Check out the advanced-stats glossary here. Below, a unique review of last year's team, a unit-by-unit breakdown of this year's roster, the full 2016 schedule with win projections for each game, and more.
1. Are you ready?
Tennessee hasn't finished a season in the top 10 since 2001, when Phil Fulmer's Vols came within one game of the BCS title game.
In 2002, they began fifth and finished 8-5. In 2005, they began third and finished 5-6. And when Fulmer was pushed out following 2008, the Vols entered almost a decade in the wilderness. They finished unranked for seven straight years, the longest stretch since the beginning of the Johnny Majors era in the late-1970s.
We always race to proclaim a storied program "BACK," but fourth-year UT head coach Butch Jones has built, brick by brick, on it. The Vols have improved from 5-7 in 2013 to 7-6 to 9-4 to 2015.
And now, for the second straight year, a team that improved by two wins returns a vast majority of its key contributors. Tennessee is experienced, talented, and mean. The hype has shifted into fourth gear.
Typical media, right? We're all jumping the gun, racing to recapture history, right? Well ... numbers don't care about how good you were in the late-1990s, and numbers like the Vols quite a bit.
Based on recent performance, returning production, and recruiting, S&P+ projects the Vols ninth, even higher than the humans. They are 10th per FEI and fifth per FPI. Jones has built through recruiting and has engineered strong year-to-year improvement. That's going to reflect well in the spreadsheets.
So the coaches and the nerds both view UT as a top-10 team. What could go wrong?
Here are some questions the Vols still have to answer:
- The offense takes its foot off the gas at the earliest opportunity. Veteran coordinator Mike DeBord proved solid at game plans and early success. The Vols averaged 6.3 yards per play in the first quarter, with a 65 percent completion rate and 5.5 yards per rush. After the first quarter: 5.3 yards per play, a 57 percent completion rate, 4.4 yards per carry. Predictability beset the play-calling, which put a lot of pressure on the defense.
- The defense could stand to be more disruptive. The Vol defense was pretty strong, but it also peaked early, allowing 3.9 yards per carry and a 83.4 passer rating in the first quarter, then 4.3 and 117.2 thereafter. To the extent that the D had an issue, it didn't cause enough havoc. While they were excellent once opponents were leveraged into passing downs, forcing passing downs against good offenses was an issue.
- QB + place-kicker + coach. SB Nation's Bud Elliott and I frequently discuss his theory that the combination of quarterbacking, place-kicking, and coaching can affect your close-game record, just as a strong bullpen can in baseball. Predictable play-calling, conservative coaching, iffy kicking, and overrated quarterback play from Joshua Dobbs helped create some close-game issues.
The Vols led Oklahoma 17-0 in the first quarter and lost. They led Florida 27-14 in the fourth quarter and lost. They led Arkansas 14-0 in the first quarter and lost. They led Alabama 14-13 in the fourth quarter and lost. That could have been randomness and bad luck ... and it could have been part of the formula.
Tennessee was clearly a strong team, but experience and another good recruiting class won't automatically fix any of the issues. Until we see the Vols close games against good teams, we don't know that it will happen enough.
In three years under Jones, they are 3-0 in one-possession games against teams with losing records and 3-9 in those games against teams with winning records. They nearly blew another lead against lowly South Carolina last year.
The Tennessee hype is justifiable. But the last step the Vols have to take is a tricky one. If they can avoid playing not to lose, then the hype might not be loud enough.
|Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 18 | Final S&P+ Rk: 22|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|5-Sep||vs. Bowling Green||25||59-30||W||94%||99%||+13.8||+7.5|
|Points Per Game||35.2||29||20.0||16|
2. Closing the deal
In terms of per-play averages, the Tennessee offense was nearly as effective against very good teams as it was against the others.
- Tennessee vs. Top 30:
Record: 2-4 | Average percentile performance: 58% (~top 55) | Yards per play: Opp 5.8, UT 5.4 (-0.4)
- Tennessee vs. everybody else:
Record: 7-0 | Average percentile performance: 81% (~top 25) | Yards per play: UT 5.7, Opp 4.6 (+1.1)
Watching was a particularly frustrating experience. The Vols proved what they could do with dynamic early play, especially on offense, and then they called it a day.
The Oklahoma game was a master class in playing not to lose. The Vols kicked a field goal from the OU 1 five minutes into the game and, once up 17-3, fell into a "run, run, third-and-long pass" rhythm and scored zero points over the final 42 minutes of regulation. And once this failed, it seemed to get into their heads. The Florida and Arkansas games played out in a similar manner.
