Tennessee’s 45-6 rout of No. 12 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl not only capped the Volunteers’ best season in eight years, it also showcased some of the returning talent that gives the Vols a chance to keep improving as they prepare for 2016.

That win was the highlight of a 2015 season that saw Tennessee close on a six-game winning streak — its longest since Phil Fulmer was coaching.

But there were bumps along the way. The Vols finished 9-4 for their highest victory total since they won 10 games under Fulmer in 2007, but their four losses were all one-possession defeats to Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama.

Tennessee blew leads of at least 13 points in three of those setbacks, but there’s no shame in losing to the eventual national champion, a CFP semifinalist and the SEC East champ (at least when the Gators had Will Grier).

In most media outlets’ way-too-early preseason polls, the Vols are either in the Top 10 or ranked just outside of it. Now that recruiting season is over, it’s time to ask whether the Vols deserve that lofty status.

Here are several reasons they do:

1. Who they have coming back: With as many as 17 starters back from 2015, including quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd, Tennessee should be favored to win the SEC East in 2016. Other key returnees include linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, cornerback Cameron Sutton, defensive end Derek Barnett, safety/kick returner Evan Berry and offensive lineman Jashon Robertson.

2. The 2016 recruiting class: Led by defensive end Jonathan Kongbo, the Volunteers were able to bring in 10 four-star prospects in their 21-member group. It is the N0. 7 class in the SEC and the No. 14 class in the nation, according to 247 Sports’ Composite Rankings.

3. The 2016 schedule: The Volunteers won’t leave the state of Tennessee for nine of their 12 regular-season games. The Vols will play seven games at Neyland Stadium, including matchups against Florida, Alabama, Kentucky and Missouri, will make a trip to Vanderbilt and will compete in the Battle at Bristol, which will pit Tennessee and Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway. Home games against Appalachian State, Ohio and Tennessee Tech round out the Volunteers’ non-conference slate.

With the exception of the matchup against the defending national champion Crimson Tide, every game appears to be winnable, and an 11-1 finish would almost certainly guarantee an SEC East title and would definitely justify a Top 10 preseason ranking.

In an area of concern for the Volunteers, defensive coordinator John Jancek has been fired and replaced by former Penn State DC Bob Shoop. Plus, Tennessee will have to replace some key players, including linebacker Curt Maggitt, left tackle Kyler Kerbyson, safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil, wide receiver Von Pearson and defensive tackle Owen Williams. But the Volunteers came pretty close to having a breakthrough season in 2015 and have multiple reasons to believe that 2016 will be even better.

“The road to success is always under construction, and we need to continue to recruit and develop, and continue to grow and elevate our football program,” Butch Jones said. “But where we’ve come in three short years is amazing.”

Tennessee could have an amazing 2016 campaign — one it hopes ends in the same spot as the 2015 season — Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, site of the 2016 national championship game.