What will the 2016 offseason narrative be if Vols win their bowl game?
It’s uncanny how much Tennessee’s 2015 season resembles its 2014 season.
Similar to the Volunteers’ 2014 team, this year’s team became an afterthought after a rough 3-4 start. It didn’t matter that Tennessee was playing much better than it did a season ago — losing all four games by a touchdown or less — because each loss placed them farther outside the College Football Playoff picture. It didn’t seem to matter that two of those four losses came against teams that went on to make the College Football Playoff.
But as soon as Tennessee was no longer nationally relevant, it started winning games. It dominated Kentucky in Lexington. It managed hold on for a win after blowing another 14-point lead against South Carolina. Its defense was vital in wins over North Texas and Missouri, and its offense put on a clinic against a highly-touted Vanderbilt defense in the regular-season finale.
Tennessee finished its 2015 regular season with five straight wins. The only SEC team that currently holds a longer winning streak is SEC champion Alabama.
It’s important to note that not a single one of those five wins came against a team with a winning record. But finishing the regular season with eight wins for the first time since 2007 would be a significant accomplishment for the Vols.
Tennessee’s final test of this season will be against No. 13 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day. If the Vols win, the story lines in Knoxville will be how far the program has come under Butch Jones and the team’s SEC East title chances in 2016.
Tennessee’s 2016 bandwagon could fill up very quickly. The offense, led by QB Joshua Dobbs, is expected to return nine starters. The defense will lose both starting safeties and possibly DB Cameron Sutton and LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin to the NFL Draft. But the Vols will have loads of talent on the defensive line, and Todd Kelly Jr. and Evan Berry should transition nicely into their new roles as starting safeties.
Florida’s defense will lose some of its most talented players. Georgia may start a quarterback with no previous college football experience.
But many of same type of assessments were made last year after the Vols’ blowout win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. But Tennessee was out of contention for the SEC East title before the midway point of the season.
The question remains whether Tennessee’s potential offseason momentum will serve as a springboard for next season. The Vols started this season 2-3 after the TaxSlayer Bowl win last year. But next season could be a completely different story.