Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.
1. How far, and how fast?
It's not hard to understand the infatuation.
- According to the 247Sports Composite, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones signed the No. 7 class in the country in 2014 and the No. 4 class in 2015. Those include 32 four- or five-star recruits.
- According to F/+ ratings, Tennessee's 2014 team was its best since 2007. The bar isn't high -- the Vols had managed only one top-40 finish in that span -- but progress in Jones' second season was undeniable.
Combine that with Tennessee's name-brand reputation, which tends to result in a race to proclaim a team "BACK," and a great bowl performance, which tends to result in an artificial bump in the preseason polls, and I assumed the Vols would be ranked far too high to start 2015. Like, top-15 high.
In fact, I wrote about the dreaded bowl bump and its harmful effects after Tennessee's bowl win.
Offseason perceptions matter more than they should. A top-30 performance in 2015, which would be accompanied by about eight wins or so, would represent another step forward for Jones. But if we set the bar higher than that and make improvement seem disappointing, that's unfair.
So consider me pleasantly surprised that the pollsters are tapping the brakes. The Vols ranked 25th in the preseason coaches poll; in the SEC hierarchy, that puts them behind Arkansas and Missouri and ahead of Mississippi State and Texas A&M. And it nearly matches their projected No. 26 ranking in the upcoming Football Outsiders Almanac 2015. It is a fair spot, and Jones' Vols will have a chance to exceed expectations.
Jones has used every recruiting trick in the book to bring talent to Knoxville, and he and his staff have proved capable of putting it in position to succeed. For a young team, the Vols weren't particularly volatile last year, and that could say good things as the quality of the product improves.
We're just waiting to see how quickly the product improves. You won't continue to sign top-five classes without affirming your direction on the field, and the hurdles don't end after a 7-6 season. Jones is eschewing some development and five-year depth (quite a few of last year's signees have already left) in exchange for getting uncut talent onto the field. In theory, that could work, but it could cause problems if growth isn't quick enough to maintain recruiting.
The bar is set in a fair place for 2015. The upside is immense, but the Vols are a couple of injuries away from being too young to rise, and the schedule presents countless opportunities for breakthrough wins and discouraging losses.
It's going to be an interesting season in Knoxville.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 24|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|18-Oct||at Ole Miss||5||3-34||L||18%||-21.8||0%|
|1-Nov||at South Carolina||38||45-42||W||70%||12.0||60%|
|Points Per Game||28.9||65||24.2||36|
2. We probably shouldn't overstate the improvement
Using the percentiles above, there are two ways to look at Tennessee's 2014. First, there's the overarching narrative: Tennessee was scuffling along until Joshua Dobbs took over at quarterback against Alabama, and then the Vols took a big step forward.
That is true ... to a degree.
- Average Percentile Performance (first 8 games): 65% (~top 45 | record: 3-5)
- Average Percentile Performance (last 5 games): 75% (~top 30 | record: 4-1)
Tennessee went from averaging 4.4 yards per play without Dobbs to 5.5 with him. However:
- There were still a couple of duds (4.1 combined yards per play against a good Missouri defense and a bad Vandy defense).
- A lot of those yards came against South Carolina, Kentucky, and Iowa, which had defenses outside the Def. S&P+ top 50.
- The defense grew leaky. After allowing 4.7 yards per play through seven games, UT allowed 6.1 in the final six. South Carolina averaged 8.6, Iowa 6.4 (though a lot of Iowa's damage came in garbage time). A thin D didn't have a ton to offer good offenses and faded.
If we turn the prism, we see a team that maybe didn't improve or regress, but just did far better against lesser teams.
- Average Percentile Performance (vs. F/+ top 20): 46% (~top 70 | record: 0-5)
- Average Percentile Performance (vs. No. 21-plus): 84% (~top 20 | record: 7-1)
Almost everybody produces better results against worst teams, yes, but Tennessee seemed far more reliant than most on a talent advantage. The Vols got drubbed by Oklahoma, Ole Miss, and Alabama, and couldn't hardly move the football against Missouri. They maybe beat Georgia without an untimely quarterback injury, but for the most part, they didn't have enough to compete against really good teams.
Lesser teams could offer little resistance. The Vols let a tossup against Florida slip away and sleep-walked over Vandy, but they sliced through bad defenses late in the year, and bad offenses couldn't pretend to move the football early on.
