If Tennessee can’t get over the hump and win the East this year, then it might never happen for Butch Jones.

The Volunteers return 17 starters, more than any program in the division. There is talent and experience at just about every position. The other six teams in the East are all rebuilding in some form or fashion.

On offense, Joshua Dobbs is a senior and ready to put it all together under center. Running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara help ease the load. Defensively, Derek Barnett is the best pass rusher in the league not named Myles Garrett. The kick- and punt-return games are also strong.

The Vols must manage an intimidating four-week stretch that will define them: vs. Florida, at Georgia, at Texas A&M and vs. Alabama. Winning them all seems unreasonable. Three of four is an absolute must, though.

Experts are buying what Jones is selling. UT is the pick to go to Atlanta. But the time for talk is done.


SDS 2015 projection: 9-3 (5-3)
Actual record: 8-4* (5-3)

* doesn’t include postseason

Predicting every Tennessee game in 2016:

Sept. 1 vs. Appalachian State (W): The Volunteers begin the campaign a few days early on a Thursday night. The Mountaineers shocked Michigan in 2007, but there will be no repeat. Dobbs and Co. put up big numbers against this Week 1 cupcake.

Sept. 10 vs. Virginia Tech (L): The heavily anticipated Battle at Bristol will shatter records for attendance, but the Hokies have delivered their fair share of upsets over the years.

Sept. 17 vs. Ohio (W): After a week of hearing “I told you so” from armchair quarterbacks on sports talk radio, the Vols take out their frustrations on the overmatched Bobcats.

Sept. 24 vs. Florida (W): The Gators have won 11 consecutive times in this rivalry, but Tennessee finally breaks the streak and puts some orange-and-blue demons to rest.

Oct. 1 at Georgia (W): Dobbs is as experienced as any QB in the conference. Bulldogs freshman Jacob Eason will be learning on the job. Advantage Dobbs, even on the road.

Oct. 8 at Texas A&M (L): It’s only natural that the Volunteers get caught looking ahead to next week’s matchup with the Crimson Tide. The Aggies are going to surprise a few teams.

Oct. 15 vs. Alabama (W): The Vols led the Tide late a year ago in Tuscaloosa. This time, back home in Knoxville, they don’t chew their nails watching the scoreboard in the fourth quarter.

Oct. 29 at South Carolina (W): Will Muschamp is a good enough recruiter to bring the Gamecocks back from a lousy 2015. It’s going to take him a year or two, though.

Nov. 5 vs. Tennessee Tech (W): A rare early-November cupcake takes some of the pressure off what has been a tough turn through the SEC. The Volunteers should win handily.

Nov. 12 vs. Kentucky (W): One of these years, the Wildcats will have their own breakthrough and make the East awfully nervous. But it probably won’t be this year.

Nov. 19 vs. Missouri (W): Even if Dobbs, Hurd and Kamara have a hard time running the ball on Mizzou’s excellent front four, the Tigers aren’t good enough offensively to take advantage.

Nov. 26 at Vanderbilt (W): Facing another underrated defense to close out the regular season, Tennessee does just enough to escape this intrastate showdown with a victory.

SDS 2016 projection: 10-2 (7-1)
SEC race: 1st in the East

The Skinny: Tennessee was the runaway choice at SEC Media Days to win the East, and that pick comes to fruition. However, a trip to Atlanta in December most likely means a rematch with Alabama, which will be none too pleased after losing to the Volunteers in October. Paybacks can be a you-know-what.

John Crist is the senior writer for Saturday Down South, a member of the FWAA and a voter for the Heisman Trophy. Send him an e-mail, like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.