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Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer appreciates expectations as much as the next guy. But until the wins come to pass, you'll have to excuse the dean of SEC coaches if he views his team's high preseason ranking as mere hype.
"Hopefully, we've played ourselves back into that group of top teams, but you'll have to stay tuned," said Fulmer, who is 123-31 in 13 years. "This team has more depth than any I've coached, but I don't have a crystal ball. I know LSU, Georgia and Florida play pretty good football, too."
Tennessee returns a 1,000-yard rusher in Gerald Riggs Jr. and features a three-headed monster at quarterback -- sophomore Erik Ainge, senior Rick Clausen and incoming freshman Jonathan Crompton. Riggs knows he'll get most of the carries, but the quarterback position isn't as settled.
"We could play more than one [quarterback] in each game," UT offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "It depends on the opponent, the situation and which one is playing well."
Ainge is a rifle-armed 6-foot-6, 212-pounder who carries the West Coast swagger of former UT star Casey Clausen with the mechanics of Peyton Manning. Crompton also has a big arm and athleticism, and it's just a matter of time before he learns his playbook. Clausen has a command of the offense and a knack for spreading the ball around.
There's depth and talent at receiver. Junior Robert Meachem, a svelte 6-3, 218, is the go-to guy. Jayson Swain has strength to push off tight coverage. Chris Hannon clocks in with a school-record 4.28-second 40-yard dash. Bret Smith is a slim, reliable target. The tight end's duties will largely consist of blocking, with the exception of H-back Chris Brown.
The line is adept in run and pass blocking. Left tackle Arron Sears has sound technique and plays to the whistle. Left guard Rob Smith has quick feet and a temper to match. Former defensive end David Ligon made a nice conversion to center. Richie Gandy was penciled in at center before suffering an offseason knee injury. Gandy could return by the opener. Guard Cody Douglas (6-4, 330) and tackle Albert Toeaina (6-6, 355) move the pile on the right side.
Defensive coordinator John Chavis said it starts up front. That's good news with All-America tackle Jesse Mahelona returning. Mahelona, a 6-2, 297-pounder, led the SEC in tackles for a loss (18.5). Justin Harrell is back at the other tackle, where he competes with Turk McBride. Defensive end Parys Haralson led the team with seven sacks last season.
Headhunter Kevin Simon returns at middle linebacker after missing most of last season with a knee injury. Omar Gaither, one of the SEC's best tacklers, plays on the strong side. Jason Mitchell, the faster backer in the corps, presents headaches blitzing from the weak side.
The secondary could have many looks. Jason Allen, the SEC's leading tackler a year ago at safety, has moved back to cornerback.
Junior kicker James Wilhoit plans to return to his Freshman All-America form after having offseason surgery to remove a small broken bone in his kicking foot. Another Colquitt will punt. Redshirt freshman Britton Colquitt replaces his older brother, All-American Dustin.
Tennessee has no apparent weakness. There is an abundance of talent at quarterback and receiver, a 1,000-yard rusher and a veteran offensive line. The Vols return eight starters from a defense that forced Texas A&M into five turnovers in the Cotton Bowl victory.
If the Vols are able to fight through an early-season schedule that includes trips to Gainesville and Baton Rouge, they could be headed to another SEC title and possibly a trip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena for a shot at the BCS championship.