This is a surprise, considering how young Tennessee was. And while it probably means the Volunteers are going to be limited against a schedule that features four teams projected 12th or better, it could mean they handle business against just about every other team.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||41.6%||65||Succ. Rt. +||104.2||54|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||28.0||30||Def. FP+||105.0||20|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.3||76||Redzone S&P+||95.7||76|
|Q1 Rk||38||1st Down Rk||43|
|Q2 Rk||24||2nd Down Rk||40|
|Q3 Rk||64||3rd Down Rk||74|
3. Great at nothing, bad at nothing
Vols fan central
Vols fan central
It's hard to use full-season numbers to judge the Tennessee offense, considering the turnover at quarterback.
Justin Worley began as UT's starter, and Jones intended to redshirt true sophomore Dobbs. But Worley got hurt and struggled, and backup Nathan Peterman didn't inspire much confidence. So Dobbs' redshirt was torn off midway, and while his numbers were in no way eye-popping, they were better than Worley's and Peterman's.
It's still pretty impressive to see UT's rankings above. The Vols were between about 27th and 55th in almost every category. They created good field position for their defense (with help from good punts and kickoffs) and struggled to finish drives in the end zone, and in just out every other category they were above average.
That's encouraging. Dobbs was a sophomore, running back Jalen Hurd was a freshman, and freshmen combined to start 20 games on the line. Then-junior Pig Howard led the way in the receiving corps, but it was virtually freshmen and sophomores after him.
With reasonable year-to-year improvement, this offense could go from being above average at everything to being good at everything.
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Joshua Dobbs||6'3, 212||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9276||112||177||1206||9||6||63.3%||12||6.3%||5.9|
|Quinten Dormady||6'4, 213||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9029|
|Jauan Jennings||6'4, 202||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9257|
|Jalen Hurd||RB||6'3, 230||So.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9793||190||899||5||4.7||3.9||38.9%||1||1|
|Joshua Dobbs||QB||6'3, 212||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9276||92||551||8||6.0||4.6||54.3%||4||2|
|Pig Howard||WR||5'8, 187||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9063||15||96||2||6.4||3.3||66.7%||0||0|
|Von Pearson||WR||6'3, 187||Sr.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9292||8||27||0||3.4||1.8||25.0%||0||0|
|RD Abernathy IV
|RB||5'7, 161||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8047||132||511||5||3.9||3.7||32.6%||N/A||N/A|
|Alvin Kamara||RB||5'11, 210||So.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9760|
4. Nobody. Get. Hurt.
If Dobbs has to miss time, Tennessee's probably playing a true freshman at quarterback. If Hurd gets hurt, it's JUCO transfer Alvin Kamara (a former Alabama signee) or bust. Through both graduation and transfer, UT has lost almost all of last year's backfield two-deep beyond these two, and all bets are off if either or both go down, particularly Dobbs.
You could do worse than hanging your hopes on these two. Dobbs isn't an incredible playmaker, but he's mature for his experience level and has shown he can manage a game pretty well and make plays when he needs to (just ask South Carolina). He's got plenty of growing to do -- in nine games against teams not named Kentucky, he has a passer rating over 125 just twice -- but there's no reason to assume he won't grow.
Hurd passes the eyeball test. He's a mean runner, and he grew into the go-to role. After averaging a paltry 4.2 yards per carry through seven games, he averaged 5.5 in the final six. He had 21 carries for 125 yards against South Carolina and 16 for 122 against Iowa.
Hurd's a bit of a 'tweener: he's not efficient enough to be valuable without explosiveness. Of the 54 FBS running backs with at least 190 carries last year, he ranked 33rd in opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least five yards) and 48th in highlight yards per opportunity (basically, the magnitude of his successful carries). He was a freshman, sure, but 22 of the 54 players on this 190-carry list were freshmen and sophomores, and others graded out much better.
Line play was an ongoing issue, and while he wasn't breaking off 50-yarders when the line did its job, that probably prevented him from establishing much of a rhythm. Plus, it probably isn't a coincidence that his numbers improved when Dobbs took over. Dobbs' mobility gave opponents one more thing to account for, and it took eyes off of Hurd.
With Hurd and Dobbs back and the line more experienced, it's safe to assume the run game will improve.
