Talking SEC championship: Tennessee Volunteers
SDS is taking a look at each SEC Championship contender and their chances of winning in Atlanta. We’ll list three reasons why each team will win and three reasons why each team will not.
The 2015 campaign will be one of the more-anticipated seasons in recent memory for Tennessee fans as the Volunteers look to win the SEC East — if the not the entire SEC.
Butch Jones has introduced stability in Knoxville to a program that lost seven games five times between 2008 and 2013. Consecutive top recruiting classes have helped turn things around in Tennessee. Now those recruits are ready to put their stamp on a once-proud program in need of rejuvenation.
Tennessee is stacked at many positions with 17 returning starters. With the right bounce here or a favorable call there, it’s feasible to think that the Volunteers can contend for the SEC East title. If Butch Jones can get his squad clicking on all cylinders, you never know what can happen in the SEC.
THREE REASONS WHY
1. Defense: The Tennessee defense promises to be stout this year, with an experienced, deep secondary and defensive line. If coordinator John Jancek can up the unit’s production at the linebacker spots, Tennessee stands to contend for the top defense in the SEC East.
The Vols pass rush is set with Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett (21 combined sacks in 2014, third-best in nation). Cornerback Cameron Sutton anchors a Tennessee secondary that finished tied for second in the SEC with 16 interceptions.
What will make the Volunteers defense jump from really good to elite will depend on the linebacker spot, specifically at middle linebacker, where the Vols are tasked with replacing A.J. Johnson, the program’s second all-time leading tackler. Kenny Bynum appears to have the edge over Dillon Bates, Colton Jumper and Darrin Kirkland Jr., but no one has earned the starting spot, yet, alongside Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who returns at the WILL spot.
Jancek will work primarily from the nickel package this season, meaning the Vols can get away with two linebackers. Maggitt will drop back into a hybrid DE/LB on nickel packages.
Fun Fact: the Tennessee defense finished first in the SEC in solo tackles (566) in 2014 and last in the conference in assisted tackles (282.0).
2. Joshua Dobbs: No one wins the SEC with an average schlep under center. For Tennessee to compete for the SEC title, they’ll need lights-out play from their junior quarterback every week.
Dobbs is off to a great start, boasting a 4-1 record and TaxSlayer Bowl MVP honors, since taking over as starter late last season. In six games, he tossed for 1,206 yards (9 TDs) and rushed for another 469, including a team-high 8 rushing touchdowns.
Dobbs will have his share of weapons this season, starting with a talented backfield duo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara that will alleviate some pressure on him to have to win games solely with his arm or legs. The quarterback listed at 100-1 odds to win the Heisman Award has a deep stable of receivers including Pig Howard, Marquez North, Von Pearson, Josh Smith, Josh Malone and Jason Croom. The pieces are in place for Dobbs to set Tennessee up to challenge for the SEC East both this year and next.
3. Special Teams: The name of the game is field position. Tennessee will look to set itself up on special teams this season thanks to a collection of talented returning starters and transfers.
Aaron Medley proved accurate inside 40 yards last season, missing just one of his 20 attempts, en route to finishing second in the SEC for field goals made. With an extra year to add strength, expect the sophomore to improve upon his 1 for 6 from beyond 40 yards. The Vols are set at punter, as well, where Maryland transfer Nathan Renfro has a slight edge over touted freshman Tommy Townsend. Renfro averaged 44.3 yards per kick for the Terps in 2014, where he was a three-year starter.
Sutton isn’t just a star cornerback, he also returns punts. Last year he tallied 158 return yards and took one to the house. Setting up the Vols’ field position on punts will be Ralph David Abernathy IV. The Cincinnati transfer registered 2,186 punt return yards and a touchdown with the Bearcats in three years. He appears to be healthy after heel and hamstring issues limited him to three games last year in Cincy. In Knoxville, he joins his brother Micah Abernathy, who, along with Evan Berry, provides the Vols with a deep roster of more-than-capable return men.
REASONS WHY NOT
1. Schedule: Have you ever known an SEC schedule to be easy?
Tennessee should be heavy favorites in at least five winnable games: Bowling Green, Western Carolina, at Kentucky, North Texas and Vanderbilt. From there it gets difficult with non-division tilts against Alabama and Arkansas, as well as a non-conference home game against Oklahoma. If the Vols can escape with two wins in those three games, they could set themselves up nicely to control their destiny against SEC East foes Georgia (Oct. 10) and South Carolina (Nov. 7) at home and against Missouri (Nov. 21) in Columbia.
Working in their favor is a schedule that lightens up after traveling to Tuscaloosa on Oct. 24. The Vols close out the season against Kentucky, South Carolina, North Texas, Missouri and Vanderbilt — teams that combined to go 30-32 in 2014 (19-29 excluding Missouri).
Any slip-ups, however, and a once-promising season could dissipate.
2. Injuries: The injury bug has already been making its rounds through Tennessee’s fall camp with several big names nursing ailments. Among the bodies building up is that of left guard Marcus Jackson who will miss the season with a torn bicep.
Marquez North, one of the team’s top wide receivers, and Jalen Hurd, the Vols’ No. 1 tailback has also listed among the infirm this summer. Both are expected to be fine for Tennessee’s Week 1 matchup against Bowling Green.
Depth is a bigger concern for Tennessee than some of the other contenders, so Vols head coach Butch Jones can’t be a fan of seeing up to 18 of his players on the sidelines with the season kicking off in less than three weeks.
3. Offensive Line Play: The most uncertain unit on the Vols squad has to be its offensive line. The loss of their most-experienced lineman in Marcus Jackson is forcing offensive line coordinator Don Mahoney to reshuffle an already shaky group. The unit is deep in numbers and promise, but sorely lacks experience after adding 13 offensive line signees since Jones took over.
While Brett Kendrick and Coleman Thomas have filled in at left guard, the starters aren’t set. Fifth-year senior Kyler Kerbyson should assume the right tackle role and share time on the right side of the line with touted transfer Dontavius Blair.
The depth is there, but any flashes of inexperience could spell disaster for a potent Tennessee offense that can beat you on the ground and in air.