Cory Gunkel's thoughts
What We Know
Tennessee is on the precipice of taking the next major step after an absolute roster overhaul by Butch Jones and his staff since taking over three years ago. The Vols have a solid starting quarterback with good legs combined with perhaps the most underrated running back tandem in the league in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. The defensive front, spearheaded by All-America candidate Derek Barnett and hybrid end/linebacker Curt Maggitt, is perhaps the biggest strength of the team. Butch Jones’ team is the most talented its been since he took over in Knoxville, but youth and inexperience still plague the roster. Eleven potential starters on the school’s official depth chart are redshirt sophomores or younger, and two units of strength — wide receiver and the secondary — have been hit by significant injuries to starting players. Gone are starting nickelback RaShaan Gaulden and safety LaDarrel McNeil. Banged up are wide receivers Jason Croom, Josh Smith, Marquez North and Preston Williams, who is almost fully healed from an ACL injury he suffered as a high school senior. Those two positions, however, have enough talent to overcome the adversity. The team has no glaring weakness other than offensive line, where question marks abound. Will freshmen like Jack Jones and Chance Hall get a chance to showcase their ability early in the season? Will Coleman Thomas stick at center or move around some more like last season? Is this unit that returns 64 career starts but one that gave up nearly 3.5 sacks per game ready to take a monumental leap in 2015? The line will dictate the offense’s play and will also be propped up by the legs of Dobbs and his counterparts in the backfield. If they can form a semblance of a push and give Dobbs adequate time to make his reads or at least escape the pocket to make a play, Tennessee’s offense will be dangerous this season. The defense, on the other hand, has all the tools necessary to be a menacing presence. The defensive line is loaded with talent, the linebacking corps has the depth needed to where Jalen Reeves-Maybin won’t have to play 85 snaps a game, and the secondary is headlined by a potential NFL first rounder in Cameron Sutton and veteran safety Brian Randolph. The pieces are in place for a progressive jump, and that should happen.
The Vols’ schedule is tough but manageable despite an extremely intriguing non-conference matchup against Oklahoma at home and two solid SEC West contests with Arkansas and Alabama. None of those three games will have much say in the SEC Eastern Division race, but all three present opportunities for Tennessee to show it has finally arrived again. While the matchup with the Sooners is paramount to momentum, no game to me is more important than trip to Florida two weeks later. The Gators are breaking in new head coach Jim McElwain in his first taste of this rivalry that Florida has dominated for 10 straight victories. Traveling to The Swamp is never easy, and despite UF’s offensive question marks (especially at O-line), the Gators boast one of the strongest secondaries in the country led by NFL-bound corner Vernon Heargraves III and an equally nasty defensive front that includes Jonathan Bullard and Scout five-star freshman defensive end CeCe Jefferson. The Georgia game at Neyland Stadium may decide the East, but if Tennessee wants to contend in my eyes, it has to toss the ever-growing monkey off its back and beat Florida for the first time in over a decade.
Some fans may tire of Butch Jones continually harping on how young his squad is, but it’s truly a maturing roster. The Vols will depend on a lot of young talent early on and will be forced to navigate another grueling SEC schedule with a shuffling offensive line and the aforementioned roster youth. But despite that, Tennessee should take yet another step in the right direction with a jump in win total and a nice bowl game prize to end the season.
Record Prediction: 8-4
Danny Parker's thoughts
Optimism can be a tricky thing. Message board posts saying a college team — one that's dependent on more than a few teenagers — in the Southeastern Conference going anything less than 9-3 is a "disappointment" shows that "August Fever" has truly made its way to Rocky Top.
All of 16 players on Tennessee's travel squad were on the roster in 2013. Sip on that for a minute. That means Team 119 will be dependent upon dozens of players who have never been to Gainesville, Lexington or %%MATCH_28%%. Does that mean a Big Orange loss on each occasion? Well, no. Just another illustration of a roster loaded with Vols that can't buy a wine cooler at the Pilot around the corner.
Games aren't played on paper but before RaShaan Gaulden went down, I was of the belief that the Vols were improved at every starting spot on defense — minus MIKE — from a year ago. Losing Matt Darr probably means a drop-off at punter. Can Coleman Thomas be better than Mack Crowder at center? Is Jack Jones better at guard than Marcus Jackson? Other than those, Tennessee returns talent from its 7-6 year.
While the influx of more Jimmy's and Joe's that can flat get it done impresses, games are played for a reason and in the SEC you have to own people up front to knock off Top 25 opponents. Is the offensive line good enough to hold up the entire year? In most matchups, yes. In others, it won't be. That doesn't automatically equal losses. Game plans exist for a reason and defenses don't go into slumps.
Sounds great, doesn't it? Throw in that Aaron Medley looks quite a bit improved over his freshman year and the Vols could have a chance to take down a Top 15 opponent in an ugly contest if the defense can hold up (now rotating 10-11 D-linemen).
The toughest thing to do in sports is learning how to win. It's part of the staff's identification process in recruiting as you may have noticed the number of state champions being issued a National Letter of Intent. Will Josh Malone lay out for a deep ball that could set up a field goal late in the half? Can Colton Jumper stand up Alex Collins in the hole on third-and-two to get his offense the ball back trailing in the fourth quarter? Does Malik Foreman have what it takes to hang with Isaiah McKenzie's tail zig-zagging all over the turf? Can Shy Tuttle get off Evan Boehm's block to collapse the pocket on Maty Mauk before the quarterback can dump off a pass to Russell Hansbrough?
Those type of instances are sure to happen. The talent increase is enough to make those plays difference-makers, but will Tennessee make those plays? The roster includes so many unknowns, it's hard to say yes.
Having watched the 1999 team closely, I will say this: Tennessee relying on several sophomores may be a good thing because so many players start thinking about the NFL Draft in their third year and don't always put the team first. That, and these sophomores saw so much playing time last fall they won't be the ordinary second-year player.
Record prediction: 7-5
Josh Woodward's thoughts
Has Tennessee arrived back on the national scene like alot of the national pundets have predicted? I believe they have a great shot at improving over last season and making an even better bowl than last season. The biggest question is still the offensive line, likely we will find out game two against Oklahoma. If the line can protect Joshua Dobbs then look out for Tennessee to be in every game they play.
Looking at the SEC East this season, it is not a long shot that Tennessee could be in the SEC Championship game if the cards fall right. Florida is breaking in a new coach and the talent on offense that we are used to seeing for the Gators. Still, the Vols have to beat them in The Swamp, which is always tough.
Georgia has all the tools to win the East, but will trot out a new quarterback this season, which is very concerning for the Bulldogs. Tennessee always plays Georgia tough and it gets them at home this season, which to me will be the game of the year.
Alabama is the only game on the schedule that you can likely pencil in a loss. Tennessee is still two recruiting classes away from hanging with the Crimson Tide.
A couple of games are toss ups for me: the Oklahoma and Arkansas game, I can see these going either way. The Oklahoma game is a game a lot of people are circling, but that Florida game is the one that I personally have circled. Arkansas will be a challenge to stop their downhill run game, but with the added talent on the defensive front, it is in favor of Tennessee.
The rest of the season looks like Tennessee will be highly favored, and unless the Big Orange hit an injury bug, I could see this team winning nine games.
I just believe they will still have some trouble against the big SEC defensive fronts with this offensive line, so this is another step forward for Butch Jones and his program and should make all Tennessee fans very happy.