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    Photo Credit: Mason Burgin

    Butch Jones has already been tabbed as a potential coaching casualty before the end of the 2017 season by one college football analyst. Now another national media member is saying Jones may not be Tennessee’s head coach before this upcoming season is even over.

    Ben Kercheval of CBS Sports stated Butch Jones could be one of a handful of coaches who are fired before the month of November in a “bold prediction” piece a week and a half ago. Fast forward to now, and a prominent SEC analyst is saying almost the exact same thing.

    Barrett Sallee, an SEC football analyst and host of a college football podcast and an Sirius XM sports show, said in a recent podcast that he believes Butch Jones will be the first SEC head coach to be fired this season. And it could very well happen before the season is even over.

    “When it comes to Tennessee, it’s going to be hard to justify getting smoked by your rivals,” Sallee said in his podcast. “And I think Tennessee is going to get smoked by pretty much all of its biggest rivals this year.”

    Sallee states that it will be a “close call” between Butch Jones and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin over which SEC coach is most likely to be fired. But Sallee believes the Aggies are more willing to be patient with Sumlin because of youth at quarterback. Freshman Kellen Mond and redshirt freshman Nick Starkel are two of the favorites to eventually win the Aggies’ starting quarterback position. Sallee believes if Sumlin tabs one of the freshmen quarterback to start and they at least show progress, he can survive even a four-loss SEC record in 2017.

    Not so much for Butch Jones, however.

    “If Tennessee starts Quinten Dormady and follows that same path (losing four conference games), I don’t know how willing they’d be to keep Butch Jones around,” Sallee said. “Tennessee is in a much more winnable division. That window is still very much open. And if they can’t do it, if they’re just sort of okay in the SEC East this year, that’s going to be enough to get Butch Jones let go.

    “And it may happen before the end of the season just so they can get out in front of the Chip Kelly sweepstakes.”

    The Vols have gone 8-4 in the regular season in back-to-back years under Jones, but the story of both those seasons has been drastically different. In 2015, the Vols weren’t the favorites to win the SEC East. The second half collapses were hard to stomach for fans, but they at least saw improvement as the season wore on and had hope 2016 would be the season Tennessee finally got over the hump. But the Vols stumbled down the stretch in 2016 after starting the year 5-0 and failed once again to win the division crown.

    If Sallee is correct, another 8-4 regular season won’t be enough for Butch Jones to keep his job as Tennessee’s head coach.

    Tennessee hasn’t won an SEC East title since 2007, and if they fail to win it again this year, it would mark only the second time any of the “big three” in the SEC East (Florida, Georgia, Tennessee) have gone a decade without winning a division title since the conference split into divisions in 1992. It took Georgia until 2002 to finally win the division after Tennessee and Florida won the first 10. The Vols would own the longest drought among the three if they fail to win it this year.

      Photo Credit: Mason Burgin/RTI

      Unlike last season, the Vols won’t be favorites in nearly every game they play this year. In 2016, Tennessee was, at worst, a very slight underdog in all but one of their 12 regular season games. The only game the Vols were definitely considered underdogs in was their contest against Alabama. Otherwise, Tennessee was either the outright favorite or barely an underdog.

      That’s not the case for 2017, however.

      As Vegas has already shown, Tennessee is already considered early underdogs in three of their four biggest games this upcoming season. The Vols should be favored in at least eight of their other nine games, but the perception around this year’s team is nowhere close to how the 2016 Vols were viewed before the season.

      With that in mind, we here at Rocky Top Insider have decided to give our confidence level for the Vols’ ability to win all 12 of their regular season games. These aren’t outright predictions for the games, nor are they in-depth breakdowns of the games; this is just how confident we all are in Tennessee’s ability to actually win each game.

      Here are our confidence levels for all 12 of Tennessee’s 2017 contests.

        Photo Credit: Mason Burgin/RTI

        Butch Jones has lost favor with a lot of the national media this offseason compared to last offseason. That will happen when your team collapses down the stretch and both you and your team fail to meet expectations. But the backlash on Jones this offseason from the national media has been somewhat severe considering the Vols still went 8-4 last season and not 5-7, per se.

