Team: Tennessee Volunteers
Record: 9-4 (5-3 SEC)
Key Departures: WR Von Pearson, LT Kyler Kerbyson, DT Owen Williams, FS Brian Randolph
Key Arrivals: DL Jonathan Kongbo
What happened in 2015?
The Volunteers made strides as a program last season by making themselves a tough out in the SEC, but their inability to close out games against Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas, and Alabama made the difference between them playing for the league title in Atlanta and playing in the Outback Bowl.
The combination of not taking enough chances in the passing game (Josh Dobbs had 5.9 yards per attempt) and the defense having trouble getting off the field (the unit gave up 75% on fourth down conversions as well as 23 red zone touchdowns) played a part in their woes against good team, which they’ll have to rectify if they expect to have a breakthrough 2016.
3 Key Players
QB Josh Dobbs - The senior signal-caller had a breakout 2015 campaign in which he accounted for 3,121 total yards and 26 total scores, all part of a balanced passing game where seven receivers had 20+ catches on the year. For Dobbs to take that next step, he’ll need to find a way to hit big plays through the air, because a 59.6 completion percentage and 5.9 yards per attempt isn’t going to cut it against the good defenses in the SEC.
RB Jalen Hurd - One of the better backs in a league that is loaded at the position, Hurd led a potent backfield last season with 1,283 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns on 279 rushes while adding 190 yards and two TDs on 22 receptions. With four of the five starters on the offensive line returning, he is set to have another big year and give the Vols’ offense a multi-faceted ground game with him, Dobbs, and Alvin Kamara returning 2,800+ rushing yards.
DE Derek Barnett - Arguably the best player on the UT defense (Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cam Sutton are definitely in the mix for the distinction) and a highly-touted NFL prospect for 2018, Barnett led the defensive line with 56.5 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, and ten sacks in 2015. Tennessee has a new defensive coordinator in Bob Shoop, who coached top ten defenses at Vanderbilt and Penn State, so Barnett ought to have more chances to be disruptive this season.
Best Case Scenario
If the offense takes the steps to be more explosive in the passing game, the Vols should be a 10-11 win team in 2016. You have no idea what you’re going to get out of Florida’s offense, ditto for Georgia, and Tennessee has a better all-around roster than Texas A&M at this point. Being able to host Alabama will be huge for them, but it’s hard to see UT pulling off the upset with the talent disparity being what it is between the two.
Worst Case Scenario
With a team like this, you worry about their ability to handle expectations and whether they’ll go in the tank after things don’t go their way early on. Florida’s defense will still be stout, Georgia’s backfield is still great, and going to A&M after traveling to Athens will be a huge test with Trevor Knight and Myles Garrett. The East division could very well come down to that three-game stretch and if the offense continues to play conservatively, the Volunteers could lose all three before hosting the Crimson Tide.
What will happen in 2016?
The Vols should open the season at 3-0 after taking on a good Appalachian State team, a rebuilding Virginia Tech, and a pedestrian Ohio in non-conference play. I don’t know how Florida will score with a new quarterback at Neyland, and UT should be able to put up some points on a new-look Georgia. The road game at A&M is really intriguing and will likely be the first real test for Tennessee, and I can’t really trust the Aggie defense in that spot.
The ‘Bama game will be close again this year, but the talent and the preparation of the Tide are just too much for the Orange and White this year. The rest of the schedule should be a breeze, with South Carolina, Tennessee Tech, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt not having the firepower to match up with the Volunteers. The SEC title game would likely be a rematch with Alabama, and the result will not be much different. The Vols will miss out on the Playoff, but a top-tier bowl bid will be huge in the further development of the program.