As much as last season’s narrative should have revolved around Tennessee getting to nine victories, finishing the season ranked and taking another step back to the national stage, 2015 wound up being more about what the Volunteers didn’t do.
That’s what happens when your four losses are oh-so-close setbacks against national champion Alabama, College Football Playoff participant Oklahoma, SEC East champion Florida and Arkansas.
Though the season ended with six consecutive victories and a convincing win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, the first half of the season still stung. It’s why the prevailing thought among Vols fans when discussing ’15 is, “The Vols played well, but…”
This year, head coach Butch Jones and the Vols will attempt to complete the transformation back to a national power by completing games in style. With talent, depth, experience and star potential at key positions, UT is a trendy pick in the polls, including the just-released Associated Press poll where the Vols were ranked ninth.
Truth be told, the Vols have the roster to be much higher than that. The pollsters aren’t pulling the trigger on a special season because of those fourth-quarter snafus a season ago. But the Vols players believe in themselves to do big things, and perhaps that leadership could push them to the top.
“We control our own destiny,” UT quarterback Joshua Dobbs told B/R recently. “If we go out and play our style, play our football, we’ll be right where we need to be.”
That style should be characterized this season by a run-first, run-often offense that needs to mix in an improved passing game from a season ago to win the important games.
Defensively, everybody is excited about plucking Penn State mad scientist Bob Shoop as the new coordinator and the talent he inherits to play his aggressive, attacking style. Toss in perhaps the best special teams unit in the country, and there’s plenty of reason for optimism on Rocky Top.
From Dobbs to running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara to returning star defenders Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Cameron Sutton and Derek Barnett, the Vols are loaded. It’s been difficult to find negativity throughout fall camp, too. It seems everybody in Knoxville knows the potential of this group.
Potential has never guaranteed production, though. And while Tennessee’s schedule isn’t as top-heavy as it’s been in recent years, it’s still tough.
So, talent plus experience plus an easier schedule plus coaching-staff upgrades to go along with a familiarity of Jones’ recruits being integrated in his system should equal a memorable year, right?
That’s why they play the football season, and it’s why B/R will break down everything you need to know about the Vols below.
So much for conservatism.
After Jones took tons of national criticism a season ago for relying too much on analytics rather than a feel for the flow of the game in early-season losses to Oklahoma and Florida and for sitting on leads with cautious play-calling, he went out this offseason and blew that belief out of the water.
The Vols saw an opportunity to make a major upgrade on the coaching staff with the hiring of Shoop, so Jones parted ways with longtime defensive coordinator John Jancek, despite the assistant following him from Cincinnati.
With all the talent on UT’s defense, Jones thought an elite coach like Shoop could maximize it, and he’s echoed that throughout spring and fall camp.
According to Gridiron Now’s Jimmy Hyams, Shoop told a gathering of UT fans this summer: “Make no mistake when [Jones] hired me, he said, ‘Your job is to get us from nine wins to 11 in a hurry.'”
That’s an important step for the program. But almost everybody with a national voice in the college football world agreed he’s capable of doing that upon his hiring:
Shoop’s players will attack, and the Vols defense is deep and loaded at most positions, so there’s no excuse for not being great. Considering Shoop’s defenses have ranked inside the top 25 in total defense in each of the past five seasons, the new mad-scientist coach could have the perfect concoction for a championship unit.
But Shoop wasn’t the only upgrade UT made to its coaching staff in the offseason. Jones also replaced tight ends coach Mark Elder—who left for the head coaching gig at Eastern Kentucky—with Miami assistant Larry Scott, who immediately became one of the best position coaches and recruiters on staff.
Beyond that, Jones’ cohesiveness continued, with all the other assistants remaining intact.
That’s good news for Tennessee’s offense, which enters Year 2 under coordinator Mike DeBord with an emphasis on improving the passing game and becoming more diverse and dynamic.
Last year, the Vols finished with the second-highest rushing total in school history, so nothing’s broken there, but a greater confidence in DeBord’s system and more trust in senior quarterback Dobbs and the experienced players around him should produce better, more balanced numbers.
If not, it’ll be a major disappointment.
All the ingredients are there for the Vols to be special this year, and many of these coaches have been together for a long time now and are familiar with one another. Combine that with two upgrades, and you can see why Jones has so much confidence in his staff.
“I told our staff [this summer] we need to embrace the expectations,” Jones told Hyams.
What to watch for on offense
Everybody knows DeBord’s offenses are not going to be mistaken for Mike Leach’s air assault, and that’s completely fine, especially when you’ve got Hurd and Kamara in the backfield along with Dobbs’ exceptional freelancing abilities.
That doesn’t change the fact that UT’s biggest question remains one we discussed last season: Can the Vols throw the ball downfield with any consistency?
For all of Dobbs’ countless assets, passing accuracy hasn’t proved to be one of them, and that needs to change. The Vols didn’t have trouble running the ball against anybody in ’15, but they also struggled to maintain offensive balance during some critical times when they needed to move the ball through the air.
