KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Now that Tennessee's season is over, the real intrigue begins.
The Volunteers aren't bowl eligible after posting a 5-7 record that included just one Southeastern Conference victory, but they'll still command plenty of attention over the next few weeks. Questions surround this program that annually competed for conference titles not long ago.
— Who's going to be the Vols' next coach?
— Will quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson — all projected as first- or second-round draft picks — return for their senior seasons?
— And perhaps the most important question of all: What will it take for Tennessee to become a consistent winner again?
"I think if we can just (get) someone here who can get us back to playing Tennessee football — hard, physical football — we'll be back there dominating everybody like we used to," said fullback Ben Bartholomew, one of 13 seniors who finished their college careers Saturday in a 37-17 triumph over Kentucky.
Tennessee's victory over Kentucky prevented the Vols from going winless in SEC competition for the first time in school history. The Vols still recorded their third straight losing season, the first time that's happened here in over a century. This extended run of futility resulted in the firing of Derek Dooley, who posted a 15-21 record in three seasons.
Athletic director Dave Hart now must search for Dooley's successor while the Vols' most notable players decide on their futures.
Bray, Hunter and Patterson all are projected as first- or second-round picks if they enter next year's draft. The three juniors said Saturday they hadn't decided whether to turn pro. Bray and Hunter indicated the coaching search could impact their choices.
"It's going to play a big part in our decision, so we have to wait for that before we make our decision," Hunter said.
Their choices will determine what kind of offense the new coach inherits.
Bray threw for 3,612 yards and 34 touchdowns this year to rank second on Tennessee's single-season list in both categories, behind Peyton Manning's 3,819 yards and 36 touchdown passes in 1997. Justin Hunter accumulated the second-most catches (73) and third-most receiving yards (1,083) in school history. Patterson gained 1,858 all-purpose yards to break Reggie Cobb's 25-year-old school record.
"It was an awesome year," Patterson said. "Things came up big for me. I didn't expect any of this coming from junior college. I didn't even think I was going to play that much. I just came here and worked hard every day, and good things happened."
Tennessee already must replace departing senior receiver Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera. If Hunter and Patterson both leave, the Vols wouldn't return a single wideout who caught more than 13 passes this year.
If Tennessee must break in a first-year starting quarterback and a new receiving corps, the offense would need to rely on a line that gave up just eight sacks this season. The Vols would welcome back four starters on the line if junior tackle Ja'Wuan James doesn't enter the draft.
James hasn't made a decision about next year, though he hopes Dooley's successor retains offensive line coach Sam Pittman.
"We got comfortable with him," James said. "That guy recruited me. I like what's going on now, and if we can keep him, that would be good."
But the biggest chore facing the new coach is reviving a defense that couldn't stop anyone this season.
Tennessee allowed the most points (35.7) and yards (471.4) per game of any SEC team this season. The Vols hadn't allowed that high a scoring average since 1893, when they gave up 42.7 points per game while playing a six-game schedule. They hadn't yielded that many yards per game since at least 1950, the earliest year Tennessee's sports information department has that statistic on file.
The Vols have one exceptional defensive playmaker in linebacker A.J. Johnson, who pulled off a rare achievement as a sophomore this year by leading his team in both touchdown runs and tackles. Johnson ran for six touchdowns while carrying the ball 12 times all season on direct snaps. He also leads the SEC with 138 tackles and is ranked fourth nationally with 11.5 tackles per game.
Tennessee must find plenty more defenders just like him. While Dooley and his staff received much of the criticism for Tennessee's struggles this year, the Vols' fortunes won't change until the players start performing better.
"I am not really focused on" the coaching search, Johnson said. "I know that it is really on us as players. I'm going to try to come in and lead the team as much as I can."