Here are some numbers that have relevance to the current state of Tennessee football:
25: The total margin of defeat for the 2015 Vols in four losses
9: The number of losses in a row to Alabama
11: The number of losses in a row to Florida
2007: Last SEC title game appearance
1998: Last SEC and national title
18: Returning starters for the 2016 season
The 2015 Tennessee football season is being remembered for all the near misses, and as a signal, the program is starting to get back to being an SEC powerhouse.
The first half of the season featured two massive choke jobs in the fourth quarter to Oklahoma and Florida. Then on October 10, the Vols were looking a 24-3 deficit to Georgia, and the possibility of losing five games, right in the face. Butch Jones’s seat was as hot as it ever has been and he decided to be aggressive. The Vols picked up two huge fourth down conversions and recovered a fumble before the half. The season, maybe even the fate of Butch and the program, turned around.
The 2016 season has arrived with something not seen on Rocky Top in almost a decade: Expectations. The Vols are a heavy preseason favorite to win the east and are getting mentioned as playoff contenders. On paper the Vols return their most talented team since Phillip Fulmer was coach.
Tennessee is led by senior QB Josh Dobbs and will be flanked by RBs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. The offensive line is the most experienced and talented group Jones has had. Josh Malone, Juan Jennings, Josh Smith and Preston Williams are the best receivers, and all four can take it to the house at any time. Ethan Wolf is as good of a tight end as there is in the conference.
Dobbs has to show he can complete passes down the field. Teams are going to sell out on the run until Dobbs can make them pay. So far, he has been unable to do so in his career.
After failing to get off the field on late in games against Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama, Butch Jones decided to make a change and brought in Stu’s old buddy Bob Shoop.
Shoop inherits an experienced unit led by CB Cam Sutton, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and DE Derek Barnett. All three could be first round draft picks. The real weakness to this group will be at safety, where the Vols will replace two starters. However, there are some talented guys in the mix to start. There are some depth concerns at linebacker too. If Maybin or Darrin Kirkland get hurt, it could change the season quick.
Keep an eye on DT Kahlil McKenzie, CB Rashaan Gaulden and DE Jonathan Kongbo. These guys could have a great year.
Trevor Daniel may be the best punter in the SEC. Aaron Medley may be the most inconsistent kicker in the SEC. Evan Berry is the best kick returner in the country.
On paper, this is the best team in the east, with Georgia close behind. The Vols have three games they should win before Florida comes to Knoxville. Then Tennessee runs a gauntlet of Florida, at UGA, at Texas A&M and back to Knoxville for Bama. After the bye the Vols close at South Carolina, Tenn Tech, Kentucky, Mizzou and Vandy.
Best case scenario: The Vols beat Florida and Bama and represent the east at 11-1. They beat LSU and make some noise in the playoff. Butch turns the corner and pulls in a haul of recruits.
Worst case scenario: Butch gets conservative against Florida and loses late. The team suffers key injuries and drops four in a row. Jones and company can’t turn the corner and lose out in recruiting.
One man’s worthless prediction: I think Tennessee wins the east with big wins over Florida and Georgia. They take losses to Bama and A&M. They lose to LSU in Atlanta, but go to the Sugar Bowl where they beat Oklahoma 45-10.