Whether you want to place blame on Dobbs’ throwing inconsistency or the continued underperforming of the receiving corps, arguments can be made for both. Unfortunately for Tennessee fans, it’s a question that has lingered into fall camp, as Jones told GoVols247’s Wes Rucker on the first day in full pads:
We’ve really invested in [the passing game], but today we had too balls on the ground. We chart everything in terms of balls on the ground, from warm-ups to pat-and-go to individual periods. And, again, a dropped football, a dropped pass in our offense is equivalent to a turnover. It stifles your momentum. We have to do a better job of catching the ball as an entire offensive unit, and putting the ball where it needs to be, as well. But I do see progress, and we’ve worked very, very hard on it all summer, and we’ve worked very hard on it at this point at this stage of the game in terms of training camp through five practices.
That work paid off in later practices as the receivers began to click with Dobbs and his backups. Youngsters such as Tyler Byrd, Marquez Callaway and Brandon Johnson had flashes of brilliance while Josh Malone, Josh Smith and Preston Williams looked more dependable.
Will it translate when it matters? It’s fair to wonder aloud whether it will or not because it hasn’t in Jones’ tenure. But if the Vols find a passing game, watch out. Everything else looks strong.
It’s almost a certainty that the Vols will be good again with Hurd and Kamara carrying the load in the running game, and with an improved offensive line, they could be elite.
Losing left tackle Kyler Kerbyson will hurt, and Chance Hall’s injury makes UT thin on the exterior of the line. But Drew Richmond and Brett Kendrick have enjoyed strong fall camps and look ready, according to the Daily Times‘ Austin Bornheim:
Asking Dobbs to start chucking the ball downfield 20 times a game would be ludicrous; that’s just not his strength. But if the Vols can utilize the short passing game with enough accuracy to keep defenses honest, this is going to be a difficult offense to stop.
What to watch for on defense
And, for the most part, it wasn’t.
But vital snapshots in time are what ultimately became lasting images from the season.
Moments such as the fourth-down conversion barrage by Florida that culminated with a 63-yard touchdown pass on 4th-and-14, the numerous missed tackles on OU quarterback Baker Mayfield and the pass-defending gaffes against Bowling Green were puzzling with all that talent.
Enter Shoop, a maestro and mastermind that is tasked with turning a good defense into a great one. He’s been just as impressed with the Vols players he has on campus as they’ve been with him.
“The end position, it’s three deep, which is pretty legit,” Shoop told SEC Country’s Jesse Simonton. “[The depth] is unique to anything I’ve ever been around.”
End isn’t the only place where Tennessee has tons of talent. The secondary is so deep that UT has experimented with moving one of its most talented players—Rashaan Gaulden—from safety back to nickelback, where senior expected starter Malik Foreman resides.
That’s what happens when you have a talented freshman like Nigel Warrior and an emerging sophomore in Micah Abernathy to go along with entrenched Todd Kelly Jr.
Reeves-Maybin and stud sophomore middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. anchor the linebacking corps, and though the Vols don’t have a bunch of depth there, they’ve got some potential playmakers in Cortez McDowell and Quart’e Sapp.
The first two linebackers mentioned are why 247Sports director of scouting Barton Simmons believes Shoop’s first defense at UT will thrive:
The only real worry is at defensive tackle, where the depth isn’t great yet. But if the Vols get Shy Tuttle healthy and recently reinstated Alexis Johnson into shape to get some reps, that will remedy the situation altogether.
Sure, there are a few question marks on Shoop’s defense, but the group has the potential to be deep and elite.
The Chance Hall injury is a painful blow to a Tennessee team that is already thin at offensive tackle, especially considering the defending Freshman All-SEC player was vying to start yet again.
Thankfully for the Vols, they’ve got a couple of quality tackles in Richmond and Kendrick to plug and play until Hall can return to provide some much-needed depth. That could happen as soon as the Florida game in Week 4.
Beyond that, however, it’s been a pain-free fall, which is a much different story from a spring practice session that resembled a Civil War battlefield.
It’s a blessing for UT that it has been able to practice aggressively and hasn’t experienced many bumps and bruises. The Vols have managed several stars such as Hurd, who has gone the whole fall in a green jersey.
Tennessee has dealt with the usual nagging injuries, but the Vols haven’t been dealt a season-altering injury like several teams around the nation. The Vols also were rattled a season ago when projected starting nickelback Gaulden was lost for the year with a foot injury.
Nothing like that has happened. Instead, this fall has been about getting guys healthy such as Reeves-Maybin and Tuttle, a pair of players vital to the team’s success. Though Jones deemed JRM ready, the Vols linebacker still isn’t totally convinced his shoulder is ready until he takes some live bullets.
“I still don’t know,” he told the Daily Beacon‘s Rob Harvey. “I mean, you can’t simulate being in a game. Once you go in a game…I mean, I ain’t hit nobody full speed yet. It’s just gonna be something I have to put faith in. I trust our training room and our strength staff.”
