Tennessee has every reason to celebrate its 2016 signing class.
Tennessee didn’t have much room in the 2016 class after having signed 62 prospects in the previous two years.
However, Tennessee still finished No. 14 in the nation and were seventh best in the SEC. The Vols will be expected to beat two of the teams that ranked ahead of them in order make it to the SEC Championship game. Florida finished No. 13. Georgia finished No. 7. If Tennessee made it to the SEC title game, the Vols would likely have to beat Alabama, which finished with the No. 1 class in the nation.
Now, it’s easy to dismiss those statistics by pointing out that Tennessee just signed 21 players in this year’s class. Florida signed 25 and Alabama signed 24. However, Georgia signed 20 prospects and finished far ahead of Tennessee.
For more context, look back to the 2015 class:The Vols finished No. 4 in the nation, but were just one spot above Georgia and still behind No. 1 Alabama. Florida, which was undergoing a coaching transition, finished No. 21.
In 2014, the Vols bested Florida and Georgia, which finished No. 9 and No. 8, respectively. The Vols finished No. 7. Alabama — you guessed it — finished No. 1.
So strictly based on recruiting rankings, Tennessee is never going to be immensely more talented than the programs they have to beat to achieve their goals. That was largely the case when the Vols were making championship runs in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Aside from Florida, the Vols had more talent than any SEC team and it wasn’t very close.
So how do the Vols win the SEC East, a conference title and get invited to the College Football Playoff if talent alone won’t do the trick? Here are some possibilities:
Take advantage of scheduling
This year is a prime example. The Vols host Florida and Alabama. Neyland Stadium is one of the toughest places to play in the country and the Vols had best use the home-field advantages they get in the even-number years.
Take advantage of turnover
Tennessee was the king of coaching turnover before Butch Jones took over the program. Now, that has changed with Jones –the second-longest tenured coach in the SEC East. Kentucky’s Mark Stoops beats him by a couple of weeks. Georgia just hired Kirby Smart. Florida’s Jim McElwain will be looking for a quarterback this fall as he is still implementing his system. It takes more than a season to implement such vast changes. As for Alabama, well, it doesn’t appear Nick Saban is going anywhere soon, but he can’t keep the Vols from the SEC Championship, which is their primary goal.
Improve the passing game
The Vols can’t solely depend on the running game despite how good it was last year. Doing so means the Vols will be in far too many close games, which means there will always be a risk to lose a game Tennessee shouldn’t — Oklahoma and Florida come to mind. The Vols have to make more big plays downfield. The Vols seem linked to quarterback Joshua Dobbs. He must become more productive.
Keep being creative on defense
A poor roster left by former coach Derek Dooley forced the Vols to do some different things on defense when Jones arrived. The Vols utilized Curt Maggitt in a hybrid role at defensive end and linebacker. They played a nickelback extensively because they weren’t sure they had three competent linebackers. Now that the Vols have more talent, there could be a tendency to be more conservative. That wouldn’t be a good plan.
Simply put, the Vols are contenders now. They have enough talent to line up with anyone in the nation. But, they can’t rely on talent alone to win championships. Tennessee has to stay ahead of the competition on the field because there’s only so much ground that can be made up in recruiting.
Recruiting talented players is just part of the solution. Tennessee has made progress there. Now, we’ll see what the Vols can do with a re-stocked roster.
All player ranking and ratings are from the 247Sports Composite.