What about the passing game? Hard to say. Virtually every wideout and tight end returns (sans senior Von Pearson, who might not), but despite epic recruiting rankings, nobody was much of a downfield threat. Coordinator Mike Bajakian aimed for efficiency over explosiveness and sometimes got it.
With Bajakian leaving for a spot with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jones replaced him with veteran Mike DeBord, a pro-style coach's pro-style coach. DeBord was the play-caller for Michigan's 1997 national title run and spent five seasons as an NFL assistant and two as a Michigan administrator.
If you've got the talent, an old-school, pro-style (whatever that means at this point) approach can work. And perhaps it means more play-action opportunities for receivers to stretch the field.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Pig Howard||WR||5'8, 187||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9063||83||54||618||65.1%||19.5%||55.4%||7.4||-33||7.4||86.2|
|Marquez North||WR||6'4, 224||Jr.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9575||53||30||320||56.6%||12.4%||47.2%||6.0||-52||5.9||44.6|
|Von Pearson||WR||6'3, 187||Sr.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9292||46||38||393||82.6%||10.8%||71.7%||8.5||-47||8.7||54.7|
|Josh Malone||WR||6'3, 198||So.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9818||46||23||231||50.0%||10.8%||63.0%||5.0||-62||5.1||32.2|
|Jalen Hurd||RB||6'3, 230||So.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9793||41||35||221||85.4%||9.6%||46.3%||5.4||-182||5.3||30.8|
|Jason Croom||WR||6'5, 235||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9122||35||21||305||60.0%||8.2%||51.4%||8.7||48||8.8||42.5|
|Ethan Wolf||TE||6'5, 240||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8890||32||23||212||71.9%||7.5%||56.3%||6.6||-60||6.7||29.5|
|Josh Smith||WR||6'1, 205||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8210||15||10||135||66.7%||3.5%||60.0%||9.0||15||9.0||18.8|
|Johnathon Johnson||WR||5'9, 185||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8400||15||10||117||66.7%||3.5%||66.7%||7.8||-3||7.5||16.3|
|Alex Ellis||TE||6'4, 236||Sr.||NR||NR||9||6||115||66.7%||2.1%||55.6%||12.8||43||12.9||16.0|
|Cody Blanc||WR||6'3, 202||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8327|
|A.J. Branisel||TE||6'4, 237||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8503|
|Neiko Creamer||TE||6'3, 233||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8584|
|Preston Williams||WR||6'4, 180||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9763|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Marcus Jackson (injury)||LG||6'2, 308||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9011||17|
|Kyler Kerbyson||LT||6'4, 317||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8839||13|
|Jashon Robertson||RG||6'3, 310||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8625||13|
|Mack Crowder||C||6'2, 290||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8600||12|
|Coleman Thomas||C||6'6, 308||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8584||5|
|Brett Kendrick||RT||6'6, 308||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8296||2|
|Dylan Wiesman||LG||6'3, 305||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8352||2|
|Austin Sanders||LG||6'5, 307||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8793||0|
|Dontavius Blair||LT||6'8, 295||Jr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9099||0|
|Charles Mosley||OL||6'5, 350||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8948|
|Ray Raulerson||OL||6'5, 279||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8472|
|Drew Richmond||OL||6'5, 310||Fr.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9732|
|Jack Jones||RT||6'5, 289||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9404|
|Chance Hall||RG||6'5, 317||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8585|
|Venzell Boulware||OL||6'3, 303||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8837|
|Zach Stewart||OL||6'4, 310||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8649|
5. The OL will determine UT's fate
Adjusting for opponent, Tennessee's line may not have been as bad as we thought. The Vols did have to face Georgia and Missouri from the SEC East, Alabama and Ole Miss from the West, and Oklahoma in non-conference play. There's a lot to account for in that group of defensive fronts.
Still, despite a big running back, the Vols stunk in short-yardage and allowed defenders into the backfield, run or pass. They ranked 96th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), and only two teams were worse at preventing passing downs sacks: UCLA and Navy. Dobbs' mobility helped tamp the sack rates down, but he was still sacked nine times by Missouri (six) and Vanderbilt (three).
[Update: Starting left guard Marcus Jackson is likely lost for the year to injury.]