The Vols are a week away from the season opener, and the vast majority of contributors are on the field and ready. If that holds true, it’ll be a successful camp.
Maybe it’s a bit of a cop-out to go with a surefire star starter as your X-factor on defense, but there are going to be a lot of people who are surprised at just how good Kirkland is going to be this year.
Not only did he outplay Reeves-Maybin during spurts as a true freshman, but he assumed leadership responsibilities this spring when UT’s star linebacker was out with a shoulder injury.
When you add that to the fact that Kirkland is an elite, sideline-to-sideline ‘backer playing in an ideal system under Shoop, take into consideration that he now has a full year-and-a-half on campus and has a keen knowledge of the defense, it’s going to be a big year.
They’ll know. Soon.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Kirkland deserves All-SEC accolades at the end of the season. He’s a special talent, and he’s going to begin to show the nation that this season.
Reeves-Maybin gets all the hype, and deservedly so; he’s going to be a longtime NFL defender. But Kirkland has the potential to be just as good. He’s smart, scary-talented and is now playing for one of the best coordinators in the nation. That bodes well for UT’s defense.
Offensively, the easy pick here is Williams.
It wouldn’t be a big surprise if Malone turned into the player everybody expects him to be during his junior season, but Williams showed out during the spring and has proved this fall that wasn’t a flash in the pan.
He’s a potentially dynamic target for Dobbs who can stretch the field and is physical enough to be a go-to guy on third down.
Everybody wants to talk about freshmen like Byrd and Callaway, and the Vols need those guys to provide quality depth. Other than them, the rest of the noise-makers on offense should be guys who’ve done it before in orange and white. You expect Hurd, Kamara and Dobbs to be strong.
But Williams could emerge as a household name. There’s a reason why everybody in the Southeast wanted him. Passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni needs to find a way to utilize those immense talents.
There’s no question that the success of Tennessee’s season will be determined during a rugged four-game stretch from Sept. 24 until Oct. 15 without a bye week.
That run includes home games against Florida and Alabama bookending road trips to Georgia and Texas A&M. No matter how much better UT’s schedule is than in recent seasons, that’s a brutal four games by anybody’s standards.
“Tennessee’s hopes of an SEC East title,” SEC Country’s Jay Clemons wrote in an article ranking that run as the second-toughest stretch in the league, “will likely sink or swim during this four-game stretch.”
Going 3-1 during that time frame before a bye week and a relatively easy backstretch of the season would almost ensure the Vols make it to Atlanta.
Another game to watch besides those is the Battle at Bristol against Virginia Tech in front of 160,000-plus fans. While the Hokies are the less-talented team on paper, they’ve still got defensive coordinator Bud Foster, and a new head coach in Justin Fuente makes VT a major unknown.
Finally, while Jones has had South Carolina’s number and the Gamecocks aren’t supposed to be good this year, UT can’t overlook that game at Columbia against Vols killer Will Muschamp.
While the Vols have come out on the winning end of all three Jones-coached games against the Gamecocks, all of them have been close. Yes, the Vols should win, but they can’t sleepwalk through that late-season, post-grueling stretch game, either.
It would be a bit too braggadocious to say I’ve been the predicting version of Deadshot during the past three years when it comes to Tennessee’s record, due to the fact that I was one off last year.
But correctly predicting 5-7 and 6-6 in 2013 and ’14, respectively, means I was just one game away from a perfect three-year total after taking my incorrect 9-3 assumption a year ago into consideration. (Hey, the Vols did win nine games; it just took the bowl game to do it.)
Even so, this year seems like the year for the Vols. Let’s face it: It’s the season Jones and crew have been pointing to ever since they got to Knoxville, and everything seems lined up from a roster and schedule standpoint to do big things.
How big? It would not be a surprise to me if Tennessee was a College Football Playoff participant. This roster has that ability.
But it’s just so difficult to project that, considering how this past decade of UT football has gone, right? Unless you’re Alabama and Nick Saban, it takes time to rebuild a program, and it takes time to rehabilitate that belief that you belong among the elite.
The Vols are getting there. Last year’s final stretch of the season went a long way in Jones’ regime.
But are they ready to win championships? They’re certainly ready to win the SEC East. While that should be the goal this year, it’s also the most that any sane prognosticator should pick right now.
Tennessee is going to be sitting on 10 wins going into the SEC Championship Game after losing on the road at Texas A&M and at home against Alabama. Wins over Florida and Georgia will secure any East tiebreaker, and the Vols will have the opportunity to get a program-changing victory in Atlanta.
If they make it that far, UT will win that game and just miss the playoffs, gaining a Sugar Bowl berth instead with the chance for 12 wins. That would be an epic season that will put the Vols back among college football’s elite for the foreseeable future.
Overall Record: 10-2
Conference Record: 6-2
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.
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Source: Bleacher Report -SEC Football