The defense was mostly solid against good teams but didn't dominate. And the offense forced it to dominate.
In a lot of ways, it felt the coaching staff failed its players in key moments. Will that change?
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||42.6%||57||Succ. Rt. +||113.6||21|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||25.0||2||Def. FP+||24.7||4|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||4.4||69||Redzone S&P+||108.5||41|
|Q1 Rk||3||1st Down Rk||27|
|Q2 Rk||49||2nd Down Rk||45|
|Q3 Rk||44||3rd Down Rk||38|
3. A one-quarter offense
The potential of the offense is obvious.
Jalen Hurd is basically a defensive end playing running back, and when given a chance to run downhill, he can do some nasty things. Fellow back Alvin Kamara is frequently used in dump-off situations on the perimeter, enough to pull off the rate "No. 2 rusher, No. 3 receiver" combination. Josh Malone and Josh Smith are decent bailout options and helped Tennessee rank 16th in Passing Downs S&P+.
Built around these pillars, the Vols had one of the best first-quarter offenses in the country.
You need a Plan B, though. Hurd averaged 5.4 yards per carry in the first quarter and 4.3 thereafter. Dobbs' passer rating was over 135 in the first and third quarters and under 121 in the second and fourth. Kamara caught 22 passes in the first and third quarters and 11 in the second and fourth. Leading receiver Von Pearson caught 27 passes in the first half and 11 in the second.
When the Vols didn't have a game put away yet, they had no idea how to move the ball. With this mix of parts, that's baffling.
Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Joshua Dobbs||6'3, 210||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9276||205||344||2291||15||5||59.6%||18||5.0%||5.9|
|Quinten Dormady||6'4, 216||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9029||13||22||209||1||0||59.1%||3||12.0%||7.7|
|Sheriron Jones||6'2, 208||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9039|
|Jarrett Guarantano||6'4, 205||Fr.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9612|
|Jalen Hurd||RB||6'4, 240||Jr.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9793||279||1283||12||4.6||4.6||35.5%||5||1|
|Joshua Dobbs||QB||6'3, 210||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9276||128||830||11||6.5||6.4||45.3%||10||4|
|Alvin Kamara||RB||5'10, 215||Jr.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9760||107||698||7||6.5||5.1||53.3%||2||1|
|John Kelly||RB||5'9, 212||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8665||40||165||1||4.1||3.7||35.0%||0||0|
|Quinten Dormady||QB||6'4, 216||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9029||7||22||0||3.1||1.0||14.3%||0||0|
|Jauan Jennings||WR||6'3, 205||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9257||7||15||0||2.1||5.1||14.3%||0||0|
|Carlin Fils-Aime||RB||5'11, 175||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9005|
4. Switch it up
There's a visceral thrill to watching Hurd run with a football. He is enormous and mean, and he's often pretty successful, too.
But on a per-touch basis, Hurd was drastically less effective than his backup.
Kamara gained five yards or more on 53 percent of his carries in 2015. Hurd: 36 percent. And in the open field, Kamara was more explosive, averaging 5.1 highlight yards per opportunity to Hurd's 4.6. The two were nearly identical in receiving quality, but Kamara was targeted 15 more times.
Variety could benefit Tennessee. When Kamara's in, he's likely fraying wide. When Hurd's in, he's probably taking a handoff. Switching things up wouldn't be a bad idea, especially if it involves Kamara taking a few more of Hurd's carries.
Getting the ball downfield on standard downs wouldn't hurt, either. Dobbs wasn't given many chances to take advantage of play-action; not only did Tennessee run two-thirds of the time on standard downs (and even more when ahead), but when Dobbs did throw, the passes weren't really going anywhere.
