A team like Tennessee gives you nightmares if you're a preseason prognosticator. You know they were 7-6 last year. You know that they're loaded and appear to be getting better. The question is how much better they're going to get. Lean too much on the growth prediction, and you project them to be SEC East champions and take a chance at looking like a fool. Lean too little, and you miss a chance to peg one of the emerging trends of the season.
Some of what's going into the projection of Tennessee as a vastly improved team is dangerous stuff. Teams that get hot late are always likely to deceive some people, but the Volunteers' late surge at the end of 2014 sounds a lot less impressive when you drill down beyond the fact that Tennessee was 4-1 over its last five games. The four wins were an overtime victory at a 7-6 South Carolina team with a knack for late-game meltdowns; wins against Kentucky and at Vanderbilt; and defeating 7-6 Iowa in a bowl game. Missouri -- the only team Tennessee played over that stretch that would end up more than a game over .500 -- beat the Vols in Knoxville.
But there does seem to be something real to the idea of Tennessee's long post-Fulmer rebuilding project reaching an inflection point. For one thing, with the possible exception of the win at South Carolina, few of Tennessee's wins last year had the feel of a lucky game or a coin-flip contest where the Volunteers just happened to come out on top.
And consider: the Volunteers team that went 7-6 in 2014 returned not a single starter to the offensive or defensive lines. That would normally mean instantaneous and gruesome death in the SEC, and a few other power leagues, but the Volunteers managed to ride it out. Sure, they allowed 43 sacks and gained just 3.6 yards a rush, but they found other ways to offset that.
The payoff for that is that Tennessee returns 21 starters this season, including four along the offensive line and three along the defensive line. (Though there are questions about who will start and where they will start on the offensive line this season.) Joshua Dobbs, who led Tennessee during that 4-1 run to end the year, will go for his first full season as a starting quarterback after staring games in 2013 and 2014. Playing in just six games last year, Dobbs piled up almost 1,700 yards of total offense and showed a good deal of accuracy for a relatively young player. Ten of the top 11 receivers from last year are back, including all of the top seven -- though Pig Howard will miss the opener. Jalen Hurd will take another run at a 1,000-yard season after coming up 101 yards short in 2014.
The defense loses A.J. Johnson (who missed part of last year anyway) and will be without LaDarrell McNeil at least for a while because of injury. But there's still a solid core returning. Jalen Reeves-Maybin comes back after tying Johnson for the lead in tackles last year at 101; Reeves-Maybin also had 11 tackles for loss, including two sacks. Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt combined for (gulp) 21 sacks among 35.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Both of them are also back.
There are some depth questions. Dobbs is the only returning letterman at quarterback. The same for Jalen Hurd, though JUCO player Alvin Kamara and transfer Ralph David Abernathy IV at least provide some experience behind Hurd on the depth chart. If Dobbs goes down because of injury or any other reason, a freshman will likely end up taking the snaps. Then again, as long as he stays healthy and on the field, things should go pretty well.
And while the game against Oklahoma will get most of the early-season attention for this team, a four-game stretch that begins Sept. 26 should tell us exactly where the Volunteers fall in the SEC East. Tennessee starts goes to Florida, then plays Arkansas and then Georgia at home, and then takes a bye before heading to Tuscaloosa. End that period with one or maybe two losses -- as long as one of them isn't Georgia -- and the Volunteers will have a good chance at proving right those who bit the bullet and named them favorites in the division. Do worse than that and Tennessee will still be better than it was in 2015, but the true return to glory will have to wait at least another year.
The perfect season: Joshua Dobbs takes a giant leap with the full-time starting gig secured, becoming one of the top-flight dual-threat quarterbacks in the SEC. Jalen Hurd puts up a 1,000-yard season. And the defense shuts down opponents as well as it seems capable of doing. The Vols roll through the front half of the schedule, putting together a 5-1 record and an undefeated mark in the conference as they travel to Alabama. The stage is set for a run to the SEC Championship Game that only Missouri might be able to stop.
The nightmare: Dobbs plateaus and maybe even takes a step or two backward. Injuries hit either the offensive backfield or the defense. After the loss to Oklahoma and the inevitable recovery against Western Carolina, the Volunteers head to Gainesville and lose to Florida. The Arkansas game is a squeaker -- and maybe even a loss -- and defeats against Georgia, Alabama and Missouri quickly follow. Tennessee ends up 7-5 or 6-6, with the improvement fans had hoped for not making much of a dent in the record.
What actually happens: It's important to keep in mind that, despite the growing up they did last year, this is still a somewhat young team at key positions. Hurd and Barnett are sophomores, and Dobbs hasn't gone through a full season leading a team through an SEC schedule. Is there a decent chance that the Volunteers to win the SEC East? Sure. The division has been nothing if not unpredictable over the last few years, and any unexpected improvements at South Carolina or Kentucky are just as likely to catch up to the division favorites as they are to hit Tennessee. But banking on that still seems a bit premature. An eight- or nine-win season and a good bowl spot is probably the best bet.