After disappointment, lowered expectations, Tennessee remains SEC's most intriguing team
I admit it. I’ve always been a glass-half-empty guy. I grew up around way too much sarcasm and cynicism to be a glass-half-full type.
On the one hand, I could look at Tennessee coming off its second straight nine-win season and third consecutive bowl victory and think this program is headed in the right direction. Not a lot of teams in the SEC can say the same.
But on the other hand, I wonder how the Volunteers will ever win the East if they couldn’t get it done last year. Excuses have been made — they were completely devastated by injuries, especially on defense — and some of them are indeed valid. But they had the rest of the division right where they wanted them in 2016, yet they still couldn’t get to Atlanta.
Now that seemingly all of the recognizable faces on the roster are gone, UT was picked to finish third in the East at Media Days.
Personally, I expect even less of the Vols in 2017, as I have them coming in just fifth. Blue bloods Georgia and Florida both appear to be in much better shape, plus South Carolina and Kentucky are worthy of third and fourth place, respectively, in my eyes.
I’ll stop short of putting fifth-year coach Butch Jones on the hot seat. He inherited a club still reeling via the back-to-back Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley disasters — nobody can deny that there is a lot more talent these days. There would have to be an epic collapse in Knoxville for Jones to be axed, and I don’t see that happening.
Still, I’m only projecting a seven-win campaign for Tennessee. And if I’m right, then Jones’s chair will be much warmer next offseason.
We’re going to find out once and for all if former quarterback Joshua Dobbs was a legit difference maker on offense. Now that he’s off to the NFL as a fourth-round selection of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a new era begins at the game’s most important position.
Fans — of the Volunteers and otherwise — remain rather split on just how special Dobbs truly was. He accounted for a league-leading 39 total touchdowns a year ago, 27 passing and 12 rushing, but he also threw 12 interceptions and fumbled 10 times, losing four of them. Statistically speaking, he’s one of the best to ever wear the orange and white.
But Dobbs never beat Alabama, never won 10 games and never played in a major bowl. There were brutal defeats to unranked Arkansas, South Carolina and Vanderbilt, too.
One way or another, he’s going to be difficult to replace. Not only was Dobbs productive on the field, but he was the dictionary definition of a student-athlete off the field. Still, a loud minority of UT supporters is happy to see him go.
Jones hasn’t named his new starting QB, and with a neutral-site affair in Atlanta against Georgia Tech set for Week 1, he has little motivation to do so ahead of kickoff. It’s a two-horse race between Quinten Dormady (below) and Jarrett Guarantano — Dormady has more knowledge of the system, while Guarantano offers more Dobbs-like ability.
Based on what we saw in April’s spring game, although it was shortened thanks to Mother Nature, Dormady looks to be ahead of Guarantano.
Even if Jones makes the right choice with regard to his passer and either Dormady or Guarantano turns out to be solid, chances are he won’t have as much help around him this year as Dobbs did a season ago.
Say what you will about departed running back Jalen Hurd — I sure did, if you recall — but at this time last year he was in the conversation with LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Georgia’s Nick Chubb as one of the premier ball carriers in this conference. Fellow back Alvin Kamara, who turned out to be more versatile, left early for the pros.
So did primary receiver Josh Malone. While Jauan Jennings remains, he was a signal caller in high school and has never been the No. 1 option in any passing attack.
On the other side of the ball, defensive end Derek Barnett may turn out to be irreplaceable. Despite doing it practically all by himself, he was a consistent force for this unit in 2016 and earned a spot in Round 1 of the draft as a result.
Also gone is pass rusher Corey Vereen — he had 7.0 sacks to Barnett’s SEC-leading 13.0 — linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton. True, Reeves-Maybin only played in four games due to injury and Sutton suited up just seven times because he was banged up, as well. Both of them were preseason all-conference honorees.
A case can be made that some younger Vols gained valuable experience when forced to step in for Reeves-Maybin, Sutton and several others on the mend.
However, let’s not forget Tennessee finished 11th in the league against the run, 10th against the pass, 11th in total D and ninth in scoring D. Florida, conversely, was similarly riddled with injuries but still managed to get off the field consistently.
As usual, the schedule is far from smooth sailing. There are divisional road trips to Florida, Kentucky and Missouri, while the Georgia, South Carolina and Vanderbilt battles are at home. In addition to their annual cross-division tilt with Alabama — it’s in Tuscaloosa, unfortunately — LSU will visit Neyland Stadium.
If Jones can defy the odds and win nine games for the third time in a row, then Rocky Top will surely be home sweet home.
He’ll have to do it with a lack of star power, though. None of his players were voted preseason first-team All-SEC, and not a single defender even made second- or third-team. The Volunteers are the conference’s most intriguing squad, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.