His passer rating on first down was just 105.1, and he averaged just 8.4 yards per completion. On third downs, he averaged 12.5 yards per completion with barely a lower completion rate. Dobbs can potentially do more than he's been asked, but variety would be lovely.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Josh Malone||WR||6'3, 200||Jr.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9818||52||31||405||59.6%||14.6%||7.8||50.0%||48.1%||1.54|
|Alvin Kamara||RB||5'10, 215||Jr.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9760||45||34||291||75.6%||12.6%||6.5||71.1%||53.3%||1.20|
|Josh Smith||WR||6'1, 213||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8210||44||23||307||52.3%||12.4%||7.0||45.5%||43.2%||1.46|
|TE||6'5, 246||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9122||35||21||305||60.0%||8.2%||8.7||51.0%||N/A||N/A|
|Ethan Wolf||TE||6'6, 245||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8890||32||23||301||71.9%||9.0%||9.4||46.9%||56.2%||1.68|
|Jalen Hurd||RB||6'4, 240||Jr.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9793||30||22||190||73.3%||8.4%||6.3||50.0%||53.3%||1.14|
|Jauan Jennings||WR||6'3, 205||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9257||22||14||149||63.6%||6.2%||6.8||40.9%||45.5%||1.38|
|Preston Williams||WR||6'4, 209||So.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9763||16||7||158||43.8%||4.5%||9.9||68.8%||43.8%||2.03|
|John Kelly||RB||5'9, 212||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8665||2||0||0||0.0%||0.6%||0.0||50.0%||0.0%||0.00|
|Jeff George||WR||6'6, 195||Jr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.8798|
|Tyler Byrd||WR||6'0, 195||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9552|
|Marquez Callaway||WR||6'2, 190||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9490|
|Brandon Johnson||WR||6'2, 180||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8691|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||2015 Starts||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Kyler Kerbyson||LT||13||26||2015 2nd All-SEC|
|Dylan Wiesman||RG||6'4, 304||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8352||13||15||2015 2nd All-SEC|
|Jashon Robertson||LG||6'3, 305||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8625||10||23|
|Coleman Thomas||C||6'5, 301||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8584||13||18|
|Chance Hall||RT||6'4, 318||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8585||7||7|
|Brett Kendrick||RT||6'6, 318||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8296||5||7|
|Jack Jones||RG||6'4, 307||So.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9404||1||1|
|Charles Mosley||OL||6'4, 340||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8948||0||0|
|Drew Richmond||OL||6'5, 301||RSFr.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9732|
|Venzell Boulware||OL||6'3, 306||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8837|
|Ryan Johnson||OL||6'6, 275||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9015|
|Marcus Tatum||OL||6'6, 265||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8751|
|Nathan Niehaus||OL||6'6, 295||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8405|
5. The line should be strong
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).
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.
In last year's preview, I said the offensive line would determine Tennessee's fate. Though it still let a few too many defenders into the backfield, it improved dramatically: 19th in Adj. Line Yards, 29th in power success rate, 43rd in passing downs sack rate. Obviously the skill personnel had a role, but there was clear progress.
Interior play should be as good or better this year;.Tennessee returns starting guards Dylan Wiesman and Jashon Robertson and center Coleman Thomas. Tackle is a bit in flux with the loss of all-conference Kyler Kerbyson but still boasts a couple of players with starting experience and a former blue-chipper in redshirt freshman Drew Richmond.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||36.2%||19||Succ. Rt. +||111.3||31|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||33.2||9||Off. FP+||33.2||12|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||4.1||41||Redzone S&P+||102.0||65|
|Q1 Rk||10||1st Down Rk||26|
|Q2 Rk||42||2nd Down Rk||46|
|Q3 Rk||26||3rd Down Rk||54|
6. A Bob Shoop defense
Tennessee ranked 12th in Def. S&P+ in 2014 and 17th in 2015. Granted, the Vols regressed last year, especially in terms of making stops in scoring opportunities. But it was still interesting to see Jones making a move on defense and not offense; he dumped coordinator John Jancek to pluck Bob Shoop away from Penn State.
This felt more like an opportunity to make an upgrade rather than a move to shore up a weakness. Shoop mostly thrived for James Franklin at both Vanderbilt and Penn State, and at both stops he generated major progress in his first year -- Vandy went from 62nd to sixth in 2011, and PSU went from 39th to fourth in 2014. You can only improve so much from 17th, but you can still improve.
Shoop's defense was a little disappointing in 2015, if only because of the standard set in 2014. The Nittany Lions still ranked 15th in Def. S&P+, powered by maybe the best pass rush in the country, but they struggled against the run and, like Tennessee, sometimes had trouble forcing passing downs and making stops near the goal line.
