Tennessee – A Return To Glory
Let us assume for a minute that the Tennessee Volunteers live up to the expectations or hype, or whatever you want to call it, and win their first four games of the season. That would mean they enter the month of October having beaten the Oklahoma Sooners in Neyland Stadium and the Florida Gators in The Swamp (they haven’t done the latter over a decade). At 4-0, they would then face Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, and Kentucky. Being generous, I think they beat Kentucky and one of the other three. Then between the South Carolina game and the Missouri game, they split and gain another victory. Add to that easy wins over Vanderbilt and North Texas and the Vols go 9-3, which I think could be a realistic finish to the season. But with three conference losses, they would likely still fall short of winning the East.
Now let’s replay the season. Only this time, Tennessee loses close, heartbreaking games to Oklahoma and Florida. UT loses three of the four in October, and again splits with South Carolina and Missouri. Now they are 6-6. That is probably the worst-case scenario.
Either way, I believe the evaluations and projections of the Volunteers are correct in spirit, but wrong in timing. Athlon has Tennessee second in the East, Marcus Spears of the SEC Network thinks they will win the East, and Bleacher Report thinks they could make the College Football Playoff. Big Orange country is hoping to return to former glory and to re-establish Tennessee as a member of college football royalty. In three years, we will be discussing Tennessee as a force to be reckoned with and a threat to make the College Football Playoff on a relatively consistent basis. But this year, the offensive line is too big a question mark. The lack of depth at running back and linebacker is also a concern, and God forbid, that Josh Dobbs gets hurt.
Another issue is the Vols’ run defense. On the outside, the Vols look lethal, with Maggitt, Bennett, and Reeves-Maybin, but up front, the Vols lose AJ Johnson, who was possibly the most feared inside linebacker in the SEC last season. And while the Vols have a big time defensive tackle prospect coming in five-star Khalil McKenzie, the middle of this defense is a year away from being able to consistently stop teams like Georgia, Alabama, and Arkansas from running the ball. This could be like Ole Miss from a year ago – very talented, but a year away from becoming one of the best in the nation.
But don’t get me wrong I agree in spirit with analysts who predict the Vols will win big, I just disagree with when it will come. Imagine a 2016 Tennessee team with yet another big-time recruiting class (hopefully full of offensive line talent) joining Josh Dobbs, Jalen Hurd, Marquez North, Jason Croom, Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Todd Kelly, Jr., Khalil McKenzie, and so many other seasoned upperclassmen. Hell, maybe even Sutton will stick around another year for a shot at winning the SEC.
I am definitely picking the Vols to win the SEC in the not too distant future. But not this year.