Can the Volunteers rack up enough wins to challenge for the SEC East title this fall?
A roller-coaster 2016 season is now in the rearview mirror, and the Tennessee Volunteers are all set to embark on their ‘17 campaign. While the hype surrounding the program has toned down quite a bit compared to this time last year, the pressure to win on Rocky Top remains at a fevered pitch.
The problem is that there are still more questions than answers surrounding this football team. From an overhauled coaching staff to replacing some of the greatest players in school history, Vols’ fifth-year head coach Butch Jones could be in for his biggest challenge to date.
The good news is that the cupboard is far from bare in terms of potential talent, leaving plenty of room for optimism. So, despite the many question marks surrounding the Vols heading into 2017, could this finally be the year that Tennessee lays claim to that elusive SEC East title? Athlon Sports polled a few writers for their take on the Volunteers’ realistic 2017 win/loss projection.
Tennessee Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2017
Rob McVey (@Rob_UTVOLS)
The biggest deciding factor for Tennessee’s success in 2017, or lack thereof, will fall on Joshua Dobbs’ replacement at quarterback. The Vols have two potentially solid options in Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano. However, it will be a tall order for either to replace Dobbs’ level of production. An unproven offensive coordinator, as well as a lack of experience at the skill positions beyond RB John Kelly and WR Jauan Jennings add to that challenge. That said, a talented and experienced offensive line should help tremendously. And if some of the younger skill players can develop as expected, the offense could be a pleasant surprise.
Defensively, Tennessee has a wealth of potential talent to help fill the void left by some of its top playmakers. If players such as Jonathan Kongbo, Darrin Kirkland, Darrell Taylor, Kahlil McKenzie, Shy Tuttle and Nigel Warrior (to name a few) can finally live up to their lofty billing, and avoid the injury bug, this could be a very solid defense in 2017.
All in all, Tennessee remains a bit of a mystery for 2017. You could make a compelling argument that the Volunteers have as much potential and talent to win the SEC East as any other team in the division. There are also enough question marks to argue that Butch Jones’ team will take a step backward in 2017. The most likely conclusion is that they will fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The Volunteers didn’t win the East Division last year, but this program has made strides under Butch Jones by winning 18 games over the last two seasons. However, in order to challenge Florida or Georgia for a division title this season, Tennessee needs to find the right answer at quarterback and improve a defense that ranked near the bottom of the league in the four main statistical categories. It’s no secret Joshua Dobbs will be missed at quarterback, but Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano are talented and capable of keeping this offense performing at a high level. The bigger concerns rest on defense, especially with a defensive line that has been hit hard by injuries the last two years. Another obstacle for the Volunteers is the schedule. Tennessee plays LSU and Alabama in crossover play and has road trips to Florida, Kentucky, Missouri and a non-conference, neutral-site matchup against Georgia Tech in Atlanta to open the season.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
The hot seat for Butch Jones might be the warmest in the SEC this season and it will be fascinating to see that reflected in the team’s ups and downs each week. Whether the Volunteers can finally win the SEC East or not will likely come down to the quarterback position. The departed Joshua Dobbs was very solid under center but it wouldn't be surprising if either Quinten Dormady or Jarrett Guarantano have a higher ceiling after getting their feet wet running the offense. If fully healthy, I'm probably a little higher on the Vols’ defense than most and that could keep them in a lot of games this year. The schedule is absolutely brutal however and it will be mildly surprising if there's not a coaching search in December.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB)
Tennessee missed the window of opportunity to seize long-awaited control of the SEC East last season, and the prospects for a memorable 2017 season do not look good. Going up against a veteran Georgia Tech in Atlanta to open the season is not a good draw for a Tennessee team in transition and with question marks about the offense. And drawing both Alabama and LSU in cross-divisional play is not a good combo this fall either. A few toss-up games (Kentucky, South Carolina) could make or break Tennessee’s season, and I think both go the Vols’ way to help keep some of the pressure off of Butch Jones. Maybe.
Antwan Staley (@antwanstaley)
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones has been able to evade the hot seat for the last few seasons, but 2017 could be the year where everything hits the fan. The Volunteers begin the season against a tough Georgia Tech team that won nine games a season ago.
Playing at Florida, at Kentucky and at Alabama won't be any picnic and Tennessee will also have to host Georgia, South Carolina and LSU.
If the Volunteers are going to upset some teams this fall, they will first have to successfully replace a few skill positions, including quarterback and running back. On defense, the personnel losses in include Derek Barnett, the all-time school leader in sacks. There are enough pieces returning and talent on the roster for this defense to develop into a solid unit. It just may take some time.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see Tennessee finish below South Carolina and/or Kentucky in the SEC East in 2017.