Shoop's first Tennessee D will have all the experience he could want, and if he's able to find a pass-rushing complement for junior Derek Barnett -- Barnett had 10 sacks, but only one other player had more than 3.5 -- and figure out how to prevent big pass plays (typically a strength of his defenses), then that could push the Vols toward the Def. S&P+ top 10.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Derek Barnett||DE||6'3, 265||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9164||13||56.5||8.4%||12.5||10.0||0||1||1||0|
|Corey Vereen||DE||6'2, 249||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8678||13||33.0||4.9%||9.5||3.5||0||1||0||0|
|LaTroy Lewis||DE||6'4, 256||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8798||13||22.5||3.4%||2.0||1.0||0||1||1||0|
|Kahlil McKenzie||DT||6'3, 325||So.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9968||13||18.0||2.7%||1.0||1.0||0||1||1||0|
|Kendal Vickers||DT||6'3, 295||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7997||13||14.5||2.2%||1.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Danny O'Brien||DT||6'2, 301||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9181||11||13.0||1.9%||3.0||2.0||0||1||0||0|
|Shy Tuttle||DT||6'2, 311||So.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9738||6||6.5||1.0%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kyle Phillips||DE||6'4, 259||So.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9831||7||6.0||0.9%||1.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Dimarya Mixon||DE||6'4, 260||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8618||13||6.0||0.9%||1.0||0.0||0||2||0||0|
|Austin Smith||DE||6'3, 236||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8631||13||3.0||0.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Quay Picou||DT||6'1, 277||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8706|
|Andrew Butcher||DE||6'2, 275||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9018|
|Darrell Taylor||DE||6'4, 240||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9004|
|Alexis Johnson||DT||6'4, 297||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8900|
|Jonathan Kongbo||DL||6'6, 270||So.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9584|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jalen Reeves-Maybin||WLB||6'0, 230||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9052||13||85.5||12.8%||14.0||6.0||0||4||2||0|
|Darrin Kirkland Jr.||MLB||6'1, 230||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9271||13||54.5||8.1%||6.5||3.0||1||1||0||0|
|Cortez McDowell||WLB||6'0, 235||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9235||13||10.0||1.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kenny Bynum||SLB||6'1, 235||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8425||13||8.5||1.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Colton Jumper||MLB||6'2, 224||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||NR||13||8.0||1.2%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Gavin Bryant||LB||6'0, 238||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8976||10||4.5||0.7%||0.0||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|Quart'e Sapp||WLB||6'2, 220||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9077||4||3.0||0.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Elliott Berry||LB||5'11, 222||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8528|
|Dillon Bates||WLB||6'3, 220||So.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9536|
|Daniel Bituli||LB||6'3, 235||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9147|
|Ja'Quain Blakely||LB||6'2, 230||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8649|
7. A little more aggression could go a long way
Tennessee's secondary ranked a respectable 31st in DB Havoc Rate last year, thanks mostly to the work of two aggressive corners, Cameron Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley. (They also gave up a few big gainers as well.) The front seven, however, was lacking in disruptiveness.
The Vols ranked just 51st in passing downs sack rate and 70th in stuff rate; Barnett was kind of a one-note end (10 sacks, but only 2.5 non-sack tackles for loss), while Corey Vereen was stronger against the run (6 non-sack TFLs) but didn't offer much in the pass rush (3.5 sacks).
If Shoop can unearth another top-notch play-maker to work with Barnett and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, that could be too much for even good offenses to handle. He's got experience atop the depth chart and plenty of former star recruits, looking for a niche -- tackles Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle (who is coming off of a serious leg injury), ends Kyle Phillips and Andrew Butcher, five-star JUCO lineman Jonathan Kongbo, linebackers Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Quart'e Sapp.
Just a little bit more successful aggression would give Tennessee a chance to win tight games against good teams, even if the offense is ridiculously predictable.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Todd Kelly Jr.||SS||5'11, 208||Jr.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9686||13||38.5||5.8%||0||0||3||2||0||0|
|Cameron Sutton||CB||5'11, 186||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8625||13||27.5||4.1%||3||0||1||6||2||0|
|Emmanuel Moseley||CB||5'11, 180||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8464||13||24.5||3.7%||2||0||1||10||0||0|
|Malik Foreman||NB||5'10, 190||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8290||13||23.5||3.5%||4||0||1||9||1||0|
|Justin Martin||CB||6'1, 183||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9069||13||17.0||2.5%||0||0||0||5||0||0|
|Evan Berry||FS||5'11, 207||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8934||13||16.5||2.5%||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|Micah Abernathy||S||6'0, 195||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.9082||12||8.0||1.2%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Stephen Griffin||S||6'2, 205||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8565||8||5.0||0.7%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Devin Williams||DB||5'8, 184||Sr.||NR||NR||2||1.5||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Rashaan Gaulden||S||6'1, 185||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8773|
|D.J. Henderson||DB||6'1, 180||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8773|
|Nigel Warrior||DB||6'0, 186||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9690|
|Marquill Osborne||DB||5'11, 188||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9228|
8. Risk vs. reward
Sutton and Moseley made for a lovely pair of aggressive corners, combining for five tackles for loss and 18 passes defensed. Throw in the work of safety Todd Kelly Jr, nickel Malik Foreman, and No. 3 corner Justin Martin, and you've got a set of play-makers.