        Jones has been tabbed by one writer as having the hottest seat in college football, and another writer made the bold prediction that Jones would be fired before the end of the season. Then there’s CBS’ rankings of Power Five coaches that saw Jones left outside the top 50 coaches on the list.

        Athlon recently released their own coaching rankings of all 130 FBS coaches, and Jones fared far better on their list than he did on the CBS rankings. According to Athlon, Jones is the No. 30 head coach in the country.

        Here’s what Athlon had to say about Jones:

        “High expectations surrounded Tennessee last season, and while the Volunteers fell short of winning the SEC East, the program recorded a 9-4 record and a No. 22 finish in the Associated Press poll. Contending for the East Division is certainly a fair and yearly expectation in Knoxville, but Jones has guided the program to back-to-back nine-win seasons. The 18 victories over the last two years are the most in Tennessee history since posting 19 from 2006-07. Despite falling short of preseason expectations, it’s clear Jones has helped this program take a step forward. He’s 30-21 overall in four years, and the Volunteers have recorded three consecutive bowl victories for the first time since 1994-96. Prior to Tennessee, Jones finished 27-13 in three years at Central Michigan and went 23-14 in three seasons at Cincinnati. He’s had just two losing records in 10 years as a FBS coach.”

        Jones is ranked right behind Hugh Freeze of Ole Miss and is considered the sixth-best coach in the SEC according to the Athlon rankings. He’s behind Nick Saban (1st), Dan Mullen (19th), Jim McElwain (21st), Gus Malzahn (22nd), Bret Bielema (27th), and Hugh Freeze (29th). 2017 Vol opponent Georgia Tech has their head coach, Paul Johnson, ahead of Jones as well at No. 26 on the list.

        Tennessee is historically a top-15 if not top-10 program, so having a coach barely crack the top-30 is still not where expectations should be for the Vols’ head coach. But Vol fans can rest a little easier knowing that not all the national media has soured on Jones and Tennessee at least.

          Former Vol wide receiver Marquez North hasn’t been in the headlines much since he surprised fans by forgoing his senior season in 2016 and entering the NFL Draft early. But now North’s name has resurfaced, and he may have a new home soon.

          According to a report from National Football Post writer Aaron Wilson, the Dallas Cowboys worked out the former Vol on Monday.

          Although he was never his head coach, it’s worth noting that former Tennessee head football coach, Derek Dooley, is the wide receivers coach for Dallas. Dooley didn’t recruit North, but the two do share a Tennessee connection.

          North left Tennessee early after an injury-riddled junior campaign in 2015 saw him appear in just seven games. North went undrafted despite impressing scouts at the NFL Combine but was eventually signed by the Los Angeles Rams. He spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve with an undisclosed injury, however. The Rams cut him on June 20th along with three other players. Another former Vol, Brian Randolph, was released by the Rams a day later.

          North burst onto the scene with the Vols as a freshman in 2013, hauling in a toe-tapping touchdown grab in Tennessee’s oh-so-close upset bid against Georgia and brought down the catch of Tennessee’s 2013 season when he made a one-handed snag deep down the field against South Carolina two weeks later. North would finish his freshman season with 38 catches for 496 yards and a score.

          But North could never replicate his freshmen year results after that, and injury was partially to blame. He played in just 10 of the Vols’ 13 games in 2014 and caught 30 passes for 320 yards and four touchdowns. Then came his junior season that saw him hampered by multiple injuries. North would catch just six balls for 58 yards in seven games in his final year with Tennessee.

          If North can make the Cowboys’ roster, he would join former Vol tight end Jason Witten as the only two Vols in Dallas.

            Alontae Taylor is currently the Vols’ second highest-rated commit in their 2018 class according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. Taylor is a four-star athlete out of Manchester, TN, and only five-star offensive tackle Cade Mays is rated higher currently in the Vols’ group of commits in the 2018 class.

            Taylor is ranked as the No. 122 overall player in the nation according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, and he’s listed as an athlete because he plays just about every offensive skill position possible for Coffee County Central High School. Taylor projects as a wide receiver in college, but that’s actually where he’s spent the least amount of time in high school so far.

