The preseason USA Today Coaches poll came out recently. There were the usual suspects in there like Alabama, Michigan State and LSU were there and Ohio State is starting the defense of their title at the number one spot. All four of the teams mentioned are expected to be in the running for the National Title this season. But like in every season, there is a darkhorse that no one expects. Last season, Mississippi State was the team to come out of nowhere. And even though they did not make the playoff picture in the tough SEC, they still were a team that was not far away from making it and exceeded expectations. This year’s team to look out for is starting the season at the backend of the Coaches poll, but they are also a team to look out for. They have had two back-to-back excellent recruiting classes and with the pieces they have, it is possible they could make some noise not only in the SEC but around the country. That team, you may ask, is the University of Tennessee. Butch Jones has been building this team since the day he stepped on campus and many are paying attention to them. And although some think next year is the real year to expect them to soar, this year is not entirely out of the question when you look at the pieces they have.
Defensively, the Vols were horrible when Butch Jones first got to town. They started out strong against subpar teams in 2013, forcing turnovers and looking good against inferior teams. But as the season went on, it showed that Tennessee was not ready just yet in their first year. Last season, they became one of the best teams on third-down stops in the country with the mantra of “Third Down For What” accompanied by the sounds of Lil Jon every home game on third down. Heading into this season, the Vols are the deepest they have been in a long time defensively. And with that depth, they have explosive players at every level. Most defenses need a playmaker at every position and for the first time in a long time, the Vols have that going for them. Starting upfront, they have starting defensive end Derek Barnett, who was a freshman All-American last season. He was not the most heralded recruit that came in with the 2014 class, but he ended up having one of the biggest impacts of any of them. He led the team in tackles for loss and he was second on the team in sacks as well. He will be a handful for many teams next year with his athleticism, size and hustle on the field. And that isn’t the only playmaker they have. The Vols also have a senior linebacker in Curt Maggitt that is also a pass-rusher in his own right. He led the team in sacks last season and is the heart and soul of this team coming into this season. When the Vols get to third down, they lined up Maggitt and Barnett opposite each other and this year they will do the same. But with the extra depth up front with star freshmen Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie in the fold, the Vols front seven could be very tough to stop. But no defense is complete without a playmaker in the secondary and the Vols have one that has been overlooked a lot in his career. Cornerback Cameron Sutton has been matching up against the best playmakers each team has had to offer since he was a freshman. And for the most part, he has held his own. Coming into this season, he is definitely one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC if not the country. His ball skill are excellent and he is a competitor on each and every play. These playmakers at each level along with the newcomers and vets like linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin could make this defensive unit tougher than they were last season despite the loss of all-everything linebacker AJ Johnson. But the defense isn’t the only thing to look out for next season.
The Vols offense last season was inconsistent in a sense last season under quarterback Justin Worley. He played hard and survived many big shots at quarterback, but he eventually could not deal with the constant pounding he was taking last season. But when he went out of the lineup, the Vols offense began to get it going. Quarterback Nathan Peterman got the call for the Vols when Worley was first injured, but when he was ineffective, that is when Josh Dobbs stepped in. And although he made a few mistakes early on, he proved that he was the quarterback the Vols needed all along. He led them to a bowl game that they won with ease and that led to a lot of momentum going into this upcoming season. The thing that makes him dangerous is his ability to run as well as pass. And although many stayed on him about his passing accuracy at times, he was still an upgrade over Worley and Peterman. But he is just one of the playmakers the Vols have returning back. Freshman running back Jalen Hurd was as advertised last season. Standing at 6’3” and 225 pounds last season, Hurd was elusive as well as powerful when he ran and caught the football. And at his size, he is one of the fastest guys on the team. The one thing that bothers some is the bumps and bruises that knocked him out of games, but with another season in the weight room, he has added some muscle and should be better prepared for the rigors of the SEC. And this year, he actually has a running mate back there with him. Alvin Kamara was a running back at Alabama at one point in his career. But after his freshman season, he left the program and went to a junior college. It was there where he could get to showcase his skills and make himself one of the top junior college running backs in the country. And when he signed on to come to Tennessee, he made them even more dangerous than they were the year previously. He brings more homerun ability an already fast offense that likes to speed up the tempo. And when Hurd needs a break, the Vols don’t have any dropoff at all with Kamara there. Some may say the Vols don’t have playmakers at the wide receiver position, but taking another look there, they have some guys that can cause some problems for teams. The most consistent player they have had at wide receiver is the smallest guy they have at the position. Alton “Pig” Howard was the most consistent receiver on the team last season. Even though small in stature, he was always there for the Vols to make the big plays. His speed is good and even though he is small, he can go up and make the tough catches. And he is just one of the playmakers that Tennessee has at the wide receiver position that can hurt teams. Add in junior Marquez North, who will be healthy after a shoulder injury last season, and Dobbs will definitely have a good amount of weapons at his disposal. The only question mark going into this season are the guys who will be protecting Dobbs and opening holes for Hurd and Kamara. The offensive line has been much maligned over the last two seasons. They have missed assignments and have been overpowered by opponents much of the time. This season, they are a question mark again and even though the offense looked better down the stretch, the offensive line got assisted by the mobility of Dobbs. If they are able to progress this season and blow less assignments, then more things can be done with the offense and the faster the Vols can run their tempo offense. If not, then the Vols could falter some offensively.
Tennessee has some challenges coming out of the blocks. They have Oklahoma early and they also have to exorcise their demons when it comes to the University of Florida and the University of Alabama. But unlike in previous years, the Vols have the size and athleticism to keep up with those teams. They could easily falter to them again and not take that next step this season. But on the flip side, they could take it to the next level and become the player they once were in the SEC and on the national scene. Looking at how everything is setting up, the Vols could not only be a player in the SEC this season but potentially a national player. Only time will tell, but football is back alive on Rocky Top and this team will be one to reckon with.