Tide schedule preview: Tennessee

The rundown

2011 record: 5-7

2011 conference record: 1-7

Returning starters: Offense: 10; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners:

OG Dallas Thomas, WR Da'Rick Rogers, OT Ja'Wuan James, WR Justin Hunter, TE Mychal Rivera, QB Tyler Bray, LB A.J. Johnson, S Brian Randolph, LB Curt Maggitt, LB Herman Lathers, CB Prentiss Waggner

Key losses:

RB Tauren Poole, DT Malik Jackson, DE Ben Martin, LB Austin Johnson

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Tauren Poole (693 yards)

Passing: Tyler Bray* (1,983 yards)

Receiving: Da'Rick Rogers* (1,040 yards)

Tackles: Austin Johnson (81)

Sacks: Malik Jackson (2.5)

Interceptions: Austin Johnson (4)

What they're saying:

"I knew there were some challenges internally. I knew there were challenges with our culture. But probably the one thing that surprised me the most was the state of our roster. When we were in my first spring practice, I knew that this was going to be a much tougher road to plow than what I expected when I got here. Because I think I was probably no different than most typical fans who see the Power T and you expect a pretty deep and talented roster. And we didn't have that. Certainly the attrition had a big impact on it because of the changes. I knew that it was not something we could solve right away," -- Vols coach Derek Dooley in May.

Three things to watch:

1. The maturation of Tyler Bray: For half of last season, Bray was a hot topic among SEC fans. How good was he? Was he a product of his receivers? Could he compete against the Alabamas and LSUs of the world? Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately for him) an injury kept Bray out of the meat of Tennessee's schedule. He missed games against LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas -- otherwise known as four of the six ranked teams the Vols would face all year. When he did come back late in the season, Bray was not sharp. The Vols lost to Kentucky -- a previously unthinkable occurrence -- and had to go into overtime to beat Vanderbilt. In those games, Bray completed less than 50 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions than touchdowns. Yes, Bray has all the tools to be a top-flight quarterback in the SEC. But is he ready, and can he get the other areas of his game right in order to be the man many Vols fans are hoping for?

2. On the hot seat: The pressure seems to be mounting on the Vols' third-year head coach. How will that translate to the field? Tennessee has made strides in overhauling the roster, but the talent across the board isn't there yet. Bray is solid under center and Hunter and Rogers could become the best wide receiver tandem in all of college football, but in the SEC that's not enough. Dooley has his hands full with the defense, the running game and an offensive line that surrendered more sacks than its own defense could muster. The good news? Tennessee has an easier road schedule with away dates at Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Conversely, they'll host Florida, Alabama and Missouri, and skip LSU this season.

3. Sunseri guiding the defense: We'll see just what former UA assistant coach Sal Sunseri learned under Nick Saban and Kirby Smart in his new position at Tennessee. The new Vols defensive coordinator has eight returning starters, but he must teach everyone new schemes and technique. As with all new coaches, a learning curve has to be expected. Sunseri has a young defense to work with that will only get better as he recruits the right pieces. But recruiting isn't the question with Sunseri. We know how talented he is in that department. What remains to be seen is how good he is when the lights are up and he is making in-game adjustments and calling plays from the sidelines.

TideNation spoke with Tennessee beat writer Patrick Brown, who answered more questions about the Vols.