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Projecting the SEC East in 2013: Tennessee takes No. 5

Tennessee has a new coach in Butch Jones. Will that help the Vols get back in the SEC East race? Probably not.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Here's where our SEC East post-spring previews get really interesting. For more on the Vols, hit up Rocky Top Talk.

5. Tennesseee

Starters returning: Five on offense, eight on defense.

The good: After being unceremoniously torched by the likes of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, South Carolina, Troy, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt for 37+ points, the defense should be at least somewhat better. Linebacker Dontavis Sapp had an excellent spring and looks to become the leader of a defense that never quite seemed to be the same after the departure of Eric Berry. On the other side of the ball, Justin Worley (I assume he'll beat out Nathan Peterman) replaces Tyler Bray behind center, and he may have two of the best tackles in the SEC in Antonio Richardson and Ja'Wuan James. Two other starters on the offensive line, Zach Fulton and James Stone, also return. So getting to Worley might be difficult.

The bad: Tennessee has approximately zero proven home run threats on offense. Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter are both gone, and their running game wasn't exactly a strength last year. Oh, and talk about a killer road schedule- Tennessee has to face three potential top five teams on the road this year (Oregon, Alabama and Florida), and then there are the usual games with Georgia and South Carolina (albeit at home) that Tennessee will probably not be favored in. Also, while the defense has shown promise in the spring, there isn't a lot of experience on that side of the ball. They'd better learn quick with the schedule they have.

The key: Establish the running game with Raijon Neal. They have to use the experienced offensive line to give Neal some holes to run through to bleed some clock. The more this inexperienced defense is on the field, the worse it is.

Key game: Georgia. The Vols will likely go 0-3 in road trips to Oregon, Alabama and Florida. But they get the Dawgs at home, and could have easily beaten them last year. If Tennessee wants to ensure a bowl berth, beating UGA at home is the way to do it.

Somewhat relevant fact: Tennessee is the only team in the SEC that has lost three or more straight games to four of their rivals: three in a row to Georgia, three in a row to South Carolina, six in a row to Alabama and eight in a row to Florida.

Relevant fact: Butch Jones didn't return a single coach from a year ago.

Overview: Yes, the Vols do have a lot of question marks on both side of the ball. But a lot coaches always say that they want to build a team around a great offensive line, and Tennessee has that. So I do believe this is a team that will slowly get better and eventually contend for the SEC East. In 2014. Which is not this year. But unless they can immediately turn their running game into a way of life, and not a safety option, the Vols will struggle to put points on the board. Consider a Liberty Bowl berth a major victory for this club.

Projection: 8-5 (4-4 SEC), Liberty Bowl loss