5 reasons Tennessee could win the SEC East
Tennessee is one of those teams foaming at the mouth for the 2015 football season.
Butch Jones enters his third season as the leader of the Vols program, and he’s done a wonderful job collecting talent in Knoxville. The program is finally getting back some swagger after looking lifeless in the Derek Dooley dark years.
However, along with the team, Butch Jones will also have to step up his game. He’s 1-17 against ranked opponents, and he’ll face several in 2015. Perhaps that has more to do with being at Central Michigan and Cincinnati than it does with being out-coached against ranked opponents.
Most figure Georgia will enter the season as the SEC East’s favorite, but Tennessee is one of those dark-horse programs everyone is watching this year.
I still think Tennessee is most likely a year away from having its best team under Jones, but if certain dominos fall right, the Vols could still win the division.
Here are five reasons the Vols could win the SEC East crown, and none of them include the talented duo in the backfield, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara:
1. Joshua Dobbs stays healthy
If you look around the SEC, you’ll notice veteran quarterbacks with big game experience are hard to come by. Joshua Dobbs, thankfully, is one of those players with it. Let’s face it: Dobbs torched lesser defenses last season: South Carolina, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Iowa. The only defense he faced with a pulse as a starter was Missouri, a game that Tennessee lost 29-21. Dobbs’ quarterback ability can help overcome some offensive deficiencies, but he has to stay healthy. It’s imperative. With Dobbs, Tennessee could win 10 games; without him, the Vols would be limping to a bowl game. He’s similar to Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson, and both are pertinent to not only their teams, but to the conference as a whole. Behind Dobbs, however, well, we just don’t want to go there. Yes, the freshmen are talented, but with zero experience, it wouldn’t be pretty against even average defenses.
Specifically looking at the passing game, Dobbs has as many or more receivers with major upside than any program in the SEC. Yes, I said any. I’m not even sure missing Von Pearson would be that big of a deal. The bigger question is whether he will get enough protection in the pocket to have a rich passing game.
RELATED: Handicapping the SEC East for 2015
2. Elite D-line with two Defensive Player of the Year candidates
Outside of potentially Alabama, Georgia and Ole Miss, Tennessee may have the best defensive duo in defensive end Derek Barnett and pass-rush specialist Curt Maggitt. Both are Defensive Player of the Year candidates. The defensive line may prove to be the most disruptive in the SEC this season. The one big hole that remains, however, is replacing AJ Johnson at middle linebacker. The staff would probably like to see Dillon Bates step into that role, but he hasn’t taken it, yet. Bates and Kenny Bynum will continue to battle through fall camp.
Perhaps the most interesting position battle will come between freshmen defensive tackles Shy Tuttle and highly ranked Kahlil McKenzie. Obviously, both will play a lot this season, but one will have the greater impact.
The secondary should be really good, assuming it stays healthy. Corners Cam Sutton and Emmanual Moseley and safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil have loads of experience and should be very solid in pass defense.
3. Favorable schedule
Any schedule in the SEC is brutal, but there are different degrees of toughness. And let me say this: it’s a great year to hit the road against Florida and Alabama, two rivalry games that Tennessee is a combined 1-20 over the last decade. That tells you all you need to know. Both programs may experience some growing pains in 2015. According to the NCAA’s method of calculating strength of schedule, Tennessee has the conference’s eighth toughest schedule, measured by win-loss records from 2014. The only back-to-back SEC road games come against Alabama and Kentucky. If Tennessee can start strong through the first half of the season, they’ll be looking at finishing with at Kentucky, South Carolina, North Texas, at Missouri and Vanderbilt. Tennessee should finish 5-0 in those games.
4. SEC East’s frontrunner coming to Neyland Stadium
Perhaps it’s not the biggest game — that being Florida — but the Vols’ most important game comes against SEC East frontrunner Georgia. By most accounts, the Bulldogs are the East’s frontrunner again, slam packed with talent on both sides of the ball. The Dawgs probably have the East’s top defense, along with the East’s best overall player in Nick Chubb. Since 2000, Georgia has had the upper hand, winning 11 of the last 15. Georgia has also won five straight. In the last four games, however, Tennessee has only lost by an average of 5.25 points per game. Jones has proven he’ll play Georgia tough. Certainly if Tennessee is in contention for the division, Vol Nation will pack Neyland Stadium like cord wood.
5. Offensive line a year more seasoned
A year more seasoned is a beautiful thing for this offensive line. The starting five should start with OTs Kyler Kerbyson and Brett Kendrick, with Marcus Jackson (OG), Mack Crowder (C) and Jashon Robertson (OG) along the interior. Freshmen Drew Richmond, Jack Jones and Chance Hall could all see time this year, too. There’s more depth and experience than last season. It’s been well documented that Tennessee gave up an SEC-high 43 sacks, over 3.3 per game. That can’t happen this year, and the sack numbers reduced when Dobbs took over the starting quarterback job. A year more seasoned with a mobile quarterback will help see those numbers drastically reduce.