May 25, 2024

2016 SEC East Preview: Tennessee Volunteers

What does the 2016 football season have in store for the Volunteers?

Photo by Jordan Dajani

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Butch Jones and the Tennessee Volunteers held on for a wild ride through the 2015-2016 college football season. The Vols opened the year with an explosive 59-30 victory over Bowling Green in Nashville, but squandered away three double-digit leads to Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas to limp their way to a 2-3 record.

Then, Tennessee flipped the script.

The Vols overcame a 21-point first half deficit to stun Georgia, 38-31, scared eventual national champion Alabama and won their final six games to finish the season with a 9-4 record.

Tennessee’s record has improved by two wins each season since Jones’ first year on Rocky Top, and some think the Vols could continue that trend and win 11 games in the 2016-2017 college football season.

Strengths:

New defensive coordinator Bob Shoop should be delighted with the group of playmakers he received when he agreed to replace John Jancek as head of the defensive unit for the Vols.

Cornerback Cam Sutton, defensive end Derek Barnett and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin all passed on the NFL Draft to return and lead what should be one of the fiercest defenses in the nation this season.

The Vols have a loaded front seven. Junior Derek Barnett headlines a deep defensive line unit, while senior Jalen Reeves-Maybin and sophomore phenom Darrin Kirkland Jr. should lead a talented linebacking group looking to terrorize offenses that Tennessee will see this year.

Weaknesses:

There aren’t any glaring weaknesses for the Vols this year, but a struggle that has ached Vol fans for two years could be the key in the biggest moments of the season.

Josh Dobbs’ mobility, paired with the backfield tandem of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, created all sorts of problems for run defenses last season. However, Dobbs’ inability to accurately throw the ball down the field hurt the Vols against good defenses.

Now match Dobbs’ struggles with a receiving corps that failed to really announce its presence in many games, and Tennessee fans are looking at a potential one-dimensional team against a run-stuffing defense.

Tennessee won’t have to rely on Dobbs’ throwing ability in seven or eight games, however, the other four or five (more on these games later) will require Dobbs to keep the defense off-balance. There were 69 FBS quarterbacks with batter passing efficiency ratings than Dobbs had last year. He was good enough for the Vols down the stretch, but if Tennessee wants to end up in Atlanta in the fall, Dobbs and the Vols’ many weapons at receiver need to show up in the big games.

Players to watch:

LB Darrin Kirkland Jr., Soph.After playing in just 13 collegiate games, some think that Kirkland is already one of the best linebackers in the SEC. His instincts and knack for the football draw him to plays everywhere on the field. If he grows into the linebacker Tennessee expects him to be, Kirkland could be an All-SEC player at season’s end.

DE Derek Barnett, Jr. Although Barnett provided plenty of flashy plays in the 2015-2016 season, his overall numbers lacked compared to his outstanding freshman campaign. He had less solo and overall tackles, including eight less tackles for loss (12.5 compared to a record-setting 20.5 his freshman year). Barnett received a lot more attention from opposing offensive lines last year, but don’t be surprised if Barnett’s numbers jump back up while opposing offensive lines have their hands full with his teammates.

WR Josh Smith, RS Jr.Josh Smith and the rest of the Tennessee wide receivers can make life a lot easier on Josh Dobbs with better play this season. Teams with stronger defensive units like Alabama and Georgia will likely sell out on the run and make Dobbs earn the win through the air. Josh Smith has, on the whole, been the Vols’ most dependable receiver with Dobbs at the helm. His speed and reliable hands make him an ideal go-to target for Dobbs when Tennessee has to air the ball out.

RB Alvin Kamara, RS Jr. — In his first season on Rocky Top as a junior college transfer, Kamara racked up nearly 700 rushing yards and was fifth on the team in receiving yards. He combined for ten touchdowns as a “second string” back and is one of the most explosive players on Tennessee’s roster. Although Jalen Hurd has speed, Kamara’s quickness provides a nice backfield complement to Hurd’s bruising runs. As long as offensive coordinator Mike DeBord keeps giving Kamara touches, Tennessee will find the end zone.

Games to watch:

Sept. 24 vs Florida Simply put, Tennessee hasn’t beaten Florida in eleven years and that has to change this year. The game will be in Neyland Stadium, the Vols have a deeper team and should have the talent edge in position groups almost across the board. The Gators’ quarterback will be playing his first game in Neyland Stadium in a matchup that could make the SEC East race a lot fuzzier.

Oct. 1 @ Georgia This game will decide Tennessee’s chances at playing for an SEC Title and potentially playing for a national championship. The Dawgs will have one of the most experienced defenses in the SEC, and will be led by one of the best defensive coaches in football — Kirby Smart. If Georgia can find a stable quarterback and Smart can make his  offense productive (a fairly easy task with guys like Nick Chubb and Sony Michel in the backfield), Georgia will compete for the SEC East crown. Tennessee will need to knock off Georgia in Athens to cement its place among the season’s contenders.

Oct. 15 vs Alabama How great is it that the “Third Saturday in October” is actually being played on the third Saturday in October in 2016? Even more great when you realize Tennessee and Alabama will likely both be fielding top-10 teams in the matchup for the first time in too long. Alabama got a mild scare from Tennessee two years ago when Dobbs led the Vols to 17 unanswered points, but held on for a 34-20 victory. Last year, Tennessee led late before a Derrick Henry touchdown propelled the Crimson Tide to a 19-14 win at home. This October game could potentially set up a rematch in the SEC title game if both teams take care of business in the other 11 games.

Edited by Jordan Dajani

Featured image by Jordan Dajani 

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Nathan is a junior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He spends most of his free time eating meaningless foods and watching sports. If you wish to contact Nathan, you can email him at wodom3@vols.utk.edu or find him on Twitter, @NathanOdom11.