KNOXVILLE – Plenty of losses piled up on the field for UT’s major programs, but there were some bright spots for Tennessee athletics in 2013.
A pair of Lady Vols squads – softball and basketball – both had strong seasons and even though the men’s basketball team and football teams both missed the postseason, both hit a few high points.
Here’s our look at ten of the top stories from Tennessee athletics in 2013:
1. Butch Jones excels on the recruiting trail
A 5-7 record on the field didn’t stop Jones from piling up loads of highly-ranked commitments on the recruiting trail. Starting with the commitment of Vic Wharton on Christmas of 2012, Jones carried that momentum into 2013, picking up commitments from top recruits such as RB Jalen Hurd, DB Todd Kelly, LB Dillon Bates and TE Daniel Helm before the season started. He found instant help for 2014 with junior college transfers WR Lavon Pearson, OL Dontavius Blair and DT Owen Williams and has added depth and talent at nearly every spot. One of his biggest additions was WR Josh Malone, who committed to the Vols on national television in early December. Perhaps Jones’ biggest issue will be figuring out the numbers. The Vols currently have 33 commitments and the Vols can sign 30 in this class. It could take a couple of seasons for the recruiting to pay off on the field for the Vols, but it certainly has given UT fans something to look forward to.
2. Men’s basketball rallies in 2012-13 season, falls short of NCAA tournament
Sitting at 8-7 and riding a four-game losing streak, the Vols looked like anything but an NCAA tournament team in the middle of the 2012-13 campaign. The up-down-play continued into February as they fell to 11-10 after a home loss to Georgia. But the Vols would lose just one more game in the regular season and won the opening round of the SEC tournament before falling in the SEC quarterfinals to Georgia. The strong finish put UT squarely on the NCAA bubble, but, ultimately, the Vols were left out of the Big Dance and fell to Mercer in the first round of the NIT.
3. Football team struggles down the stretch, misses a bowl game
Getting to six wins and a bowl – any bowl – seemed to be the top on-field goal during coach Butch Jones’ first season in Knoxville. Tennessee fell just short. Sitting at 4-3 in the middle of October, that appeared to be a very feasible accomplishment. But games against Alabama, Auburn and Missouri – three of the top teams in the nation – proved to be too overwhelming. That left in-state rival Vanderbilt as the final chance to stay in the postseason hunt. The Vols led in the fourth quarter, but the Commodores scored a last-minute touchdown to take the win. A season-ending win at Kentucky did nothing but keep the Vols out of the SEC East cellar.
4. Football team has strong stretch against Georgia and South Carolina
The Vols hit their peak in Jones’ first season during a two-game stretch against the Bulldogs and Gamecocks. Wearing their alternate gray jerseys, Tennessee took Georgia into overtime and appeared to have the go-ahead touchdown when receiver Pig Howard lunged for a score on the first possession of OT. Howard, however, dropped the ball just before hitting the pylon, setting up UGA’s game-winning FG. After a bye week, UT continued its momentum against South Carolina – upsetting the No. 11 Gamecocks on a last-second field goal by Michael Palardy.
5. Basketball team gets off to slower-than-expected start in 2013
With returning stars Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon and talented newcomers such as Antonio Barton and Robert Hubbs, expectations were high for coach Cuonzo Martin’s third year in Knoxville. A season-opening loss on the road to Xavier started the year off on a low note. An opening-round loss in the Battle 4 Atlantis to UTEP raised more concerns. The Vols did bounce back to win the next two in the Bahamas, but back-to-back losses to Wichita State and NC State have UT at just 7-4 heading into Christmas and needing a strong run in SEC play to get back into the NCAA tournament conversation.
6. Quarterback carousel continues throughout the fall
The search for a quarterback to replace Tyler Bray never fully found an answer. Junior Justin Worley won the job out of fall camp and found some early success before struggling in a loss at Oregon. He was briefly benched for redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman, who struggled – and was injured – in his one start at Florida. Worley took back over and hit his stride in the middle of the season against Georgia and South Carolina. But a thumb injury began to bother Worley against the Gamecocks and after aggravating it at Alabama, the job was turned over to true freshman Joshua Dobbs. Dobbs was up-and-down in four starts, but did enough to show he could be the QB of the future. Worley, however, should return healthy as a senior next year and Peterman and Riley Ferguson, perhaps the most naturally gifted of the four QBs, will also be in the mix next season after taking a redshirt season in 2013.
7. UT football has notable year off the field
Already boasting some of the nicest facilities in the nation, Tennessee football took another step by adding a $45 million practice facility that includes an updated locker room, weight room, players’ lounge, nutritional center and many other state-of-the-art features. And while Jones had little say in that project, he does get credit for helping oversee the vast academic improvements in the program. After having a team GPA that hovered near 2.0 during some points during the Derek Dooley era, the Vols recorded much improved efforts in the classroom during the two semesters Jones has been in charge. The Vols also escaped potential Academic Progress Rate (APR) issues with the NCAA after posting a perfect score in the spring semester.
8. Lady Vols basketball gets off to strong start under Holly Warlick
Filling some of the biggest shoes in coaching history, Holly Warlick took the Lady Vols to a 23-6 regular-season mark and to the Elite 8 in her first season replacing legendary coach Pat Summitt. A strong recruiting class and plenty of returning talent have the Lady Vols off to a 10-1 start in the 2013-14 season. Warlick appears to be building on the foundation of success laid by Summitt, though expectations are so high that anything short of a championship can be viewed as a failure by some.
9. Lady Vols softball team reaches NCAA finals
The Lady Vols rolled through the first three games of the College World Series before falling just short against Oklahoma in the best-of-three final series. Wins over Florida, Washington and Texas set up the final matchup. The Lady Vols took a 3-0 lead against the Sooners in extra innings, but Oklahoma scored five runs of their own in the bottom half of the inning to take the first game 5-3. They finished the series off the next night with a 4-0 win.
10. Baseball team struggles in Dave Serrano’s second season
The lauded hire of Dave Serrano in 2011 has shown few dividends after two seasons. After a 24-31 (8-22 SEC) campaign in 2012, the Vols showed no improvement in Year 2, posting a 22-30 (8-20 SEC) mark. An eight-game losing streak in March through early April and a six-game skid in late April helped prevent the Vols from returning to the postseason for the first time since the 2007 season.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga
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