The Volunteers have shown improvement each and every year under head coach Butch Jones, and despite losing four games last season, Tennessee proved that it could once again be competitive against some of the best teams in the country. Heading into 2016, the bar has been raised much higher. The Vols have been tabbed as favorites to win the SEC East and possibly even contend for a College Football Playoff spot at season’s end.
Tennessee returns 18 starters from last year’s squad, led by one of the top rushing attacks in the country, featuring the running back tandem of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara to go along with fleet-footed quarterback Joshua Dobbs. The Vols’ defense also received a boost this offseason with the hire of highly sought-after defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.
While Tennessee finally has the talent, experience and leadership to once again contend for the national spotlight, improving the downfield passing attack and avoiding the late-game meltdowns that plagued the Vols in 2015 will be paramount to their success in 2016.
Can the Volunteers live up to all of the preseason hype? Athlon Sports polled a few writers to gauge their assessment on Tennessee’s win/loss projection for 2016.
Tennessee Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2016
Rob McVey (@Rob_UTVOLS)
In spite of some agonizing late-game let downs, Tennessee was very close to turning the corner in 2015. When you take into consideration that the Volunteers have the vast majority of experience and star power returning from last year's team, you really have to like their chances in 2016. The running game and special teams should be elite with literally everyone of importance back from last season. There is plenty of talent on the defensive side as well, and Bob Shoop’s aggressive style should lend itself nicely in transcending the Vols’ defense from good to great this season.
Other than the downfield passing attack, it is very difficult to find a weakness on Butch Jones’ football team. If the Volunteers can even moderately improve their passing game and avoid the injury bug, they will have all the tools necessary to beat each and every team on their 2016 schedule. That being said, the mental and physical challenge of beating Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama in consecutive weeks is probably too much to ask of any team. It is a daunting stretch of games that will most likely provide Tennessee with at least one stumbling block.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
After improving its win total by two games in each of the last two seasons, Tennessee is primed for a breakout year in 2016. The Volunteers won nine games last fall – the most for the program since 2007 – with the four losses all coming by a touchdown or less. The addition of coordinator Bob Shoop should help Tennessee’s defense improve to one of the SEC’s top units, while nine starters return from an offense that averaged 35.2 points a game in 2015. Considering all the returning talent in Knoxville, combined with question marks at Georgia and Florida, it would be a major disappointment if Tennessee doesn’t win the SEC East. However, winning the division and challenging for a College Football Playoff spot could hinge on the development of a passing game that ranked near the bottom of the SEC last season.
Bryan Fischer (BryanDFischer)
There's been plenty of talk about Tennessee in recent years but Butch Jones has finally elevated the program back to the point where expectations are high and he has the team to match. The biggest reason for that is both sides of the ball are loaded with future NFL talent, including tailback Jalen Hurd and defensive lineman Derek Barnett. There's a brutal stretch in the middle but otherwise the schedule sets up well and all the SEC East title talk is well deserved in Knoxville as the 2016 season gets underway.
Kevin McGuire (KevinOnCFB)
Things are going to get off to a good start for the Tennessee Volunteers, which will be the team to beat in the SEC East this season, but back-to-back losses will drop them down to earth. A road game at Texas A&M is ripe for an upset the week before hosting Alabama. The Vols need to beat Alabama to make a true statement, but the Crimson Tide will still be too much for Joshua Dobbs and company this time around. Tennessee will finish strong after the bye week after regrouping a bit to book its trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
Cody McClure (CodyMcClureCFB)
Coming into the 2016 season, Tennessee has one of the most experienced teams among all Power Five schools and is the most popular pick to win the SEC East (and more, by many accounts). The Volunteers look to have a lethal running game with Joshua Dobbs at quarterback, as well as Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara splitting carries at running back. The offensive line isn't massive, but does a solid job of run blocking. Defensively, Tennessee has players with NFL potential at every level – from Derek Barnett up front to Jalen Reeves-Maybin at linebacker and in the back end with lockdown corner Cam Sutton. Tennessee also has the SEC's most favorable schedule in November. If the Vols can get through a four-game gauntlet against Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama relatively unscathed, they should find themselves in Atlanta come December. The hype is real for this year's Vols.