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Updated: Jul 18, 2023

When people talk about the Tennessee Volunteers, they typically talk about the fast-paced offense. That side of the ball is vital to the success of the Vols, but the key to the 2023 season is the defense.

In 2021, Josh Heupel’s first season as head coach, the Volunteers were still self-punishing themselves for infractions from the prior coaching staff. Scholarships were reduced in 2021, which was devastating to the depth of the team, more so on the defensive side of the ball.

A lot of the players on that 2021 team were still holdovers from the prior regime. They were used to playing a ground-and-pound style of offense, working the clock. In steps Coach Heupel and his “Ludicrous Speed” offense, which wiped out the defense’s ability to catch their breath as they were used to doing.

In a time when Tennessee was cutting scholarships, a deficiency on defense was not ideal. UT improved on defense in 2022 as they ended the self-punishment, but the improvement was minimal. Now working with a full complement of scholarships, Tennessee can build the depth needed on defense to withstand the speed of the offense.

With the success of the 2022 Vols comes high expectations, such as College Football Playoff aspirations. To achieve that, the defense will need to be more efficient. In 2021, the defense gave up 422 yards and 29.1 points per game. That improved to 405 yards and 22.8 points per game in 2022. Improvement? Yes, but more is still needed.

There are veteran defenders who are going to play major roles this season. Senior defensive end Tyler Baron, senior middle linebacker Aaron Beasley, and senior defensive back Doneiko Slaughter all figure to be starters and major contributors. Two transfers from BYU, senior cornerback Gabe Jeudy-Lally and senior linebacker Keenan Pili, also figure to be starters.

But what Coach Heupel and defensive coordinator Tim Banks need is depth on the defensive side of the ball. They need to trust the backups who fill in for the starters.

Can five-star freshman linebacker Arion Carter step in and play at a high level against SEC competition?

Can sophomore defensive end Tyre West spell Baron on the line when the Tennessee offense scores a touchdown in 1:15?

Can Heupel and Banks trust senior cornerback Warren Burrell to make plays when he’s giving one of his fellow corners a breather?

These are just a few of the questions Tennessee needs to answer to make a run at the College Football Playoffs. Five of the Vols’ 12 opponents this season were ranked in the top 75 in total offense at the end of the 2022 season.

Three were in the top 12: Georgia at #5, Alabama at #11, and UTSA at #12. Georgia and Alabama are perennial College Football Playoff contenders who have elite offenses.

The Tennessee secondary was scorched last season, finishing 127th in the country giving up 289.5 passing yards per game. If the Vols can cut that ranking down, even in half, the chances of winning the SEC and going to the College Football Playoff increase significantly.

If ever there was a season that needs significant improvement from the Vol defense, it is 2023.

Both Georgia and Alabama are replacing veteran quarterbacks with relative unknowns. The Third Saturday in October is in Tuscaloosa, AL this season but the back-to-back National Champs come to Knoxville.

An atmosphere like Neyland Stadium may wreak havoc on a young unproven quarterback. And to have a defense hold the Georgia offense to minimal yards and points would go a long way to showing the College Football world that the Tennessee Volunteers are a serious playoff contender.

But it all hinges on the defense. Can the Vols' defense get enough stops in the critical games against Florida, UTSA, Alabama, and Georgia? The answer to that question will tell just how successful the Vols are in 2023.



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