Tennessee is the clear favorite in the SEC East and a legitimate playoff contender. The Volunteers return 18 starters from last year’s nine-win team, including quarterback Joshua Dobbs and standout running backs Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd. While the ground game is among the best in the SEC, Tennessee needs more out of its passing attack in 2016. New coordinator Bob Shoop inherits a defense that gave up only 20 points a game last season and has All-SEC talent at each level. With nine starters back, Tennessee’s defense will be among the best in the SEC. Winning at least 10 games and the East Division title is the expectation for the Volunteers in 2016.
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Previewing Tennessee’s Offense
The X-factor for Tennessee this season will be whether Joshua Dobbs finally develops into a masterful passer to match the boost he gives the Volunteers as a runner. Even if he finishes his Tennessee career without adding the deep ball to his repertoire, teams struggle to bring him down in the open field, making him a guaranteed net positive on the offense. But if Dobbs does grow as a passer, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say the Vols can contend for a CFB Playoff spot.
The Vols’ talent at running back is a big reason why they are a popular pick to win the SEC East. Junior Jalen Hurd needs 892 yards this year to become the program’s all-time leading rusher. For Hurd, this season might be his last to show that Tennessee is back to national prominence before the NFL beckons. Alvin Kamara has proven that he is an SEC-caliber talent and a capable pass catcher as well. There’s no reason to believe the two won’t form one of the sport’s most successful running back duos this year. The Vols’ passing game is unproven, but this group of running backs is explosive enough to again power the offense. After all, this team did run the ball two-thirds of the time last year.
The Vols have playmakers at receiver, but it’s hard to expect consistency given the unproductive recent history here. The Vols will rely on veterans Josh Smith and Josh Malone, hoping that an offseason of work has boosted the overall chemistry with Dobbs.
Along the offensive line, the return of four starters means there’s no reason to expect regression. Guard Jashon Robertson should anchor the Vols up front if he’s healthy.
Previewing Tennessee’s Defense
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Tennessee brought in a new defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop, this offseason, but little else has changed on this side of the ball. The Vols bring back starters nearly across the board but will need to find two new safeties.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr. should form one of the top linebacker duos in the league. Reeves-Maybin has developed into an emotional leader, and the duo should dictate the success of the defense as a whole.
Along the line, Derek Barnett has emerged as one of the best pass rushers in the conference, if not the country. At the other end position, Corey Vereen brings experience, and Jonathan Kongbo could be the next great Tennessee sack master. Depth could be an issue on the interior, and 6'3", 344-pound tackle Kahlil McKenzie faces expectations as large as he is.
Tennessee is fortunate that star cornerback Cameron Sutton decided to return for a final season. Todd Kelly Jr. should be able to step up and fill one of the safety spots without going through much of a learning curve. The other safety position is one of the only unknowns on an otherwise stellar defensive unit.
Previewing Tennessee’s Specialists
Tennessee had arguably the best group of specialists in the SEC a season ago, and everyone is back. Evan Berry emerged as a threat to take every kickoff he handled back for a TD and finished a fraction of a yard away from breaking the NCAA’s all-time single-season record for return average. Sutton was nearly as dangerous on punt returns. Trevor Daniel was a pleasant surprise at punter, but kicker Aaron Medley will need a rebound year.
Everything feels bigger for Tennessee this season, from the stage for its Week 2 showdown with Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway to the national prognostications. Butch Jones no longer has youth as an excuse, and two straight dominant bowl wins over Big Ten teams have fans dreaming big in 2016. All the pieces the Vols need to succeed are back. A division title is the expectation in Knoxville this season.