Athlon Sports has the Tennessee Volunteers ranked in the top 10 in their annual preseason Top 25 rankings for the first time in over a decade, coming in at No. 7. The Vols are also predicted as solid favorites to win the SEC East in 2016.
While you could build a reasonable case as to why this No. 7 ranking is on the high side, you also could make a legitimate argument for the Volunteers to win the SEC outright and be ranked even higher. While there are many college football fans that will disagree one way or the other, including some Tennessee fans, the Vols lofty ranking seems highly justifiable.
It is no secret that Tennessee has struggled to be competitive in recent years, but if the last two seasons are any indication, Butch Jones most definitely has this team headed in the right direction. The Vols have improved each and every season under Jones, and the upcoming 2016 season appears to be the most promising yet.
Tennessee went 9-4 last season, losing all four games by a combined total of just 17 points. They were highly competitive against every team that they played, including tough losses to eventual national champion Alabama and fellow College Football Playoff participant Oklahoma.
Only a handful of Power Five teams return as many starters as the Volunteers with 18. Even fewer teams, if any, return the number of quality starters that Tennessee has coming back in 2016. Practically all of the statistical leaders from 2015 return on offense, including veteran quarterback Joshua Dobbs, highly touted running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, and four starters on an offensive line that paved the way to the second-highest rushing total in school history last season. The three-headed monster of Dobbs, Hurd and Kamara are a big reason why Tennessee is deserving of its preseason billing. The trio should combine to form one of the most dynamic rushing attacks in the nation in 2016.
This season appears as though it could also be a banner year for Tennessee on the defensive side of the football, giving further credence to Athlon’s top-10 projection. The Vols should field one of the best defenses in the SEC, if not the entire country, under the tutelage of new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Players such as Derek Barnett, Cameron Sutton and Jalen Reeves-Maybin all have the tools necessary to become All-Americans. You add in the breakout potential of players such as Darrin Kirkland Jr., Corey Vereen, Kahlil McKenzie, Justin Martin, Todd Kelly Jr. and Jonathan Kongbo, to name a few, and you have the makings of a potentially elite defense.
Tennessee’s biggest obstacle for 2016 will be a tough SEC schedule that includes facing off against heavyweights Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama in consecutive weeks. If the Vols can make it through this four-game gauntlet relatively unscathed, they will be more than deserving of a top-10 ranking or better at season’s end. One positive is that they get to play both Florida and Alabama in the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium, and for the first time, in a long time, all of those games can be considered winnable.
Another obstacle facing the Vols is their lackluster downfield passing attack. While Dobbs is one of the best signal-callers in the nation when it comes to making big plays with his legs, big plays through the air have been few and far between during his first three years on campus. A potent rushing attack and great defense may be enough to carry Tennessee through the SEC East, but a complementary downfield passing game is crucial to winning the SEC outright and garnering serious Playoff consideration.
The good news is that there are plenty of potential playmakers in the receiving corps. Wide receivers Josh Smith, Josh Malone and breakout candidate, Preston Williams, all have the necessary skill sets to step up and fill that void if they can remain healthy. As do, tight ends Ethan Wolf and Jason Croom, to go along with a host of talented newcomers. If the Vols can develop some semblance of an effective downfield passing attack, the sky is the limit for Team 120’s potential. That being said, they still have to prove it on the field, and until they do, the naysayers have every right to hold it against them.
Tennessee was very close to turning the corner in 2015, so logic alone dictates that improvement is inevitable for a more experienced and talented team that returns practically all of its top players. The Vols finished with a respectable 9-4 record, they were highly competitive in every game, and they scored a dominant bowl win over a higher ranked opponent to cap off a solid 2015. When you factor in an additional year of experience, solid depth at every position and yet another offseason of strength and conditioning, it becomes fairly clear why Tennessee is projected to win the SEC East and finish the season ranked inside the top 10.
Sure, this offense has a few question marks related to the passing game. But try naming a team in college football that doesn’t have question marks heading into the 2016 season, including the six ranked ahead of the Volunteers. Tennessee will obviously need to avoid any additional off-the-field distractions and stay relatively injury free in order to maximize its potential, but the Volunteers have as much talent, experience and quality leadership as any team in the country heading into 2016. The Vols are well deserving of Athlon’s preseason top 10 ranking.
— 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.