I was a lot more confident picking Tennessee to win the East last season than I am aligning myself with Georgia this year.
My faith wasn’t rewarded, however. Despite having the best roster in the division, the Volunteers didn’t play well at times — even in some of their early-on wins — and eventually fell apart after being bitten hard by the injury bug.
Seemingly all of the recognizable faces off the 2016 roster are elsewhere. Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara and Josh Malone are no longer there for the offense, while Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton have left on defense. Even if UT may have new stars on the horizon, most of them are pretty anonymous right now.
As a result, I see the rebuilding project on Rocky Top hitting the pause button in order to reset for another run in 2018.
2016 Projection: 10-2 (7-1)
Actual Record: 8-4* (4-4)
* doesn’t include bowl game
Butch Jones is one of the more polarizing coaches in the SEC. Some see him sitting on the hot seat. Others feel he’s nowhere near it.
Yes, the Vols went from five wins to seven wins to nine wins in his first three years and then delivered nine more this past season. On the other hand, it’s tough to keep playing the rebuilding card when he’s been on the job since 2013.
In person, Jones is very likable and easy to talk to off the record. But in press-conference settings like Media Days, he’s a human cliché machine — it’s made him a real punching bag at times. He’ll never live down his infamous “champions of life” and “5-star heart” comments, which were eye-rolling for some and chuckle-inducing for others.
We’re going to found out how good a coach Jones is in 2017. Nine wins again? He’s the guy. But only seven? Hot seat for 2018.
Speaking of polarizing, depending on who you talk to, Dobbs was either totally underrated or totally overrated at Tennessee.
With Dobbs in the NFL, it’s a two-way battle between Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano to succeed him as the focal point of the offense. Based on what we saw in an abbreviated spring game, Dormady appears to be the leader in the clubhouse.
Nevertheless, Jones has talked here and there lately about playing two QBs. The immediate reaction, of course, was negative. As the old saying goes, if you think you have two signal callers, then you really don’t have any. This could just be gamesmanship, though. The Volunteers open with Georgia Tech on a neutral site, so there’s little need for Jones to tip his hand before kickoff.
Even if Guarantano has more upside, Dormady is more experienced and isn’t the statue in the pocket many believe him to be.
Strengths & Weaknesses
No Hurd? No Kamara? No problem. It was actually John Kelly who led the Volunteers in 2016 with an average of 6.4 yards per carry.
The passing offense will be shorter on receiving options than it was last season, though. Not only did Malone declare for the draft a year early, but Kamara was a dangerous pass catcher out of the backfield. It’s time for Jauan Jennings to maximize his potential.
An inconsistent O-line will get a much-needed boost with the arrival of 5-star signee Trey Smith. He’s a left tackle at heart, but he started out at right guard this spring and looked like a legit difference maker right away. Because the defense was so decimated in 2016, lots of returning youngsters at every level got their feet wet already.
Special teams should be strong with punter Trevor Daniel and return man Evan Berry, although kicker Aaron Medley is mediocre at best.
Week 1: vs. Georgia Tech (W)*
If you have to face the Yellow Jackets and their triple-option offense, then you want an entire offseason to prepare for them.
Week 2: vs. Indiana State (W)
Last year, UT suited up for the Battle at Bristol the second week of the schedule. But this year, the Vols get to feast on a cupcake.
Week 3: at Florida (L)
Needless to say, the Gators will be motivated to start another winning streak after seeing it snapped in 2016 at Neyland Stadium.
Week 4: vs. UMass (W)
The Minutemen have no business being on the same field as Tennessee. Expect starters to play about a half before stepping aside for walk-ons the rest of the way.
Week 5: vs. Georgia (L)
The Volunteers needed a last-second Hail Mary from Dobbs to Jennings to defeat the Bulldogs last season. They’re out of miracles.
Week 6: bye
Week 7: vs. South Carolina (W)
UT exacts some revenge this time, as the Gamecocks snuck up and beat Jones and Co. this past year to the surprise of many.
Week 8: at Alabama (L)
The Vols were outclassed by the Crimson Tide in every phase the last time these two teams faced each other. Nothing has changed.
Week 9: at Kentucky (L)
Unless Tennessee toughens up in the trenches, the Wildcats are capable of running wild at Kroger Stadium with Benny Snell.
Week 10: vs. Southern Miss (W)
The Golden Eagles are on the right path after some dark days earlier this decade, but the Volunteers have too much talent here.
Week 11: at Missouri (W)
One way or another, the Tigers are going to score points in 2017. But can they stop anyone? Probably not in this one.
Week 12: vs. LSU (L)
If all goes according to plan for the Bayou Bengals, then Derrius Guice could be putting the finishing touches on his Heisman Trophy-winning campaign at this point.
Week 13: vs. Vanderbilt (W)
While the Commodores won this in-state rivalry a season ago, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that two in a row will happen.
* at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta
2017 Projection: 7-5 (3-5)
Final Standings: 5th in SEC East
If the Volunteers couldn’t take the East last year when everything was stacked in their favor, it’s fair to wonder if they ever will with Jones at the controls.
All of the requisite excuses have been made. The injuries were no doubt brutal. That four-game stretch — vs. Florida, at Georgia, at Texas A&M, vs. Alabama — was borderline unfair. And never forget the stinky mess that Jones inherited in the first place.
Still, if Jones is going to solidify himself as a great coach in this league, then he has to make some sort of statement this season. By all accounts, he’s had a positive impact in Knoxville from a recruiting perspective and replenished a depth chart that was much too thin following the back-to-back Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley disasters.
Eight or nine wins? Jones can be given more rope. But six or seven? The hot seat he may or may not be sitting on now will have the temperature turned up significantly.