Tennessee football has been all over the map this season. Each week seemed destined to deliver another collapse until a heart-stopping stunner against Georgia.
The Vols have a week to gather themselves before playing five SEC teams in their next six games, beginning with Alabama. Tennessee will have to be far more consistent to improve on last season’s 6-6 regular season record.
As for the first half of the season, here are the grades:
Tennessee’s receivers were supposed to be an explosive team strength. They’ve struggled far too often this season. The Vols’ offensive line deserves credit for being far better than the disaster fielded last season, especially in light of a rash of injuries that started in the preseason. Running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara are go-to playmakers. However, quarterback Joshua Dobbs is clearly the engine that runs Tennessee’s offense. The Vols will go as far as he can take them. Tennessee’s offense would also benefit from its coaches not becoming too conservative.
Tennessee lost a ton of production when it lost linebacker/defensive end Curt Maggitt to a hip injury. Defenses have been able to gang up on Derek Barnett at the other end position. Without defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, it seems unlikely that the Vols have a player capable of making a difference in the defensive interior. The Vols haven’t gotten much at all from their linebackers except for Jalen Reeves-Maybin, the team’s leading tackler with 56 takedowns. Tennessee’s secondary seems to be hanging on by a thread at times, but they’ve enough plays to survive.
Special Teams: B+
The surprise of Tennessee’s special teams is walk-on punter Trevor Daniel. He has shown a strong, accurate leg and a highlight punt to help beat Georgia. Kicker Aaron Medley has been strong on kickoffs but, surprisingly, somewhat shaky on field goals, just 9-of-14. The Vols have a solid, speedy kickoff return man in Evan Berry. Tennessee has two solid options at punt returner with Cameron Sutton and Alvin Kamara, who needs more touches anyway he can get them. The Vols rank in the top 20 in the nation in special teams efficiency.
Tennessee’s coaches have had their moments: both good and bad. The Vols had a gameplan to take a 13-plus point lead against Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas. The Vols were too conservative to put those teams away. Sure, the Vols are 3-3 but they could easily be 6-0 and one of the top stories in college football. Just one more SEC win and they’d be in position to compete for the East Division. Instead, that’s a long shot and they’re looking at a bowl destination devoid of sunny weather.
Credit the Vols for having the moxie to salvage the season against Georgia. Otherwise, Tennessee could be looking at a quarterback controversy and a losing record. Now, the Vols have life. Still, the first half of the season will be a half to remember — for all the wrong reasons. What if? Tennessee fans will never know.
Team MVP: Dobbs
Simple. When Dobbs rushes for more than 48 or more yards, the Vols are 6-1. They’re 1-3 when he doesn’t reach that mark.
Defensive MVP: Brian Randolph, senior, S
Randolph has been a leader in Maggitt’s absence. At safety, Randolph’s 34 tackles are good for second on the team.
Offensive MVP: Dobbs
Dobbs will have a handful of errant passes in each game he plays. The tradeoff is a handful of running plays that keep defenders guessing.
Best Freshman: Tuttle
Tuttle showed off his range across the line of scrimmage until he suffered a season-ending ankle injury against Georgia. He’ll be missed.
Biggest Surprise: Jauan Jennings, receiver, freshman
Jennings was moved from quarterback to receiver in August. Since, he’s been a regular in the receiver rotation, catching 10 passes for 100 yards and throwing a touchdown pass.
Best play of the first half of the season: Dobbs to Von Pearson
The Vols might have been looking at a quarterback change had Dobbs not converted a fourth-and-2 to receiver Von Pearson at the Georgia 41 in the second quarter. The 6-yard completion led to a touchdown and a rally from 21 points down to beat the Bulldogs.
Most likely to explode in the second half of the season: Kahlil McKenzie, freshman DT
With Tuttle out, the opportunity is there. Remember, McKenzie didn’t play football his last season in high school so it’s taken him time to get up to speed.
Most likely to turn pro early: Cameron Sutton, junior CB
Hard to turn down the first round of the NFL Draft, where Sutton is routinely projected.
Projected finish: 7-5
The Vols have been too inconsistent to think they won’t slip up against one of the following teams: Kentucky, South Carolina or Missouri. Alabama is a loss. North Texas and Vanderbilt will be wins.