Tennessee’s 2016 season really began all the way back on New Year’s Day after its 45-6 humiliation of the Northwestern Wildcats in the Outback Bowl. The Vols scored at will and locked down on defense — rushing for a total of 226 yards while only allowing 3.7 yards per play. It was if they were playing the East High Wildcats from “High School Musical” rather than a team from a “Power Five” conference.
Who knows how much those student-athletes from “The Harvard of the Midwest” actually cared — and we all know Tennessee fans would quickly point out that Northwestern was “garbage” had a team like Georgia defeated them — but, I digress. Once it was clear the Vols were simply too talented and athletic for the Wildcats, the hype train for Team 120 gained steam.
In the ensuing months, that steam has combusted into an inferno. The Tennessee faithful set the streets of Twitter ablaze with constant shots at opposing SEC fan bases and relentless ridicule of Florida cornerback Jalen “Teez” Tabor.
Those fans put on their big-boy pants because, for the first time in a decade, the bar for the football program is set high by the national media. Colin Cowherd, Kirk Herbstreit and other national pundits believe the Vols are destined to win the SEC East for the first time since 2007. The AP Preseason Poll ranked Tennessee as the No. 9 team in the country, the program’s highest preseason ranking since 2005, when they were ranked third. At SEC Media Days, the Vols were overwhelmingly voted the SEC East favorites. Multiple players have been placed on endless preseason watch lists for prestigious awards like the Maxwell and Bednarik.
So now to the question burning through everyone’s mind during the offseason: Is the hype legitimate?
Not only is the hype legitimate, but the Vols are actually underrated. Based on returning talent and a favorable schedule, Tennessee should be ranked inside the top-five and should go undefeated during the regular season.
With 17 starters returning, the Vols retain the same nucleus that reeled off five-consecutive victories to cap off 2015 in dominating fashion. Experience is crucial in college football, and Tennessee has it in bunches. Battling against SEC competition on a week-by-week basis — as well as being in the national spotlight playing against the likes of Oregon and Oklahoma — have only been beneficial to Team 120.
Take a quick glance at the schedule. Tennessee sees one favorable situation after another. Both Florida and Alabama — the team’s biggest rivals — must travel to Neyland Stadium and face a whirlwind of Checker Neyland-overalls and the world’s largest choir. The Battle at Bristol will take place in front of the largest crowd in college football history, but the orange and white will run circles around Virginia Tech. Road trips to College Station and Athens are challenges, but the Vols have the perfect ingredients for road success — a punishing ground game and a dominant front seven.
Speaking of the ground game, does any team in the nation feature a three-headed rushing monster close to Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara? Treadmills, megaphones and Aerospace Engineering aside, this trio will control games for Tennessee behind an offensive line returning four starters. Hurd and Kamara aren’t one-dimensional running backs, either. Butch Jones demands versatility from his top two offensive weapons, and Hurd and Kamara can run, catch passes out of the backfield and block.
Dobbs isn’t the most accurate downfield passer, but does he need to be? Dobbs’ responsibilities boil down to this: Don’t turn the ball over (he threw only five interceptions last season) and continue to be versatile. He isn’t Johnny Manziel. He isn’t Cam Newton. He isn’t Marcus Mariota. And that’s perfectly fine.
Defensively, good luck to opposing SEC offenses trying to find success against a front seven headlined by future NFL players Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Derek Barnett.
According to Pro Football Focus, Barnett was the SEC’s top edge-rusher last season, beating out Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett. Reeves-Maybin doesn’t have a weakness. He’s a sure-fire tackler who can rush the passer, blow up plays in the backfield and drop back in coverage. The front seven also features a few physical freaks to compliment a defensive line that first-year defensive coordinator Bob Stoops says is three-men deep on the edges. The secondary faces questions outside of All-SEC cornerback Cam Sutton, but that won’t be enough of a pitfall to cause serious concern.
Don’t forget special teams. Evan Berry is arguably the nation’s top returner. Punters aren’t usually known for their ability to change a game, but Trevor Daniel is an exception to the rule. Kicker Aaron Medley was inches away from nailing a 55-yard game-winning field goal against the Gators last season, an impressive display of power by college kicking standards.
But the primary reason why the Vols should finish the regular season 12-0 is because the SEC, as a collective conference, is weak. Alabama won’t overcome its brutal roster overhaul from last season’s National Championship squad, Florida and Georgia don’t have a quarterback, Texas A&M has under-performed more than met expectations and the SEC East is a putrid division. While the vast majority of the SEC has weakened, Tennessee has only gotten stronger.
What remains to be seen is if Tennessee can overcome its fourth-quarter blues, which mostly were a result of poor coaching decisions and not the team’s mental makeup. If anything, bouncing back from a puzzling home loss to Arkansas and managing to finish 9-4 is a sign of mental toughness.
The Vols are primed for an early December trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game at the very minimum. Anything less is unacceptable. What happens beyond that point is anyone’s guess.
Tennessee will field the SEC’s most balanced roster with one of the greatest home-field advantages in all of sports. If that doesn’t spell out U-N-D-E-F-E-A-T-E-D to you, then it’s probably why you aren’t a Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion.
Edited by Nathan Odom
Featured images by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics