Why Vols can win SEC East, and why not

Why Vols can win SEC East, and why not

July 12th, 2015 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

The University of Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs (11) gestures shush to head coach Butch Jones in this April 25, 2015, file photo.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Some quick trivia on the eve of the Southeastern Conference's annual football media days:

When was the last time Tennessee was picked to finish better than fourth in its division in the preseason media poll released at the event every July?

You have to go back seven years, all the way to 2008, when the Volunteers were picked to finish third in the SEC East, to find the answer.

There's a pretty good chance that string — Tennessee was picked fifth in each of the past three preseason polls — will be broken this season. But will the Vols be able to match the loftier preseason expectation they'll face for 2015?

Tennessee wouldn't be the first SEC East resident to make it to Atlanta following a mediocre season the prior year.

In 2013, Missouri bounced back from an injury-plagued 5-7 campaign in 2012 to win the division in its second season in the SEC. Georgia ended a 6-7 season in 2010 with a loss to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl but won the East in 2011. South Carolina went 7-6 in 2009 and won the division with a 5-3 league record in 2010.

That's three of the past five seasons.

Winding up in Atlanta in December may or may not be Tennessee's primary objective for this season. After all, a 9-3 regular-season record with no SEC title-game trip would be an excellent season for a recently downtrodden program.

The Vols, however, at least have put themselves in the conversation.


1. The division is up for grabs.

This isn't the SEC West we're talking about. The East again looks to be the weaker of the two divisions, and each team in the division has questions, including the Vols. Georgia is the prohibitive favorite, but the Bulldogs will have a new quarterback and face cross-divisional games against Alabama and Auburn. Missouri rode its defense to the division crown last season, but the Tigers have two star defensive ends and three other NFL draft picks to replace. South Carolina must replace its top passer and rusher and two starting offensive linemen and make major strides defensively. Florida has its questions to answer under first-year coach Jim McElwain, and Kentucky doesn't appear ready to mount a serious challenge.

2. Josh Dobbs.

The junior quarterback is the primary reason for the hype this offseason after guiding Tennessee to four wins in five starts last season by providing an extra dimension with his mobility and throwing the ball better than expected. In the six games he played, Tennessee averaged 34.2 points and 423.5 yards of offense. Three of the teams he faced (Alabama, Missouri and Iowa) finished in the top 25 nationally in total defense. After an offseason of developing into a stronger leader, tweaking his throwing mechanics and embracing his role as the face of the program, Dobbs seems poised to take the Vols to the next level.

3. His talented supporting cast.

Spring practice was enough for new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord to begin feeling pretty confident about the trio of Dobbs and running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara having the ball in their hands on most of Tennessee's snaps. Now pushing 240 pounds, Hurd should be better equipped to impose his powerful, angry running style as a sophomore. Kamara has breakout speed and provides a home-run threat the Vols haven't had in the backfield. Dobbs will have experienced targets to find in the passing game. Receivers Marquez North, Jason Croom and Josh Smith are back from injuries.

4. Defensive stars.

The Vols would argue they have the best defensive end duo in the SEC in Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin should handle the transition seamlessly to A.J. Johnson's spot as the anchor of the defense and could have an All-SEC type season after racking up 100-plus tackles in his first season as a starter. Cam Sutton is an NFL prospect at cornerback, and safety Brian Randolph is a reliable veteran along the back line. By the end of the season, some of Tennessee's younger talent on defense could play their way into that category.


1. It's too big of a leap.

When was the last time Tennessee delivered on the big stage? Perhaps its most recent visit to the national stage was the Florida game in 2012, when the Vols were back in the Top 25 and ESPN's "College GameDay" came to Knoxville. The Vols, whose combined losing streaks to rivals Florida, Alabama and Georgia total 23 years, are 1-11 against ranked teams in two seasons under Butch Jones, and that's a mark that will have to improve for them to start thinking championships. Assuming they handle Bowling Green, the national stage figures to greet them when Oklahoma visits in week two.

2. The Vols are still too young.

After playing the most true freshmen in the country last season (23), Tennessee returns 18 starters (10 on offense, eight on defense) from 2014, which ties UCLA and Vanderbilt as the most in the nation, according to analyst Phil Steele. So while the Vols have too much experience to use youth as a crutch this season, it's still a young team. How? Of the 81 scholarship players on Tennessee's roster, 51 are freshmen or sophomores. Six seniors are in their first or second years in the program. The Vols are still in a position where they have no choice but to incorporate freshmen or first-year starters into key spots.

3. Health.

Through a couple of strong recruiting classes, Tennessee has leveled the playing field in talent compared to SEC's contenders. Unlike recent seasons, the Vols shouldn't go into any games this season knowing they'll have to punch above their collective weight to remain competitive. Tennessee is not yet in a position, however, where it can handle a rash of injuries. There are depth questions across the board, particularly at running back, linebacker and defensive tackle. An injury to Dobbs likely would be disastrous, though freshman Quinten Dormady appears to have a bright future ahead of him.

4. Too many questions still remain.

Tennessee's biggest concern on offense is if its line will be good enough to get the Vols to Atlanta. The 43 sacks allowed last season were the sixth-most in the nation, but the struggles were expected with such an inexperienced group. There's hope the unit will continue the growth it showed last season, when the Vols went from overwhelmed at Oklahoma to much-improved against Iowa. Defensively, freshman tackles Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle will have to live up to their recruiting rankings right away, and replacing middle linebacker A.J. Johnson's production will be a chore.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com