The Tennessee Volunteers have been trending in a positive direction each and every year under head coach Butch Jones. Jones and his Vols will need to continue that trend in 2016 if they are to have any chance of making it into the College Football Playoff. That said, 2016 appears to be extremely promising for a loaded team poised to make its long awaited return back to the forefront of the SEC and on to college football’s biggest stage.
The Tennessee roster is stockpiled with experienced talent, and for the first time, in a long time, off-the-field distractions are at a minimum. That is not to say that the Vols are completely without issue, or that Tennessee’s path to the SEC Championship Game or Playoff is without its potential stumbling blocks. Which begs the question, do the 2016 Tennessee Volunteers have what it takes to become one of the last four teams standing at season’s end?
Three Reasons Why Tennessee Will Make the College Football Playoff
The good news is that the youth angle that was so often played up by head coach Butch Jones during his first three seasons in Knoxville is no longer a talking point. The youngest team in college football is all grown up now with 18 starters returning from last year’s team. Many of those players have more than one year of starting experience under their belt, so the struggle of playing so many freshmen and sophomores over the last couple of years should finally pay huge dividends. In fact, Tennessee will be one of the most experienced teams in the nation this season. There may not be a more valuable commodity in college football than experience, and it will undoubtedly provide Tennessee with a big advantage in its quest to become one of the last four teams standing.
2. The Running Game
A successful rushing attack is crucial for any team that has aspirations of making the College Football Playoff. And there is absolutely no reason to think that Tennessee will not have one of the best rushing attacks in the nation this season. The Vols return one of the country’s top running back tandems in bruiser Jalen Hurd and dynamic speedster Alvin Kamara. But it is the addition of Joshua Dobbs, an elusive and fleet-footed quarterback, which completes the formula for success. This formidable trio combined to rush for an astonishing 2,657 yards and 30 touchdowns last season, and there’s no reason to think those numbers can’t be improved upon. Tennessee also returns four starters along an offensive line that paved the way for the second-most rushing yards in program history in 2015.
3. Special Teams
One of the most underrated aspects of a successful football team is special teams. Great special teams, or lack thereof, can make all the difference in winning and losing. The Volunteers return arguably the best special teams unit in the nation. Evan Berry and Cameron Sutton should once again combine to form the most dangerous return duo in college football. Berry’s 38.3 yards per kickoff return was tops in the country for 2015 and culminated in the second-best average in NCAA history. Berry also added three touchdowns among his returns. Sutton was almost equally as impressive, averaging an FBS-best 18.7 yards per punt return in 2015 to go along with two scores. Additionally, punter Trevor Daniel is back after breaking the school record for punting average (45.7 ypp), good for eighth in the nation. The only question mark on special teams for the Vols is placekicker Aaron Medley, a three-year starter who should improve on a lackluster 2015.
Three Reasons Why Tennessee Won’t Make the College Football Playoff
1. The Passing Game
A potent rushing attack, stellar special teams and a great defense may be enough to carry Tennessee through the SEC East, but a complementary downfield passing game is crucial if the Volunteers have any desire to win the SEC outright and garner Playoff consideration. While quarterback Joshua Dobbs is fairly solid in the short passing game, and as good as any signal-caller in the nation with his legs, he has consistently struggled with his accuracy on the deep ball. To be fair, his receiving corps hasn’t provided much support either, routinely failing to gain separation from defenders. The good news is that improving the passing game has been a major focal point during the offseason. The Volunteers also seem confident in their potential playmakers at wide receiver and tight end for 2016. That said, the passing game remains an issue of concern, and without improvement, it could very well be the determining factor that prevents the Vols from making a Playoff run.
2. The Four-Game Gauntlet
Perhaps Tennessee’s biggest obstacle for 2016 will be a tough schedule that includes facing off against SEC heavyweights Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama in consecutive weeks. A tough slate of games under any circumstance, but particularly brutal in consecutive fashion. If the Vols can somehow navigate their way through this difficult stretch relatively unscathed, they should be able to handle the remaining games on their schedule with ease and set their sights on the SEC title game and a potential Playoff appearance. But, that is a big “If,” and these four games undoubtedly provide several potential stumbling blocks that could easily derail Tennessee’s quest to be one of the final four teams standing.
3. Late-Game Meltdowns
The Volunteers had a reasonable opportunity to win each and every game in which they played in 2015. Needless to say, they ultimately fell short in four of those contests, becoming notorious for late-game meltdowns in the process. Jones took quite a bashing from the fan base and media alike as a result. The most common criticism was that Jones, along with offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, became far too conservative in the late stages of close games, squandering leads and any chance for victory. While the Vols’ experience and talent should help alleviate being in similar situations in 2016, Jones’ track record of having an ultra-conservative approach late in games is still an issue of concern that could result in similar outcomes in 2016.
Tennessee has high aspirations heading into the 2016 campaign. The goal is simple, but no less lofty: make a run towards an SEC title and a potential berth in the College Football Playoff. Offensively, the Volunteers will have one of the most potent run games in the nation. Defensively, they are loaded with All-SEC-caliber talent, and under the tutelage of new coordinator Bob Shoop, this group should transcend from good to great in 2016. Tennessee should once again be elite on special teams as well. And collectively, this team probably has more experience than any other team in the country.
Like any team, Tennessee still has its share of potential pit falls to overcome. An iffy passing game, a brutal four-game stretch in the schedule, a history of questionable late-game coaching decisions and potential injuries are just a few of the obstacles that stand in the Volunteers’ way. But Tennessee has a lot more positives than negatives heading into 2016. Enough in fact to suggest that these Volunteers are legitimate contenders to be a part of college football’s final four at season’s end.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McVey is a diehard Tennessee Volunteers' fan who loves singing "Rocky Top" every opportunity he gets. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.