This is the year. Tennessee has been “young” and “improving” the past few years under Butch Jones, but now is the time for results to show on the field.
The Volunteers came close to reaching their potential in 2015, losing four games by a combined 17 points. Three of those games were against ranked opponents – Florida, Oklahoma and Alabama. With 17 starters back, it’s time to finish those games.
Here are five bold predictions about Tennessee’s 2016 season:
The running back partnership is best in the SEC
Running back Jalen Hurd rushed for 1,288 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore, despite having the weight of the offense on his hefty shoulders. In 2016, Alvin Kamara will step up and became a true 1B.
Kamara already rushed for 698 yards on just 107 carries in 2015. The former Alabama signee was rated the No. 1 all-purpose running back in his recruiting class, and later became the No. 2 JUCO running back. He and Hurd make for perfect complements.
Tennessee breaks Florida’s stranglehold
The Volunteers have lost 11 straight games against Florida dating back to Urban Meyer’s arrival in Gainesville. But with the game heading back to Knoxville, this is finally the year Tennessee will break the losing streak.
Tennessee was just seconds away from beating the Gators last year, but Antonio Callaway ruined things with a 63-yard touchdown with under 90 seconds left to go. The Volunteers are better in virtually every phase of the game – they will pull it off.
Butch Jones’ job is called into question at least once
Few coaches have as much pressure as Jones this season. He has sold Tennessee fans on his vision, but the Volunteers have failed to meet expectations. Considering UT’s top 10 ranking to start the year, the expectations are not going anywhere.
Over four weeks, the Volunteers have games against Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama. Should they look unimpressive over the stretch, many could be grumbling for a change. Of course, going 2-2 is likely good enough to win the division – it’s hard for fans to see that in the moment. Jones will get back on track and silence any doubters by December.
Four players earn major All-America honors
Three defensive players are no-brainers to contend for All-America honors in 2016. Defensive end Derek Barnett was a destructive force on the edge and compiled 12.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin has compiled 206 tackles and 25 tackles for loss the past two years combined. Cornerback Cam Sutton earned All-America honors at punt returner last season and is pretty darn good at cornerback too.
In addition to those three, there are several other players who could contend for All-America. Kick returner Evan Berry is a no-brainer, especially considering
Vols win the SEC East
The SEC East continues to be the weak link, but Tennessee is a legitimately good football team. The Volunteers start the year ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press poll, their highest ranking since 2005 under Phil Fulmer.
Perusing this roster, there are limited weaknesses. The defense has playmakers at all three levels. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs is unspectacular, but has been consistent enough. As mentioned above, the running backs will be spectacular.
Simply put, the Volunteers have no peer in the SEC East this season. Anything less than a division championship will be a disappointing year.