The line's improvement could determine everything from whether Dobbs gets hurt to if Tennessee is able to move the ball against a defense like Alabama's, Georgia's, or Florida's. The experience is far better -- the Vols entered 2014 with six career starts and enter 2015 with 64 -- and now we just have to find out about development.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||36.8%||18||Succ. Rt. +||116.6||19|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||33.6||11||Off. FP+||107.1||10|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.7||101||Redzone S&P+||97.6||72|
|Q1 Rk||6||1st Down Rk||9|
|Q2 Rk||53||2nd Down Rk||39|
|Q3 Rk||10||3rd Down Rk||23|
6. Significant improvement, top to bottom
The offense still has worries. Injuries could wreck the backfield, and we don't know how much the line will improve or what DeBord will have to offer.
On defense, there are far fewer concerns. Tennessee improved from 77th in Def. S&P+ in Derek Dooley's final season to 43rd in 2013 and 12th in 2014, and the Vols return eight of the top nine linemen, six of seven linebackers, and eight of 11 defensive backs.
Tennessee did have a problem with closing drives, games, seasons, etc. The Vols ranked 72nd in Redzone S&P+, fell from sixth in Q1 S&P+ to 91st in Q4, and faded dramatically in November. Injuries played a role, but youth probably did, too: of the 22 returnees, 16 were freshmen or sophomores. Between increased experience and the presence of another crop of impressive freshmen, one assumes depth and closing will be less problematic.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Derek Barnett||DE||6'3, 268||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9164||13||59.5||8.4%||20.5||10.0||0||0||0||0|
|Corey Vereen||DE||6'2, 253||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8678||13||19.5||2.7%||4.0||1.5||0||0||0||0|
|Danny O'Brien||NT||6'2, 282||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9181||13||19.5||2.7%||4.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Owen Williams||NT||6'2, 295||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8443||12||16.0||2.2%||2.0||2.0||0||1||0||0|
|Jakob Johnson||DE||6'4, 240||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8582||12||11.0||1.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|LaTroy Lewis||DE||6'4, 260||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8798||13||7.0||1.0%||5.0||1.0||0||1||1||0|
|Trevarris Saulsberry||DT||6'4, 308||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8494||5||4.0||0.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Dimarya Mixon||DT||6'3, 270||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8618||12||4.0||0.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kendal Vickers||DT||6'3, 288||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7997|
|Kahlil McKenzie||DT||6'3, 327||Fr.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9968|
|Kyle Phillips||DE||6'4, 255||Fr.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9831|
|Shy Tuttle||DT||6'3, 315||Fr.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9738|
|Andrew Butcher||DE||6'2, 250||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9018|
|Darrell Taylor||DE||6'4, 228||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9004|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jalen Reeves-Maybin||WLB||6'1, 225||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9052||13||82.0||11.5%||11.0||2.0||1||0||0||0|
|Curt Maggitt||SLB/DE||6'3, 246||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9310||13||41.0||5.8%||15.0||11.0||0||0||1||0|
|Cortez McDowell||WLB||6'1, 227||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9235||13||14.5||2.0%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Chris Weatherd||SLB||6'4, 217||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8969||13||10.0||1.4%||3.0||2.5||0||1||0||0|
|Dillon Bates||LB||6'3, 225||RSFr.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9536||4||4.5||0.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kenny Bynum||MLB||6'1, 250||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8425||7||4.0||0.6%||0.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Elliott Berry||LB||6'0, 217||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8528|
|Gavin Bryant||LB||6'0, 236||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8976|
|Darrin Kirkland Jr.||LB||6'2, 235||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9271|
|Quart'e Sapp||LB||6'2, 200||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9077|
7. A deep, well-rounded defensive front
Tennessee's front seven brings absurd recruiting rankings and proven production in a way few other teams can.
End Derek Barnett, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and end/linebacker Curt Maggitt combined for 46.5 tackles for loss and 23 sacks. This is impressive both in its volume and its well-roundedness. This trio was good at getting to both quarterbacks and running backs behind the line.
The loss of underrated tackle Jordan Williams hurts, and it's hard to count on oft-injured Trevarris Saulsberry to remain healthy. But between Danny O'Brien, Owen Williams, and incoming blue-chippers Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle, it's hard to worry much about tackle.
