Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the Volunteers have a chance to be really good next season. Seriously, Tennessee looks ready to absolutely explode in 2016.
This isn’t a new hype train; the concept seems old enough to be likened to steam locomotion. But it has only been around since 2013, when coach Butch Jones arrived to save the day.
Jones took over in Knoxville, Tenn. and instantly sparked a sense of cataclysmic transformation. His first team was too young, though — “too Dooley” – and unfortunately for the Big Orange faithful it was Derek, not Vince.
The hype train gained momentum in light of Jones’ infectious ability to lead, his schematic advances and back-to-back brilliant recruiting classes. The Vols hauled in the nation’s seventh best class in 2014, and the No. 4 group a year later, which invoked such optimistic sentiment that Tennessee’s 9-4 record this past season seemed like a let-down, even though it was a two-win improvement from 2014 and four wins better than the five-win seasons of 2011-13.
Now the buildup is hastening … and not just speeding up, but changing course, too. No longer is this Volunteers football program rebuilding, it’s time for it to arrive.
It’s not just the fan base that has these thoughts, either. Las Vegas is piling on expectations as well as the media.
Shortly after the College Football Playoff title game ended, the odds maker Bovada released odds for winning next season’s Playoff title. Once you scrolled past Alabama and Clemson at the top, remarkably near them was Tennessee at 22-1 odds to win the national championship. Only 10 teams had better odds, and only two SEC schools – Alabama (7-1) and LSU (14-1) – were liked more by Vegas.
CBS Sports released its way-too-early top-25 college rankings for 2016. The Volunteers came in at No. 11, with the first portion of the explanation for such a lofty number simply “Butch Jones’ turnaround is official.” ESPN did the same thing and slotted Tennessee at 11. “The mortar finally seems dry on UT coach Butch Jones’ three-year rebuilding job,” according to Mark Schlabach.
Does anyone want to slow down a bit?
Until Tennessee won this year’s Outback Bowl, the Vols hadn’t had back-to-back bowl victories since they won three in row from 1994-96. The 102,000 or so fans that fill Neyland Stadium every Saturday haven’t seen a double-digit win campaign since 2007 and, before that, when Tee Martin heroically led the Vols to their last national title in 1998.
Success hasn’t lived anywhere near Knoxville in some time. That seems like it’s about to change. But there’s another question to ask.
Since over-hyping is a thing around Vol Country, is being ranked 11th in two early polls plus some favorable odds good enough? Should those numbers be better?
Is Tennessee a national title contender?
The losses weren’t bad
Few teams around college football endured gut-wrenching losses like Tennessee did in 2015.
After jumping out to a 17-0 lead, the Vols allowed eventual-Playoff participant Oklahoma 28 fourth-quarter points and fell, 31-24, on Sept. 12. Two weeks later, Tennessee blew a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead and lost to Florida, the team that won the SEC East, by a point.
Arkansas erased a 14-point Tennessee lead a week after the Florida loss to upend the Vols, 24-20. Two weeks later, Tennessee had a one-point lead on Alabama with fewer than six minutes to play before Derrick Henry crossed the goal line to help the Crimson Tide secure victory.
Not only did Tennessee lose four games by a combined 17 points, but the Vols held a lead in each one of them. Let’s also remember that two of those losses came to teams that played in the College Football Playoff.
With another year’s worth of experience, wouldn’t it be easy to think that most of those four losses would go the other way in 2016?
The roster is ready
Quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara highlight a plethora of returning starts on offense. This trio made up three of the SEC’s top 14 rushers last season, with Hurd accumulating 1,288 yards and 12 touchdowns. Dobbs threw for 2,291 yards as well, and only two returning conference passers had more yards through the air.
Weakside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cam Sutton gave Tennessee great news when both announced they would return for their senior seasons. They’ll anchor a defense that finished fifth in the conference in points allowed (20).
The mantra since Jones arrived to town has been ‘wait until Jones gets his guys on the roster’ and ‘wait until all the youngsters are established upperclassmen.’
The wait is over. It absolutely has to be.
Shoop, there is is
In addition to the offense returning a powerful punch, Tennessee’s defense could get better too … and not just because of the returning Reeves-Maybin and Sutton.
New defensive coordinator Bob Shoop could be just the shot in the arm this team needs.
Shoop bought out his own contract from Penn State and agreed to join Jones in Knoxville and help continue the building project. Shoop brings with him an enormous pedigree of success.
In each of his last five seasons – two as defensive coordinator with Penn State and the three previous years in the same position at Vanderbilt – Shoop coached uber-successful defenses. The Nittany Lions finished second nationally in total defense in 2014 and 14th last season. During his three years at Vandy, the Commodores landed anywhere from 18th to 23rd in that category.
In the last five seasons, Tennessee hasn’t finished with a top 25 defense, and although the last two seasons have been a step in the right direction – a 37th ranking nationally in 2014 and a No. 36 finish this past season – their average resting place for the last five years was just better than 59th in the country.
There may be no better way to ensure those four close losses don’t happen in 2016 than to vastly improve Tennessee’s defense. Shoop can do that.