Vote for Tennessee as the preseason SEC East champ in 2016?

Why not? That’s what Volunteers fans expect after Tennessee put a 45-6 beatdown on Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.

But we’ve seen similar hype for Tennessee before, and it hasn’t guaranteed success.

In 2005, Tennessee started the season ranked third in the AP Poll, but finished 5-6 — failing to become bowl eligible for the first time during Phillip Fulmer’s tenure as the Vols’ head coach.

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Tennessee sportsbooks are live in the Volunteer state since November 1, 2020. Tennessee was the first SEC state to legalize sports betting.

In 2012 — Derek Dooley’s third and final year as Tennessee coach — the Vols were expected to compete for an SEC East title. They earned their first top 25 ranking under Dooley after a 2-0 start before falling to 5-7 on the season and 1-7 against SEC opponents.

Heading into this season — with Tennessee coming off of its big win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl — many folks were talking up the Vols to win the East. But Tennessee went 3-4 in its first seven games and became nationally irrelevant for the sixth season in a row.

This offseason, Tennessee may have earned the hype. And it’s fair to wonder whether the Vols could match lofty 2016 expectations. Tennessee finished this season with six straight wins, and its performance in the Outback Bowl showed the team’s improvement over the course of the season.

Can the Vols win the East? Tennessee will return most of its starters from 2015 — nine on offense and potentially nine on defense — so the Vols have talented, experienced players. Plus Florida and Georgia will be starting new quarterbacks next season, so the SEC East’s traditional powers could struggle on offense — at least at the beginning of the season.

Maybe a better question would be whether Tennessee could reach 10 or 11 wins — or win the conference championship?

The Vols have a solid quarterback and leader in Joshua Dobbs. They have a dynamic duo in the backfield with Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. They’ll have wide receivers with speed and an improving offensive line returning four starters. They’ll have Derek Barnett, who should be one of the best defensive ends in the nation next season. They have a big playmaker at linebacker if Jalen Reeves-Maybin stays. And the secondary, which made major strides during the course of this season, will be filled with young talent.

But most importantly, the 2016 team already believes that it can accomplish its goals.

“We’re not done,” Dobbs said after Tennessee’s bowl win over Northwestern. “We’re just scratching the surface. We know our potential. We know we have to work and grind to get there, but we know what we can do as a team.”