The hype machine was working overtime for the Tennessee Volunteers prior to the 2016 season. This was supposed to be the year that Tennessee football returned to the national stage as a dominant force in college football. The expectations had been set and anything short of an SEC East title would be deemed a failed season.
While it wasn’t always pretty, Tennessee lived up to its lofty expectations early in the year. The Volunteers scored an impressive victory over Virginia Tech in the “Battle at Bristol,” knocked off Florida for the first time in 11 years and beat Georgia in dramatic fashion to get to 5-0. The season had reached a fevered pitch for the Vols.
Then came the injuries that would ultimately doom Tennessee’s chances of ever making it to Atlanta or beyond. Despite some great individual performances, the Vols would go on to lose four of their next seven games, including heartbreaking defeats to South Carolina and Vanderbilt. The Volunteers finished the regular season 8-4 and just 4-4 in the SEC. It certainly wasn’t the year Vol fans had hoped for, but Tennessee still has an opportunity to wrap up the 2016 season on a positive note in the Music City Bowl against Nebraska.
As we take a look back, it’s only fitting that we honor a few deserving players and celebrate the highlight moments, as well as document some of the low points in a roller-coaster season. Here are the 2016 Tennessee Volunteer Team Awards.
Offensive MVP: Joshua Dobbs, QB
Dobbs was the engine that powered the Tennessee offense in 2016. The Volunteers often lived and died based on his performance alone. More often than not, the dual-threat signal-caller shined, winning multiple player of the week honors in the process. He leads all SEC quarterbacks in touchdown passes (26) and passer rating (152.6).
Defensive MVP: Derek Barnett, DE
Barnett leads the SEC in sacks (12) and tackles for a loss (18). In just three seasons, the elite All-SEC performer has accumulated 32 sacks, tying him with the great Reggie White for the most in Tennessee history. He’s also a 2016 finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award (top defensive end) and projected as a top-10 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Best Freshman: Tyler Byrd, WR/KR
Byrd hasn’t put up monster numbers in his first year on Rocky Top, but he is electric just about every time he touches the football. The speedy playmaker has made highlight-reel plays as a receiver, runner and return man in 2016. Many feel that Byrd’s future might lie at cornerback. Regardless of which side of the football he lines up on in 2017, he is sure to make an impact. Byrd’s talent and versatility ensure a bright future with the Vols.
Best Play of the Season: Hail Mary to Beat Georgia
Jacob Eason’s 47-yard touchdown strike to Riley Ridley with just 10 seconds remaining had all but ensured a Georgia win. Sanford Stadium erupted with cheers of victory. That’s when it happened. Joshua Dobbs launched an improbable 43-yard Hail Mary as time expired, Jauan Jennings emerged from the pile of Bulldog defenders in the end zone to make the catch, and the rest is Tennessee football history. It was the unquestionable highlight of the season, giving the Vols a 34-31 victory and a 5-0 start to the season.
Best Performance by a Player: Alvin Kamara vs. Texas A&M
It’s difficult to look past Joshua Dobbs’ performance against Missouri, but this one has to go to Kamara. His 312 all-purpose yards against the Aggies set a Tennessee record and ranked as the second most by an FBS player in 2016. Kamara also added three touchdowns (two rushing and one receiving). Although Tennessee ultimately lost the game in overtime, Kamara’s performance sparked one of the all-time great comebacks in school history.
Best Game: Tennessee 38, Florida 28
The win over Virginia Tech in the “Battle at Bristol” was great because of the setting and that it came in front of the largest crowd in college football history. The Georgia and Texas A&M games were spectacular in their own right as well. But it didn’t get any better for Vol fans than Tennessee’s second-half rally to erase a 21-point deficit, and end an 11-year losing streak to hated rival Florida at home.
Defining Moment: Joshua Dobbs' fumble vs. Vanderbilt
In a season chockfull of defining moments, none had a bigger effect on the Vols’ season than Dobbs’ fumble to end the third quarter against the Commodores. While Tennessee’s depleted defense was almost entirely to blame for the loss, the Volunteer offense could never regain traction following the untimely fumble. Tennessee never scored again, ultimately blowing a 34-31 lead and losing at Vanderbilt 45-34. In just one quarter, Tennessee went from a potential Sugar Bowl berth to the Music City Bowl.
Biggest Surprise: Jalen Hurd leaving the team
There had been rumblings that Hurd was unhappy with his role in Butch Jones’ system dating back to the 2015 season. But I’m not sure anyone expected Hurd to jump ship with just four games left in the regular season. The talented running back needed 440 yards to become Tennessee’s all-time leading rusher, which made his early departure all the more shocking.
Biggest Disappointment: Defense
It was anticipated that the Tennessee defense would be dominant under new coordinator Bob Shoop in 2016. While the Volunteer defense never really lived up to that billing at any point during the season, devastating injuries put the nail in the coffin down the stretch. The Vols’ “next man up” philosophy never took hold on defense, and Tennessee’s lack of depth was exposed in a big way en route to a historically bad year. The depleted Vols gave up a record 4,288 yards in eight SEC games (536 ypg). It almost made the Sal Sunseri catastrophe of 2012 seem tame in comparison.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Joshua Dobbs, QB
The loss of players like Cameron Sutton and Jalen Reeves-Maybin will sting, just as it did this season following their injuries. The potential early departures of Derek Barnett, Alvin Kamara and Josh Malone would definitely be felt next season as well. But no one will be missed more than Dobbs. His contributions, both on the field and off the field, are irreplaceable. The senior quarterback will be sorely missed in 2017 and beyond. Dobbs will be remembered as one of the all-time greats at Tennessee.
Player to Watch in 2017: John Kelly, RB
The winner of Tennessee’s three-man race for the vacant quarterback position in 2017 will likely have a big impact next season. That being said, Kelly is already a proven commodity and sure to make his presence felt again next season. The hard-running sophomore has 560 rushing yards and four touchdowns entering the bowl game, along with six catches for 51 yards. His 6.7 yards per carry leads all Tennessee backs in 2016.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Defense
The quarterback position could fit in this spot too. Regardless, Butch Jones and Bob Shoop may be more hard-pressed to find an answer for Tennessee’s struggling defense next season. Several key players that missed time this season will return, but standouts such as Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton will be gone. Tennessee can ill afford a repeat of 2016 yet plenty of question marks reside on that side of the football.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.