The offseason is about speculation, but the time is now for definitive predictions. With fall camps open across the SEC, teams are starting to take shape.
To close out the SEC East, Tennessee comes into the season with a runaway hype train. The Volunteers have been young for a few seasons, but this is the year everything is supposed to come together. Butch Jones’ squad features 17 returning starters, including key players along the lines. LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin and CB Cameron Sutton could have left early for the NFL draft, but returned in hopes of leading the Volunteers to an SEC championship. Having a returning quarterback, Joshua Dobbs, also gives a team that extra edge.
Tennessee has quickly become a consistent program under Jones. Here’s how we think things will play out for the Volunteers in 2016.
2015 record: 9-4, 5-3 SEC; Second place in SEC East
Appalachian State – Sept. 1 in Knoxville, Tenn.
Do not overlook this game. Though Appalachian State is better known for pulling off one of the biggest upsets in college football history over Michigan, the Mountaineers have quickly become the class of the Sun Belt. Appalachian State returns the vast majority of a roster that went 11-2 last season. The Volunteers will win this game, but the Mountaineers could momentarily halt the runaway hype train.
Prediction: Tennessee (1-0, 0-0 SEC)
Virginia Tech – Sept. 10 in Bristol, Tenn.
This game should be intriguing. Not only could it be played at the biggest crowd in college football history at Bristol Motor Speedway, but it features two schools within a few hundred miles of each other playing for an impressive trophy. The Hokies will look different under new head coach Justin Fuente, but will continue to post an impressive defense under elite defensive coordinator Bud Foster. This game is more than winnable, but will be a nice addition to Tennessee’s resume.
Prediction: Tennessee win (2-0, 0-0 SEC)
Ohio – Sept. 17 in Knoxville, Tenn.
Frank Solich has done an excellent job building a program at Ohio, one of the toughest places to win in college football. The Bobcats might be in a position to contend for a division title, but that has more to do with the fact that they play in arguably the worst division in FBS football. Tennessee simply is too dominant on the lines.
Prediction: Tennessee win (3-0, 0-0 SEC)
Florida – Sept. 24 in Knoxville, Tenn.
Florida is in Tennessee’s head – this much is clear. The Volunteers have lost 11 straight games against the Gators dating back to the Phil Fulmer era. To prove it truly belongs among the elite in college football, Tennessee has to win this game. There is no other way. Both teams match up well in the trenches, but the Volunteers have a few more offensive playmakers – namely QB Joshua Dobbs and RB Jalen Hurd. This is the year the streak ends.
Prediction: Tennessee win (4-0, 1-0 SEC)
Georgia – Oct. 1 in Athens, Ga.
When Tennessee hired highly-touted defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, it was for games like this. Georgia will likely feature the best quarterback (Jacob Eason) and running back (Nick Chubb) that the Volunteers will play this season. The onus will be on the defense to force mistakes and give the offense more opportunity to hold onto the ball.
Prediction: Tennessee win (5-0, 2-0 SEC)
Texas A&M – Oct. 8 in College Station, Texas
Tennessee plays Florida, Georgia and Alabama – the three toughest teams on its schedule – over the course of four games. We predict the Volunteers to burn through and win all three games. Hidden right in the middle is a massive trap game against the Aggies, who will be hungry for a victory to try and save Kevin Sumlin’s job. Of course, the one thing that could get the Aggies off track is the fact that this game will be at home. Texas A&M is a paltry 1-7 against ranked opponents at Kyle Field since Sumlin arrived in College Station.
Prediction: Tennessee loss (5-1, 2-1 SEC)
Alabama – Oct. 15 in Knoxville, Tenn.
Let’s be clear – this is one of the most important games in recent memory for the Volunteers program. Alabama is considered the class of the SEC, and for good reason. The Crimson Tide are responsible for six SEC West titles and four national championships since Nick Saban took over in Tuscaloosa. However, this is the year Butch Jones finally gets his signature win. The Volunteers are one of the few teams nationally that can compete with the Crimson Tide in the trenches. Playing in front of what is sure to be a jacked home crowd, Jones will pull off the biggest win of his career.
Prediction: Tennessee win (6-1, 3-1 SEC)
South Carolina – Oct. 29 in Columbia, S.C.
After beating Alabama, the rest of the schedule is a cakewalk. Tennessee gets a bye week before playing lowly South Carolina, which will likely be the worst team in the SEC next season. RB Jalen Hurd will feast on a thin defensive unit.
Prediction: Tennessee win (7-1, 4-1 SEC)
Tennessee Tech – Nov. 5 in Knoxville, Tenn.
The Golden Eagles have a little work to do before they can compete with Tennessee for state supremacy. Namely, losing by 31 points to Eastern Illinois and by 20 to Wofford last season doesn’t bode well with a legitimate national title contender on the schedule. This is a chance to rest up and prepare for the SEC title game.
Prediction: Tennessee win (8-1, 4-1 SEC)
Kentucky – Nov. 12 in Lexington, Ky.
Mark Stoops continues to build talent in Kentucky, but Tennessee will have no mercy. The Volunteers have a dominant defense, which should match up favorably against star UK running back Boom Williams. This will be a game for LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin to shine against a shifty runner. The Wildcat defense has no answer for Tennessee’s bulk.
Prediction: Tennessee win (9-1, 5-1 SEC)
Missouri – Nov. 19 in Knoxville, Tenn.
The Tigers have a dominant defensive line that could take Tennessee’s running backs out of the game. While the result is not in doubt, this is an opportunity for QB Joshua Dobbs to prove his worth. Many have criticized Dobbs for his mediocre accuracy and inconsistent vision, but Dobbs is a playmaker at heart. He will have the chance to quiet some critics against the Tigers.
Prediction: Tennessee win (10-1, 6-1 SEC)
Vanderbilt – Nov. 26 in Nashville, Tenn.
Tennessee could start this game slow, especially considering the division could already be locked up by this point. The Commodores have a mighty defense led by star LB Zach Cunningham, an All-SEC First Team pick a season ago. Though Tennessee probably has to win the conference outright to qualify, losing to Vanderbilt would almost certainly eliminate the Volunteers from the College Football Playoff.
Prediction: Tennessee win (11-1, 7-1)
Projected record: 11-1, 7-1 SEC; First in the SEC East
Analysis: The hype has been building in Knoxville for years now. This is the year it all finally pays off. With a senior signal-caller and experience all along the front seven, the Volunteers are built to withstand the rigors of their SEC schedule. The toughest stretch comes in the middle of the season, so Tennessee will have a chance to get rolling, but should not be worn down. Additionally, the hardest games (Alabama, Florida) come at home. This team has expectations of an SEC East division title. Anything less will be a disappointment.
Other installments –
Mississippi State (8/12)
Texas A&M (8/14)
Ole Miss (8//15)