Debate: Will the Vols finish the season in the Top 25? We have our doubts
Six SEC teams were ranked in the preseason Coaches Top 25 Poll. Five were expected (though only one in the top 10 is borderline ludicrous), and Alabama occupying the top spot is hardly a surprise to anyone who knows the difference between third down and third base.
Tennessee’s inclusion at No. 24, however, raised some eyebrows.
That’s the same spot Coaches ranked the Vols in the final poll last season (AP had them No. 22). That team had Josh Dobbs, Alvin Kamara, Derek Barnett, guys who are now in the NFL.
This team has guys replacing those guys … and plenty of other impact players.
These Vols are supposed to be on par with those Vols? That’s something we discussed.
John Crist, senior writer: I’m down on Tennessee this season more than most people, so unless the fifth-place team in the East can finish in the Top 25, then my answer is no.
The time for the Volunteers to reclaim their spot among the nation’s elite was last year. Aside from that murderous four-game stretch — vs. Florida, at Georgia, at Texas A&M, vs. Alabama — coach Butch Jones and Co. had everything lined up in their favor to win the division.
Instead, they went 4-4 in conference play and suffered head-scratching losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Now seemingly all of UT’s big-name players from a season ago are gone.
For my money, the Vols simply have too many question marks at this point. Jones needs to go shopping for more bricks and starting building for 2018.
Connor O’Gara, senior national columnist: No. That implies that the Vols finish the season with at least nine wins, a handful of which have to be against quality teams. There are too many offensive questions for me to feel comfortable picking them to beat teams like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU. Don’t sleep on the Georgia Tech opener and the game at Kentucky, either.
I talked myself out of putting Tennessee in the Top 25 to start the season — though the coaches didn’t — because I didn’t see this group taking the next step after all the talent they lost. Nobody knows exactly what the line for Butch Jones is, but if it’s Top 25 or bust, there might not be many more Rocky Top Saturdays in his future.
Michael Bratton, news editor: Yes.
Tennessee is getting downplayed so much this offseason thanks to the loss of superstar players. While that’s understandable, it’s off base for the most part.
For as great as Dobbs was with the ball in his hands, he was never able to beat a good defense that forced him to stay in the pocket. That will change for Tennessee’s offense with Quinten Dormady likely to replace him as the team’s starting quarterback. With a more dynamic passing game and a veteran offensive line, Tennessee’s inexperienced running game will have time to gel before the SEC opener Sept. 16 in Gainesville.
Alvin Kamara did so much for the Tennessee offense the past two seasons, while that’s true, his opportunities were limited for some unknown reason. His performance against Texas A&M was legendary, but Tennessee fans only got a single glimpse of an all-around performance from the dynamic running game during his playing career on Rocky Top.
Considering Cam Sutton and Jalen Reeves-Maybin big losses isn’t accurate either; they hardly played at all last season and when Sutton did return from his broken foot, he clearly wasn’t the same player as before.
Derek Barnett is the only above mentioned player that Tennessee simply can’t replace with one man — and the Vols won’t attempt to do that. With Jonathan Kongbo, Kyle Phillips, Darrell Taylor, Deandre Johnson and Matthew Butler all rotating in at defensive end this season, Tennessee should have plenty of talent to rotate in and out in an attempt to replace the production of one-man wrecking crew Barnett.
This Tennessee team is built from the inside out with great talent and depth at both offensive and defensive line. While the perimeter talent might not jump out at you on paper, great football teams are never built on skill talent.
Butch Jones has built the Vols into an annual contender in the East and with more depth on this roster than any other under Jones, Tennessee is built to stay in the Top 25 all season long.
Dan Harralson, Tennessee beat writer: Tennessee is coming off a disappointing ending to the 2016 season. Injuries can be blamed, bad play can be blamed. But Butch Jones did what a lot of stubborn coaches wouldn’t do, and that is to make coaching changes.
David Cutcliffe and Mike Shula are examples of coaches who refused to make changes and it cost them their jobs in the SEC. Jones has brought in three assistant coaches and promoted two. Most important, he addressed the strength and conditioning program by bringing in Rock Gullickson from the NFL.
Is that enough for the Vols to improve in 2017?
Record-wise, it is at least on par with their 9-4 overall record in 2016. That is good enough to finish narrowly inside the Top 25 at season’s end. There is more quality depth, a better staff and players who have already passed the eye test in fall camp, in terms of strength and conditioning relative to last year.
Jon Cooper, co-founder: No. Of all the teams listed in the top 25 poll, Tennessee is the one team that has the best chance to slide out … and stay out.
I’m not a Tennessee hater. I grew up watching Andy Kelly and James “Little Man” Stewart in Neyland Stadium; rather, with as much talent as the Vols lost, it will be tough to come back and have a Top 25-type of season.
Yes, there’s talent, but it’s unproven. If 8-4 is good enough to finish ranked in the Top 25, Tennessee could be that team this season. The Vols will lose to Florida, Georgia, Alabama and either South Carolina or LSU. The Tigers and Tide from the West is a brutal draw.
Chris Wright, executive editor: No. I wrote months ago that Tennessee was a candidate to win three fewer games in 2017 than in 2016. Translation: I think they’ll struggle to qualify for a bowl. Georgia Tech is a dangerous opener. They could have five or six losses before Halloween.
I was all in last season. Injuries derailed the biggest dreams, but that team could have finished the regular season 6-6 just as easily as it did 8-4. And that team had substantially more talent and more experience than this group.
If Butch Jones goes 9-3 and finishes the season in the Top 25 with a first-time starter at quarterback and all of those new faces on defense, he’ll get my vote for SEC Coach of the Year.
And I’ll have even more questions about what could have been in 2016.