UT a top-five defense?

With nine starters back from last year's unit, Tennessee's defense projects to be pretty stout in the 2005 football season. But at least one expert thinks it'll be one of the five most talented stop units in the NCAA.

Responding to a question on the popular collegefootballnews.com website, Pete Fiutak rates the Vols' defense No. 4 nationally heading into the '05 season. Interestingly enough, though, he tabs the Big Orange No. 2 in the Southeastern Conference. Alabama is Fiutak's pick as the No. 3 defense in the NCAA.

Fiutak's complete top five is as follows: 1) Miami, 2) Penn State, 3) Alabama, 4) Tennessee, 5) Ohio State.

In addition, Fiutak lists three more SEC teams -- Auburn, LSU and Georgia - among seven defensive units that just missed his top five.

Certainly, Tennessee's front four should be awesome. That's because of the return of tackles Jesse Mahelona (All-America as a junior) and Justin Harrell (Defensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl), along with All-SEC end Parys Haralson. Only end Karlton Neal is gone from 2004's starting quartet, and he'll be capably replaced by senior Jason Hall.

The Vol linebacking corps lost standout Kevin Burnett but returns three seniors with considerable starting experience -- Kevin Simon, Jason Mitchel l and Omar Gaither. Meanwhile, UT's secondary returns intact, led by Jason Allen, the SEC tackles leader in 2004.

Clearly, UT has one of the NCAA's most talented and experienced defenses. Whether it has one of the top five remains to be seen. Fiutak obviously thinks so. Responding to a question under the heading "Ask Collegefootballnews.com," Fiutak made these comments to explain his lofty rankings of Alabama and Tennessee:

Alabama: This aggressive D gets most of the key parts back, but the performance against Minnesota to close things out was a little disturbing.

Tennessee: Nine starters come back, and that doesn't even include Kevin Simon. The line is fantastic, while Jason Allen leads a loaded secondary.

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