The one problem: The Vols could stand to prevent a few more plays. They allowed 118 passes of 10-plus yards (84th in FBS) and allowed 12.4 yards per completion, a little bit higher an average than you would like to see. Meanwhile, one of the only vacancies in the starting lineup comes at free safety, where Brian Randolph has departed, along with strong safety LaDarrell McNeil. Kelly and Foreman are back, and players like Evan Berry and Micah Abernathy could thrive given a chance, but it's a question mark. As strong as this defense was on passing downs, there were some glitches. And now there's less safety experience.
|Trevor Daniel||6'1, 248||Jr.||60||45.7||9||15||22||61.7%|
|Aaron Medley||6'2, 194||Jr.||89||61.9||37||5||41.6%|
|Aaron Medley||6'2, 194||Jr.||55-55||16-19||84.2%||5-12||41.7%|
|Evan Berry||KR||5'11, 207||Jr.||21||38.3||3|
|Micah Abernathy||KR||6'0, 195||So.||4||17.3||0|
|Cameron Sutton||PR||5'11, 186||Sr.||25||18.7||2|
|Alvin Kamara||PR||5'10, 215||Jr.||8||12.5||1|
|Special Teams S&P+||45|
|Field Goal Efficiency||91|
|Punt Return Success Rate||57|
|Kick Return Success Rate||1|
|Punt Success Rate||45|
|Kickoff Success Rate||36|
9. Just kick the ball out of bounds. Even on kickoffs.
Place-kicking makes up the biggest portion of your Special Teams S&P+ rating, as it is the special teams category most directly correlated with wins and losses.
Tennessee's Aaron Medley could have been worse -- he didn't miss a PAT and made 84 percent of his shorter field goals -- but he was asked to attempt a ton of longer kicks and didn't do very well with them. Field Goal Efficiency is determined based on the expected success of the kicks you are taking, and UT was below average in this regard.
I mention this if only to explain why Tennessee could rank only 45th in Special Teams S&P+ despite the scariest set of return men in the country.
Granted, punt returns were a bit all-or-nothing, but when the "all" includes three scores and 13 returns of 20-plus yards, you can live with that. Opponents would be well served to just kick the ball out of bounds on punts ... and maybe on kickoffs, too. Evan Berry will return just about anything, and he averaged a terrifying 38 yards per return with three scores. Tennessee basically scored a return touchdown in every other game last year. That's absurd. And everybody associated with the return game is back.
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|10-Sep||vs. Virginia Tech||32||7.7||67%|
|8-Oct||at Texas A&M||25||1.0||52%|
|29-Oct||at South Carolina||63||10.7||73%|
|Projected wins: 8.6|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||15.8% (35)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||9 / 15|
|2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||7 / 2.2|
|2015 TO Luck/Game||+1.8|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||81% (84%, 78%)|
|2015 Second-order wins (difference)||9.0 (0.0)|
10. All about the trip to Athens
Last year's schedule was loaded at the top, and Tennessee was nearly up for the challenge. The Vols faced six top-30 teams in their first seven games, then plowed through a weak home stretch.
This year there could be more of a breaking-in period.
UT does face two dangerous teams out of the gates; Appalachian State should be one of the Sun Belt's best, and Virginia Tech will still mostly be an unknown when the two teams kick off at Bristol Speedway in Week 2. Still, Virginia Tech isn't Oklahoma, and there are only four projected top-30 teams on the schedule.
Close the deal against two of them, and you're in position to win 10 games for the first time since 2007. Do it against three, and you're maybe at 11 for the first time since 2001.
Win totals aside, the primary goal for UT is reaching its first SEC title game in nine years. Even if they clear the Florida hurdle (the Vols haven't beaten the Gators since 2004), and I assume they will, they face a massive Athens battle against a Georgia that is basically a quarterback and a couple of linemen away from playing at a top-10 level itself. Lose that, and the Vols might have to beat Alabama to keep East hopes alive.