SEC Countdown: No. 11 Tennessee

As a freshman last year, Vols receiver Marquez North tallied 18 catches, 304 yards and one TD in a four-game stretch against Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Missouri.

College coaches are normally sticklers for consistency within a football program. But for Tennessee, the days of finding silver linings from a 5-7 record — the Volunteers’ mark for four of the last six seasons — should be over.

Simply put, if Tennessee isn’t yet prepared to compete for the conference championship in 2014, it should at least have enough talent and depth to post a .500 or winning record (thus qualifying for a bowl) and remain in contention for an SEC East title through early November (if not later).

FOX Sports South takes a look at the Butch Jones-led Volunteers, our preseason No. 11 pick amongst the 14 SEC clubs:

The Volunteers amassed 97 points in their first two games last year, but that figure is a tad misleading, since the Western Kentucky offense contributed to that total in one mind-boggling sequence of turnover after turnover after turnover.

For its final 10 games, Tennessee averaged 18.9 points per game, a decent number for an offense that hadn’t settled on a quarterback and was transitioning numerous freshmen and first-year contributors into the mix.

So, that year in flux should have settled all the Vols’ starting dilemmas for 2014, right? Uh, not necessarily.

At quarterback, there isn’t any clear line of demarcation separating potential opening-day starter Justin Worley (1,239 yards passing, 10 TDs last year) from Joshua Dobbs (dual-threat QB), sophomore Nathan Peterman and redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson, a four-star prospect from North Carolina.

As such, it doesn’t make sense to proclaim that any of the four quarterbacks will emerge from late-summer camp as the redoubtable starter, thus logging the vast majority of practice and game reps throughout the fall.

Overall, the Volunteers return 10 starters (five offense/five defense) from last year’s 5-7 club — the lowest tally of any SEC team in 2014 (source: Saturday Down South).

Departed running back Rajion Neal (1,232 total yards, 12 TDs) was Tennessee’s only game-in, game-out playmaker last year, putting the onus on returning tailback Marlin Lane to fill Neal’s shoes at such a crucial spot.

The upside to that: Neal never caught more than 27 passes in any of his four seasons, meaning Lane (584 total yards, four TDs) and other Vols backs have an attainable bar to clear for the 2014 campaign.

At some point, though, one of the backs — Lane, Devrin Young, Jalen Hurd, Derrell Scott, etc. — must show glimpses of replicating Neal’s overall form.

Along the offensive line, the Vols must also compensate for the loss of tackles Ja’Wuan James (first-round pick with the Miami Dolphins), Antonio "Tiny" Richardson (All-SEC second-teamer last year) and guards James Stone and Zach Fulton.

Let’s address this section in four parts:

Linebacker A.J. Johnson — The ball-hawking linebacker handles runs, passes and double teams will similarly stellar aplomb, justifying his status as an All-SEC first-teamer last season. He’s also the engine that drives the Volunteers’ 4-3 base defense, a philosophy that requires consistent pressure on the quarterback.

Wide receiver Marquez North — Don’t be fooled by the so-so production from 2013 (38 catches, 496 yards, one TD).

North made tangible strides throughout his freshman campaign, creating tent-pole moments in conference play — like the acrobatic TD reception against Georgia (above photo), the one-handed diving catch against South Carolina and rock-solid outing (four catches, 87 yards) against Alabama, coming at a time when the Crimson Tide defense surrendered just 26 points in a phenomenal six-game stretch.

Head coach Butch Jones — Jones has only been a fixture on the Knoxville campus for 19-plus months, and he’s arguably accomplished more than UT predecessors, Derek Dooley and Lane Kiffin (combined).

The Volunteers’ home upset of South Carolina was a significant watershed moment for the coaches and players, along with a sizable bargaining chip with elite-level recruits. (Various sites had Tennessee’s 2014 recruiting class ranked in the top 10 nationally.)

Marketing-wise, Jones has also upped the ante with the Tennessee brand, helping the Vols make the high-profile apparel transition from adidas to Nike.

Which begs the question: What will be the fate of the Vols’ "Smoky Grey" home uniforms?

Subjectively speaking, Tennessee hasn’t enjoyed a quality road victory since 2009, knocking off a decent Kentucky squad; and in terms of slaying a big-name dragon away from Knoxville … that experience dates back to 2006 when the Volunteers toppled Georgia (51-33) and South Carolina (31-24) in a three-week span.

Which brings us back to program development: When it comes to finding a regular starter at quarterback, or rebuilding a top-notch offensive line for the long haul or building up Cameron Sutton’s case for All-SEC honors … everything’s relative.

In other words, if any of the above objectives can be accomplished this season, it stands to reason Tennessee will win at least one road game against Oklahoma, Georgia, Ole Miss or South Carolina.

The secondary measuring-stick phase involves November tilts against Kentucky (home) and Vanderbilt (road). Simply put, the Vols must beat both neighboring schools to garner national respect.

It’s not who you play, but when you play ’em.

Bottom line: Tennessee’s program during that four-year period (2010-13) simply wasn’t ready to compete with Oregon, vanquishing much of the buzz from a classic intersectional matchup — once again, on paper.

Let’s hope that isn’t the case for the home-and-home series (2014/15) involving Oklahoma and Tennessee. On Sept. 13, the Volunteers will head to Norman, with the intent of knocking off — or at least competing with — a likely top-five team, before a primetime national-TV audience.

If Tennessee can hold its own against Oklahoma, it might be a telltale sign on whether the Vols should be taken seriously against the likes of Georgia (Sept. 27), Florida (Oct. 4), Ole Miss (Oct. 18), Alabama (Oct. 25) and South Carolina (Nov. 1).

Butch Jones’ club stunned South Carolina at home last season. The Year 2 ‘progress’ counter calls for upending a big-name (and presumably better) foe on the road.

We have the Volunteers defeating Utah State, Arkansas State, Chattanooga and Kentucky, without much incident, and then earning red-letter victories over Florida (home) and Vanderbilt (away).

On the flip side, it’s reasonable to conclude Tennessee will rightfully be underodgs against Oklahoma, Georgia, Ole Miss, Alabama, South Carolina and Missouri.

All in all, though, a 6-6 mark would represent some momentum in Year 2 for the Vols, coinciding with a well-deserved bowl appearance.