            In high school, the best athlete, regardless of where they project best at the next level, will often play quarterback if a team doesn’t have a defined quarterback situation. And that’s been the case for Taylor for the most part. In his three years at Coffee County Central, Taylor has completed 106 of his 212 pass attempts for 1,355 yards, seven touchdowns, and seven interceptions according to Max Preps. He’s also run the ball 563 times for 4,591 yards and 53 touchdowns thus far in his high school career.

            And though Taylor projects as a wide receiver for the Vols, he’s only caught 22 passes for 223 yards and a touchdown in the last two seasons of high school. And that’s why one national recruiting analyst wants to see more from Taylor this upcoming weekend at Nike’s The Opening.

            Barton Simmons, the director of scouting for 247Sports, listed Taylor in his “Five Players with Questions to Answer” portion of his preview of The Opening this weekend. The Opening is an annual event that gathers together some of the most highly-rated recruits across the country to be evaluated and scored by recruiting analysts. Two Vol commits, Taylor and Cade Mays, will be in attendance this weekend. And Simmons wants to see more of the athletic Taylor play the position he’s projected to in college.

            “Taylor is a twitched up, sudden athlete that has got a lot of upside,” Simmons writes. “As a high school quarterback, though, he’s not very polished at the wide receiver position. This week will be a great test to see how he catches the ball, tracks the ball in the air and separates as a route-runner.

            “If he can show improvement in those areas, the Tennessee commit could see his ranking rise.”

            Taylor is already one of the highest-rated athletes in the 2018 class, but proving that he can cut it as a receiver will be huge for his ranking. Not only that, but it will show Tennessee that they don’t have to worry as much about developing him and molding him as a freshman when he comes in for the 2018 season.

            Vol fans, much like Simmons, eagerly await Taylor’s performance at The Opening. They know Taylor is athletic, but they want to see that athleticism used specifically at receiver. And they hope Taylor can show that this weekend.

              (photo via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

              Former Vol wide receiver Justin Hunter has struggled to find his way in the NFL since he left Tennessee early and was taken in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft. But he is making some early waves in his new home of Pittsburgh so far.

              Gary Davenport of Bleacher Report listed the biggest standouts of all 32 NFL teams this offseason thus far, and he believes Justin Hunter has been the biggest standout for the Steelers.

              “With Antonio Brown, the reinstated Martavis Bryant, Sammie Coates, Eli Rogers and rookie Juju Smith-Schuster, the Steelers depth chart at receiver would appear to be a tough nut to crack,” Davenport writes. “But Justin Hunter is doing his best to make himself hard to cut.”

              Davenport points out that Hunter has made some “wow” plays in Pittsburgh’s OTAs and has been using his athleticism and leaping ability to separate himself from others. But Hunter’s work is far from over.

              “Strong OTAs aside, Hunter still faces an uphill climb to make the roster,” Davenports states. “But if he’s having his lightbulb moment, the Steelers receiving corps could be even more stacked in 2017.”

              As Davenport says, the Steelers are loaded at receiver right now. Antonio Brown is widely considered one of the best receivers in the NFL right now, and Martavis Bryant was on his way to becoming another star receiver before serving a suspension last season. Sammie Coates had a breakout second season in 2016, and Eli Rogers also broke out as both combined to catch 69 passes for 1,029 yards and five touchdowns.

              Finding a spot on the roster won’t be easy for Hunter, especially given how he’s perceived by many in the NFL. Hunter was taken with the second pick in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans, and he flashed his potential in his first season with the Titans. But Hunter failed to produce consistently after that and has bounced around the league since parting ways with Tennessee after the 2015 season.

              Hunter hauled in 18 passes for 354 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie, averaging nearly 20 yards per reception. But his efficiency dwindled in his next two seasons as he combined to catch just 50 passes for 762 yards and four scores in 21 games in 2014 and 2015. Hunter was signed but never played for Miami in 2016, then he was picked up by Buffalo where he caught 10 passes for 189 yards and four touchdowns.

              But Hunter has a clean slate in Pittsburgh, and so far he’s using that to his advantage.

              The Steelers signed Hunter to a one-year deal back in mid-May of this year. If Hunter can make Pittsburgh’s roster, he will be the fifth former Vol on the Steelers’ roster for the upcoming 2017 season. He would join offensive lineman Ramon Foster, defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, and newly drafted quarterback Josh Dobbs and cornerback Cam Sutton.