (37.8 precent of a win) and the Vols could be the SEC East driver’s seat.
Florida had won 11 seasons in a row before Tennessee scored 38 consecutive points to take a 38-28 victory last year.
The Vols’ last win at Florida came in 2003.
Not likely, but another win over the Gators would then be 6-0 after rolling past Massachesets (97.1).
Wins over Georgia (51.2) and South Carolina (75.7) will put the nation’s eyes on Oct. 21 and a trip to Alabama.
That game will see the Volunteers fall to either 6-1 or 5-2 depending on what happened in Gainsville.
Tennessee will regroup for road wins over Kentucky (59.9), Southern Mississippi (96/1) and Missouri (64.3).
A home win over LSU is not likely (47.1) but the Vols should close the regular season wth a victory over Vanderbilt (80.8).
The Vols won’t be good enough to go unbeaten, or finish 11-1, but they can dream of the East title and a 10-2 record.
But the road to the top could be rocky for Tennesse if they stumble out of the gate with losses to Georgia Tech and Florida.
A loss to Georgia (very possible) and the Vols are back to third place in the SEC East.
Add defeats against Alabama and LSU and Tennesse will be 7-5 and the Vol fans will begin an uprising against Butch Jones.
But with a SEC East championship, they will want to extend his contract to 2025.
So what can the Vols offense do without quarterback Josh Dobbs – who helped the Tennessee offense average 444 yards and 36 points per game.
It now rests on new starting quarterback Quinten Dormady, receiver Juan Jennings and running back John Kelly to perform under new offensive coordinator Larry Scott.
Kelly gained over 600 yards and scored five times last season and should be better this year.
The offensive line needs to be strong again up front to help the offense gain momentum.
Limiting turnovers is key for any offense. Case in point - seven turnovers in a 45-38 loss to Texas A&M and three in a loss to South Carolina.
The key to success will really rest on a defense that wasn’t all that defensive in 2016.
Tennessee finished No. 95 in the nation in total defense,
Safety Todd Kelly is back after leading the team with 71 stops – the top five tacklers and eight of the top nine return.
Jonathan Kongbo (6-6, 270) can be a vital part of the Tennsee defensive front.
But the defense can’t give up as many yards as their offense gains or it will be a long season for Vol fans.
Tennessee schedule
Sept. 4 Georgia Tech
Sept. 9 Indiana State
Sept. 16 at Florida
Sept. 23 UMass
Sept. 30 Georgia
Oct. 14 South Carolina
Oct. 21 at Alabama
Oct. 28 at Kentucky
Nov. 4 Southern Miss
Nov. 11 at Missouri
Nov. 18 LSU
Nov. 25 Vanderbilt

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