The Tennessee hype train is revving up, loaded with passengers and ready to accelerate out of the station for the first time in more than a decade.
For the first time since 2005, Tennessee was picked to win the SEC East at media days in July by the assembled members of the media, and it was picked higher than fourth in the struggling division for just the second time since 2010 (the Vols were picked second last year).
What’s more, the Vols chimed in at No. 10 in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll, and they were one of four teams who received first place votes.
The Vols are nationally relevant again, but can they live up to the sky-high expectations?
There’s Really Only One Roster Problem
Quarterback Joshua Dobbs took a ton of heat for not being able to stretch the field consistently through the air a year ago.
For good reason.
Dobbs had a 105.66 passer rating against top 25 teams, according to CFBStats.com. He tossed only two touchdowns and completed just 52.6 percent of his passes against ranked competition.
That won’t cut it.
But as much heat as Dobbs took, part of that inability to stretch the field rested on the shoulders of a beat up and inconsistent wide receiving corps that never found a groove during the 2015 season.
Marquez North was banged up and underperformed, before declaring for the NFL draft. Preston Williams was an unseasoned freshman who fought through injuries of his own. Jauan Jennings had only a month of work at the position after moving from quarterback. Former hot-shot recruit Josh Malone, who played in every game, did so despite a nagging groin injury.
“Everyone wants to talk about the quarterback, but sometimes playing winning football at the quarterback position is a by-product to the players around him,” said head coach Butch Jones. “We’ve had the unfortunate circumstances the last couple of years to be decimated by injuries at the wide receiver position.”
The receivers know that all of the pressure is on them.
“It does start with my position group,” said junior Josh Smith, according to UTSports.com. “I have to start there and then work my way to the offensive line and running backs. Each day, we are just trying to improve.”
If Tennessee can find just one wide receiver to become a consistent downfield threat, it’s not like Dobbs has to evolve into Peyton Manning for the Vols to be successful. One downfield threat will keep the safeties at bay, and allow the multi-dimensional rushing attack led by Dobbs, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara to turn those three- and four-yard gains into six- and seven-yard gains.
If that happens—and it will, barring injury—good luck stopping this offense.
Veterans Already Learned
Tennessee struck gold this offseason, when cornerback Cam Sutton, linebacker and leading tackler Jalen Reeves-Maybin, running back Alvin Kamara and essentially the core of last season’s 9-4 team decided to return to Rocky Top after flirting with the NFL.
The 2016 Vols will be better for it.
Adding in senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs, this group of Vols learned the hard way last year when they threw away three, two-score leads in critical games early in the season; and grew up in a hurry.
“I thought the biggest—everyone points to what one game changed your season last year, and I know the Georgia game was a great win, but I still to this day feel it was the Arkansas game,” Jones said. “And our kids were at a crossroad and everyone could hear the negative noise, they could hear the clutter and the distractions. And when we took the team picture on Monday, and I thought that’s where our leadership—that’s really where our competitive character showed through.”
That’s not lip service, that actually shined through.
The Vols were 7-1 after that loss, with the only loss during that stretch coming on the road to eventual national champion Alabama in a game in which the Vols drove down and scored a go-ahead touchdown with under six minutes to play against one of the best defenses in the nation.
They didn’t hold it, because former Tide quarterback Jake Coker and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry had season-defining moments on the game-winning drive for the Tide.
With the veterans cemented in stone as the unquestioned leaders of the Vols, they can keep that positive momentum generated down the stretch going into a critical 2016 season in which the expectations are—justifiably—enormous.
“It is no challenge at all,” said Dobbs. “We have the highest expectations for ourselves. We hold ourselves to high standard when we perform on the field, when we practice, and when we work out. We look at the little details and the things you might not want to do and we do those things in order to become great.”
The Schedule Isn’t THAT Hard
Tennessee draws Alabama out of the West as its permanent cross-division rivalry game every year, hasn’t beaten Florida in a decade and has a tough road game against Texas A&M—a dangerous team outside of the top 25—as its rotating cross-division game in 2015.
That’s not a cakewalk, but it’s not a gauntlet by any stretch of the imagination.
The Alabama game, which went down to the wire last year will take place in Neyland Stadium, Florida—a team with significant offensive holes to fill—will head to Rocky Top in Week 4 for its first road test of the season with only games against North Texas, UMass and Kentucky under its belt. While Texas A&M is a tough place to play in theory, the Aggies‘ biggest home win under fifth-year head coach Kevin Sumlin is either over Vanderbilt in 2013 or Mississippi State last year.
Whichever side of the aisle you sit in that argument, it isn’t exactly comfortable for Aggie fans.
The tricky stretch that starts with the home game vs. the Gators on Sept. 24 and takes the Vols to Georgia and Texas A&M before returning home to play the Crimson Tide prior to the bye week is the most critical stretch of the season.
But they don’t necessarily have to run the table. If Jones and Co. can get to the bye week with one loss—even if it’s to division foe Georgia or Florida—the uncertainty and inexperience on both of those rosters makes it far more likely for both to drop two games than it is the Vols to drop another one down the stretch.
It’s not the easiest schedule in the world, but let’s not make it out to be one that’s filled with hurdles around every turn either. With the experience Tennessee has on its roster, it’s certainly navigable.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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Source: Bleacher Report -SEC Football