SQ College Football Top-25 Preview: #22 Tennessee
The college football staff at SQ have put together a ranking of the top-25 teams heading into 2015. To get our readers prepared for the upcoming season, the staff has created a preview for each one of these teams. Today’s focus is on #22 Tennessee.
SQ Ranking: 22
2014 Record: 7-6
Finish in AP Poll: Not Ranked
Head Coach: Butch Jones (3rd year)
Previewing the Tennessee Offense: Tennessee's offense found a spark when Joshua Dobbs was inserted under center and will look to him again as the team tries to take back the SEC East. In six games, Dobbs threw for 1,206 yards and ran for 469, proving to be the x-factor that the Tennessee offense had been lacking. If the Volunteers are going to have any shot at reclaiming the SEC East, keeping Dobbs healthy is vital.
Jalen Hurd returns to lead a backfield that has just three scholarship rushers, including himself. Hurd, a phenomenal runner who compiled 899 yards last season, will be part of what the looks to be a dynamic duo with prized freshman RB Alvin Kamara.
One of the deepest receiving corps in the SEC returns, giving Dobbs some great weapons. Marquez North is back after missing the last three games of last season with a shoulder injury, as is leading receiver Pig Howard who led the team with 54 receptions and 618 yards.
However, the one position group that absolutely needs to step up is the offensive line. Last year there were only two FBS teams that were worse than Tennessee when it came to giving up sack yards - Louisville and Wake Forest. The offensive line gave up 43 sacks, which ranked T-122nd last season, and, in surrendering 101 tackles for loss, were T-125th. If the Volunteers can protect Dobbs--or just give him more time than they did last season--this offense could become one of the more deadly units in the SEC.
Previewing the Tennessee Defense: Butch Jones has come a long way in improving the Tennessee defense since his first season, and it all starts with the pass rush. In 2014, the pass rushing tandem of LB/DE Curt Maggitt and DE Derek Barnett combined for 21 sacks and were the second best tandem in the SEC (behind Missouri's DE Shane Ray and LB/DL Markus Golden, who combined for 23). And they'll look to build on that success; Maggitt and Barnett are the NCAA's leading returning pass rushing duo.
Looking at the middle of the field, the Volunteers are sure to miss LB A.J. Johnson who brought invaluable leadership to an up-and-coming defense. On the bright side, OLB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who was T-4th in the SEC in solo tackles (63), returns after his breakout campaign to once again lead the team. There's no question that he'll have to step up to fill the leadership void left by Johnson.
Then there's the defensive backfield. While Florida and LSU are arguing over who truly is D.B.U (Defensive Back University), Tennessee is quietly building one of the better position groups in the conference. They're led by CB Cameron Sutton, who was recently named to the Preseason All-SEC Second-Team. Sutton will be joined by newcomer CB Justin Martin, the second-ranked junior college CB ranked by 247Sports. At safety, the Vols return Brian Randolph, the SEC's leader in solo tackles (65) last season.
Three Key Games:
1. Tennessee at Florida, September 26th - This is the game for Tennessee. The rivalry game against the Gators will set the tone for how the rest of the SEC slate will go for Tennessee. If the Vols want to win the SEC East this year, they have to beat Florida. The last time they beat the Gators was in 2004, which was also the last time they won sole possession of the SEC East (Tennessee and Georgia shared the East division crown in 2007).
2. Tennessee vs. Georgia, October 10th - A fumble by the Tennessee offense that was returned for a touchdown by the Georgia defense cost the Volunteers a chance to upset the 'Dawgs on the road last year. Tennessee gets the SEC East favorites at home this year in what is sure to be one of the best conference matchups this season. The team who makes the least mistakes will come out on top in this one.
3. Tennessee at Missouri, November 21st - Despite never getting the recognition it deserves, Missouri has claimed the SEC East crown the last two years. This year, Missouri is predicted to finish third in the division behind the favorite, Georgia, and Tennessee. There's no question this game is going to matter, especially at the end of the season. Even if Missouri lives up to its third-place billing, it could still play spoiler to a Tennessee team looking to win the division.
Final Analysis: Going into 2015, there are pretty high expectations for a team that finished a mere 7-6 last season. But Tennessee looks far and away better heading into 2015 than it did last season. Butch Jones has done a remarkable job recruiting and developing athletes and that's why many are jumping on the Tennessee bandwagon early.
With an invigorated offense, and a defense that could be one of the top units in the SEC, there's reason to think that Tennessee can do a lot of damage this season. Playmakers like Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Hurd and Cameron Sutton are making it hard not to put a lot of stock in this team.
Taking a look at the Volunteers schedule, it's not farfetched to think that they could win as many as 10 games and the SEC East. Jones has done a great job improving the team over the past two seasons, but his third might be the charm.