Signs point to strong depth, which should bump Tennessee up from last year's No. 21 Rushing S&P+ ranking. And if you can't run against the Vols, good luck trying to fend off this pass rush.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Brian Randolph||SS||6'0, 208||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8590||13||76.5||10.7%||1.5||0||2||3||1||0|
|LaDarrell McNeil||FS||6'1, 206||Sr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9554||13||61.0||8.6%||1.5||0||2||3||1||0|
|Cameron Sutton||CB||6'1, 189||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8625||13||34.0||4.8%||4||0||3||13||1||0|
|Todd Kelly Jr.||SS||6'0, 208||So.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9686||13||27.5||3.9%||0||0||3||2||0||0|
|Emmanuel Moseley||CB||5'11, 175||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8464||13||17.0||2.4%||2||0||0||6||0||0|
|Malik Foreman||CB||5'10, 187||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8290||13||9.0||1.3%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Rashaan Gaulden||DB||6'1, 184||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8773||11||6.5||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Evan Berry||DB||5'11, 208||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8934||13||5.0||0.7%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Justin Martin||CB||6'2, 173||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9069|
|Micah Abernathy||DB||6'0, 186||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.9082|
8. Few worries in the back
Like Jordan Williams, corner Justin Coleman was a nice defensive piece, capable of making plays near to and far from the line of scrimmage. But when he's basically all you lose from a secondary that was pretty good, it's easy to be optimistic, especially considering Barnett and Maggitt are still in uniform.
Tennessee's pass D was wonderfully well-rounded: top 10 in sack rates, top 20 in efficiency, top 20 in big-play prevention. The former and latter are in good hands. Senior safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil are both back, as is blue-chip sophomore Todd Kelly Jr.
The efficiency piece could be determined by Coleman's replacement, likely one of two sophomores: Emmanuel Moseley or Justin Martin. Moseley showed prime ball skills in limited opportunities, and Martin is a four-star JUCO. Either could team with active-as-hell junior Cameron Sutton to form a nice tandem.
And if you've got Barnett and potentially Maggitt at end, a nice batch of tackles, a couple playmakers at linebacker, steady seniors at safety, and major activity at cornerback ... well ... where's the weakness in this defense?
|Aaron Medley||6'2, 189||So.||63||60.1||15||1||23.8%|
|George Bullock||6'0, 210||Jr.||10||60.9||2||0||20.0%|
|Aaron Medley||6'2, 189||So.||42-43||19-20||95.0%||1-6||16.7%|
|Evan Berry||KR||5'11, 208||So.||14||29.5||0|
|Cameron Sutton||PR||6'1, 189||Jr.||14||11.3||1|
|Special Teams F/+||15|
|Field Goal Efficiency||45|
|Punt Return Efficiency||35|
|Kick Return Efficiency||56|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||96|
9. Nailing all the basics
UT's special teams unit was a lot like the offense, with few true strengths and no weaknesses. Kick coverage was excellent despite few touchbacks, but the Vols ranked between 35th and 56th in every other category above.
Cameron Sutton returned a punt for a touchdown, Aaron Medley made just about every kick under 40 yards, Evan Berry was explosive (if not consistent) in kick returns. This wasn't LSU-level special teams, but it was good.
The Vols break in a new punter, likely Maryland transfer Nathan Renfro, but return everybody else. Hard to consider that a bad thing.
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk|
|5-Sep||vs. Bowling Green||94|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||9.0% (45)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||6 / 13|
|2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||2 / 1.2|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||+0.3|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||17 (9, 8)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||7.0 (0.0)|
10. Test after test
Scouting the enemy
Scouting the enemy
It's not hard to talk yourself into Tennessee. The Vols return a ton of starters, welcome another scary recruiting class, and proved enough that predictions aren't based wholly in potential. Ranking this team in the 20s feels safe, but the teens aren't far off.
When it comes to making an SEC East run or posting a high win total, however, the schedule will probably keep expectations tamped down. With a No. 26 projection in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, the Vols are given only a 25 percent chance of winning more than eight games and a 46 percent chance of winning seven or fewer.
By October 25, Tennessee will have hosted Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Georgia and traveled to Florida (here's your reminder that the Gators have beaten the Vols 10 consecutive times) and Alabama. The schedule eases up but still includes visits to Kentucky and a Missouri that has yet to lose to Tennessee since joining the SEC.
It's probably too much to ask that Tennessee make some serious run in 2015. Any backfield injury could have serious repercussions. We'll see if their on-field production can remain at a level that can sustain top-10 recruiting, and without going into too much detail, other issues could (justifiably) threaten to prevent a rise.
But Tennessee is going to be strong and could be on one hell of a trajectory.