5 Things Tennessee Must Do To Win the SEC East
Looking back at the SEC East in 2014, it was a rather unimpressive bunch of teams - minus Georgia and Missouri. After all, those were the only two teams in the division that finished with a record above .500 in conference play.
Moving forward though, there appears to be an uprising from an unlikely contender: Tennessee.
The Volunteers and head coach Butch Jones have brought back the swag that used to roam the streets of Knoxville and worry conference opponents every week. It's something that was lost during the Derek Dooley regime and is now back in time for what looks like a time that Tennessee can take advantage of.
Although the SEC East looks a little bit stronger than it did a year ago, there are still questions about many of the teams and it looks like the division is wide open. This could be the year where Tennessee reclaims its former glory and ditches the moniker of being a slump team in the SEC.
But can the Volunteers do it? Popular opinion is that Georgia is still the favorite to win this division, but Tennessee has been a rising dark horse choice as of late. Here are five things that Tennessee must do in order to win the SEC East.
1. Keep QB Joshua Dobbs Healthy
As it stands, Josh Dobbs could be the best quarterback in the SEC East. While Missouri's Maty Mauk tries to become more consistent and a trio of other division foes - Florida, Georgia and South Carolina - are still uncertain who will start under center come opening week, Dobbs is already looking ahead to how much better he can be after a hot start in 2014.
When Justin Worley went down with a shoulder injury that ended his season, Dobbs stepped in and never looked back. Throwing for 985 yards in his first four games, he added eight touchdown passes in that span. But he's not just a threat through the air as he ran for 469 yards in the six games that he played in last season, one of which he rushed for an impressive 166 yards against South Carolina.
If Tennessee is going to win the division this year, Dobbs has to stay healthy. Yes, Tennessee has a nice running game to compliment him, but there's no question that he is the heartbeat of this offense. Besides that, there's really not too much depth behind him. There are some quality freshmen waiting in the wings, but the talent after Dobbs falls off quite steeply.
2. Beat Florida
Though Florida has been trending downward the past couple of years, the Volunteers just haven't been able to take advantage of the Gators' slide. In fact, the last time Tennessee beat the Gators was 2004, which ironically is the last year that the Vols won the SEC East. Another important thing to keep in mind is that the each of the past five SEC East champions have beaten Florida. If Tennessee can't beat the Gators again, recent history shows that it would be unlikely that it can win the division.
This game will pretty much set the tone for how Tennessee will do in conference play. Jim McElwain's squad is the first SEC foe that Butch Jones and the Volunteers will face in 2015, and to make matters worse, it's in the Swamp, a place Tennessee hasn't won since 2003.
On paper, Tennessee should beat Florida, but the Vols also should've won against the Gators last season. Heading into the final quarter last season, Tennessee held a 9-0 lead over an inept Florida offense only to blow it and leave embarrassed after a 10-9 loss. Needless to say this is a game that the Vols have circled a thousand times on the calendar, hoping not just to get revenge, but to also end its skid against the Gators and get on track to win the SEC East.
3. Lose Only One Conference Game
Sure this is easier said than done, but in order to win the SEC East you can only afford one slip up if you want to be crowned the division champion. Only one team has lost more than one conference game in route to winning the SEC East and that was South Carolina in 2010, the only team in the division to finish with a record above .500 in conference play.
Although any schedule in the SEC is pretty tough, Tennessee's is actually pretty favorable when you look at it. It's certainly a good year to have to travel to both Florida and Alabama as both programs are likely to experience growing pains. Other than a road bout against defending SEC East champs Missouri, Tennessee gets its other two toughest opponents at home in consecutive weeks - Arkansas and Georgia. If Tennessee can get that much needed win against the Gators in Gainesville, it could set off a domino effect that gets the team rolling and puts it on the right path towards a SEC East title.
4. Keep Pressure on Opposing Quarterbacks
The SEC East will be full of fresh faces under center when 2015 rolls around, and if there's one thing young signal callers hate, it's the constant pressure of the defense in their face. And if last season was just a taste of what we could see in 2015, then quarterbacks beware of the Tennessee defense that could prove to be the most disruptive in the SEC this season.
There may be no better destructive duo than the one Tennessee has in LB Curt Maggitt and DE Derek Barnett, who combined for 21 of Tennessee's 35 sacks last season. Both of these guys are legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidates and it shows through the numbers they put up. With a duo like this constantly forcing quarterbacks to get rid of the ball before they want to, it's no wonder that Tennessee was able to nab 16 interceptions, which was tied for third in the SEC.
Getting to the quarterback is a key for any defense, and in a weak SEC East that could truly be the x-factor for Tennessee coming away with a win in close games. Along with Maggit and Barnett, the Vols will also be adding Kahlil McKenzie to the mix, a highly touted pass rusher that will surely see a lot of reps this season. If McKenzie can turn that duo into a trio then this will without a doubt be a nightmare of a defense for an offensive line to try to slow down.
5. Take Care of Business at Home
There's a reason why the term home-field advantage was coined. However, Tennessee doesn't seem to take advantage of playing on its home field when matching up against conference opponents. Over the past four seasons, Tennessee has a stunning record of just 4-12 while playing SEC games at Neyland Stadium. That doesn't bode well for a team trying to win the SEC East as the last four division champs have all won at least three games on their home turf and have a combined record of 12-3.
The Volunteers have four home games against conference foes this year, and all four are actually very winnable on paper. Tennessee gets Arkansas and Georgia in back-to-back weeks, which will be tough contests, but if the Vols can at least break even in those two games they'll be in good shape for the rest of season. Then South Carolina and Vanderbilt each travel to Knoxville later on in the season, and Tennessee should take care of business in both of those games.
If Tennessee can win three of those four home games against SEC opponents they stand a real good chance of winning the division. On top of that, it'll take pressure off the team when it has to hit the road for its tougher matchups against Florida, Alabama and Missouri.