The campaign began well enough for the Volunteers, as they got out to a 3-1 start with wins over NC State (35-21), Georgia State (51-13) and Akron (47-26). They were not up for the challenge in the brutally-tough SEC, however, as they dropped seven in a row to league foes, five of which came against ranked teams (Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama, South Carolina).
Following a 41-18 loss to Vanderbilt on Nov. 17, Derek Dooley was relieved of his coaching duties after going just 15-21 in three seasons (4-19 in the SEC). Under interim head coach Jim Chaney, the Vols salvaged the season by winning their one and only league game against Kentucky in the season finale, 37-17.
Tennessee will start fresh in 2013 as it turns to Butch Jones to bring the program back to prominence. Jones has compiled a 50-27 record as the head coach of Cincinnati and Central Michigan over the past six years.
OFFENSE: Generating offense was the least of the Vols' problems last season, as they put up 36.2 ppg and 475.9 ypg, but with the loss of several highly productive weapons -- including quarterback Tyler Bray (3,612 yards, 34 TDs) and receivers Justin Hunter (1,083 yards, nine TDs) and Cordarrelle Patterson (778 receiving, 308 rushing, 772 return yards, nine total TDs) -- the unit will have a completely different look in 2013 under new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian.
"Our offensive system is extremely flexible," Jones said. We want to be an up- tempo team."
Tennessee is in the midst of a quarterback competition, with junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman the frontrunners, although true freshmen Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs will also be given a shot. Worley saw action in five games last season, completing 65.2 percent of his passes for 134 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions.
"With Justin Worley or Nathan Peterman or a true freshman, we have to continue to develop the position," Jones said. "I've liked what I've seen so far."
The receiving corps will consist of Cody Blanc and Jason Croom, both of whom stand 6-foot-3 or taller, as well as Pig Howard, a speedy 5-foot-8 slot receiver. Howard is the most experienced of the three, catching 13 passes a year ago.
The cupboard isn't completely bare for the Vols' offense, however. Rajion Neal returns for his senior season and is a proven commodity as a rusher (708 yards, five TDs) and receiver out of the backfield (149 yards, four TDs). The team also welcomes back four starting offensive linemen who will help protect the inexperienced quarterbacks.
DEFENSE: Tennessee's defense was far and away the worst in the SEC in 2012 as it surrendered points (35.7 ppg) and yardage (471.3 ypg) at will, while forcing just 17 turnovers in 12 games.
The good news for the unit is that things cannot get much worse, and with hiring of a new defensive coordinator (John Jancek) and the return of eight starters, and improvement seems likely in 2013.
The Vols do have a pair of defensive difference-makers that can lead the squad. Linebacker A.J. Johnson took advantage of his ample opportunities last season by racking up 138 tackles (fourth in the nation) as well as 8.5 TFL, earning Second Team All-SEC honors. Safety Byron Moore wreaked havoc in the defensive backfield with 86 tackles and five interceptions.
Cornerback Justin Coleman (59 tackles), defensive tackle Maurice Couch (38 tackles, four TFL) and defensive end Jacques Smith (33 tackles, seven TFL, sacks) are all expected to increase their production.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Michael Palardy acted as UT's primary kicker and punter last season, making 9-of-12 field goal attempts while averaging 43.1 yards per punt. Matt Darr (39.0 avg) also returns at punter and will be called upon for shorter, more precise kicks.
Patterson was one of the most dynamic return men in the NCAA last year, averaging 28.0 yards per kickoff and a whopping 25.2 yards per punt return. Devrin Young, who tallied 297 return yards in 2012, will take over on a full- time basis.
OUTLOOK: The once-proud Tennessee football program has been arguably the most disappointing team in the conference over the past few seasons, and a coaching change was certainly necessary after years of underachieving. Jones will have his hands full, especially considering the turnover on offense, but he is up for the challenge.
"You approach it one game at a time," Jones said. "You coach it one day at a time, one game at a time. That's why we have to focus on the process. Being in the SEC, every day is a grind. Every game is for a championship."
With the previous stockpile of star players gone, Jones can mold his offense nearly from scratch, and while it will certainly benefit the team in the long run, expect plenty of growing pains in 2013, especially considering the brutal schedule that includes matchups against Oregon, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Vanderbilt.
Don't expect much improvement from last season's record, and a downward trend in terms of overall wins could very well be in the cards.