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Opponent Preview: Tennessee Volunteers

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Tennessee is finally assembling talent and depth from the wasteland that was left behind by Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley. Some are already suggesting they're all the way back. I have my doubts.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

SBNation Site: RockyTopTalk

School: University of Tennessee, founded in 1794.

School Motto: "You will know the truth and the truth shall set you free."  (TL;DR "Free free set them free...")

Location: Knoxville, TN.

Head Coach:  Butch Jones, Ferris State (Bueller?  Bueller?), '89.

2014 Record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC)

Fight Song: That Thing You Do! Rocky Top.  Do not ever listen to this song.  It'll continuously loop in your head and cause madness.

Mascot: Smokey, the bluetick coonhound.  (He's 2nd on their TE depth chart...)

Official Fruit: Creamsicle

OFFENSE:  The Josh Dobbs Show.

Tennessee is 40-47 in the last seven years, tied with Western Michigan for 79th in winning percentage during that span, better than only Vanderbilt and Kentucky in the SEC.  8-4 would be the best regular season since 2007.  Even 7-5 would be the best regular season since 2009. - Will Shelton, Rocky Top Talk

There is no question that the 2015 iteration of the Tennessee Volunteers looks to be improved in certain areas; most notably from an experience perspective.  Since Butch Jones took over in 2013, the Vols have had no choice but to play folks who otherwise weren't ready.  Two consecutive very bad - no, make that - disastrous hires in the post Phil Fulmer era still leaves a mark in certain areas of the roster, but make no mistake - the Vols are recovering.  This season, Tennessee could be a much more dangerous team than a year ago  The Volunteers finished the 2014 campaign on a soprano-like high note, finishing 4-1 and averaging 37 points to close out the season.  The jump in production coincided with a change at quarterback when dual-threat signal caller Josh Dobbs replaced the often-sacked, pocket passing Justin Worley in mid-October.  After Dobbs' initial baptism by fire against Alabama, replacing an ineffective Nathan Peterman (who has since transferred to Pitt) , the Volunteers defeated South Carolina, Kentucky, Vandy and Iowa in the Tax Slayer Bowl.  Not exactly a murderer's row of competition, but certainly progress - only losing to Mizzou in Knoxville with Dobbs as the starter.  This strong finish certainly has fostered hope in Vol Nation.  And a tremendous amount of hype - right or wrong - among just about every college football pundit with keypad.

The change to a mobile quarterback was critical, and Dobbs certainly gives the Vols an added dimension when things break down.  Worley was sacked 29 times behind his inexperienced offensive line and that finally took its toll.  Dobbs was able to navigate much of the remainder of the '14 schedule because he was able to run and escape the pressure that would certainly have resulted in a sack to his QB predecessors.  Ultimately, Dobbs rushed for 469 yards wtih 8 touchdowns (team leader) and completed 63% of his passes with 9 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.  Dobbs brings a modicum of experience - certainly compared to most every other new SEC quarterback, Georgia included.  My question is this:  How will he fare against teams with bigger and faster defenses?  Missouri caused all kinds of issues, and the SEC slate from late in the Vols season didn't exactly scare anyone.  Things will be different in 2015, and the big issue the Volunteers have are probably on the offensive side of the ball; most notably the offensive line and tight end.  Tennessee lost their best lineman - Marcus Jackson - for the season and depth still just isn't there.  Sophomore Austin Sanders was lost for the season just a few days ago.  The Vols cannot sustain any further attrition at this position.

Who backs up Dobbs if he goes down?  Every potential back-up is a true freshman.  He is prone to run and QB's who do that in this league will get their bell rung, sooner or later.  Dobbs may be asked to be more patient in the pocket.  He does have a wealth of receiver talent to throw to.  The Vols always seem to have pass-catchers.  Mostly notably, Von Pearson (recently reinstated after some legal issues), senior Pig Howard, Marquez North, Josh Smith and Josh Malone.

At running back, a very capable Jalen Hurd enters his second season after acquitting himself very well in 2014 with 899 yards rushing.  Alabama transfer Alvin Kamara joins Hurd in the backfield and, provided the Vol offensive line can open some seams, will provide extra speed with the ability to catch the ball. However, depth beyond Hurd and Kamara is virtually non-existent and we all know how quickly things can change at that position.

DEFENSE

The Volunteer defense is returning 2nd Team All-SEC DE Derek Barnett and senior Curt Maggitt, who can line up at end or linebacker.  The Volunteer line is solid, with a few faces that could make some noise like true-freshman Shy Tuttle.  The linebacking corps must replace A.J. Johnson in the middle where Kenny Bynum is listed as the starter at present, while the outside linebackers have some good talent in the returning Jaylin-Reeves Maybin and watch out for true-freshman Kyle Phillips.  Others to watch are Jakob Johnson and red shirt freshman Dillon Bates.  The Vols have plenty of depth at linebacker and looks to be in great shape there.

The Volunteer secondary has experience, but took an injury hit on Thursday.  No one wants to see this happen to any team.  Sophomore cornerback Rashaan Gaulden suffered a foot injury which could keep him out for an extended period of time.  At corner, Cam Sutton is one of the SEC's best and JUCO transfer Justin Martin is a very capable defender.  Safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil are solid and experienced, along with Emmanuel Mosely.  Watch out for Micah Abernathy who opted for the Vols in a heated recruiting battle with Georgia along with Evan Berry - brother of Super-Vol Eric Berry.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Aaron Medley was highly effective on short to medium range field goal attempts last season.  Tennessee must replace their punter in 2015.  Evan Berry and Cam Sutton will likely handle punts and kick off duties, respectively.

THAT SCHEDULE...

The Vols have only 4 road games in 2015, and the front-end of the schedule is certainly home-heavy:

  • Bowling Green 9/5
  • Oklahoma 9/12
  • Western Carolina 9/19
  • @Florida 9/26
  • Arkansas 10/3
  • Georgia 10/10
  • @Alabama 10/24
  • @Kentucky 10/31
  • South Carolina 11/7
  • North Texas 11/14
  • @Mizzou 11/21
  • Vandy 11/28

The Oklahoma game will certainly be an indicator of how far this team has progressed and if the run at the end of 2014 was a precursor of great things or not.  Most folks point to the Georgia game as THE game that could potentially decide who wins the SEC East.  However, if the Vols lose for the 11th consecutive time to a rebuilding Florida team at Gainesville, the psychological impact could be overwhelming.  This is a must-win for the Volunteers.

There are many who are picking Tennessee to represent the East in 2015.  From Kirk Herbstreit to Marcus Spears, the Vols have suddenly overcome the maladies of nearly a decade and it'll all come together despite some youth, lack of depth and recent injuries.  Are the Vols back?  They're certainly headed in the right direction.  But offensive line depth and another crippling injury does not bode well against a schedule that, despite being home-friendly, still includes Alabama, last season's SEC East champ Mizzou and a Georgia team that has not only the talent to match Tennessee at virtually every postiion, but the depth to overcome attrition that befalls every team in various degrees.

Is this a sure thing for the Dawgs?  Of course not.  This potential of this game reminds me a bit of 2004 when we curb-stomped LSU and got beat in Athens by a Tennessee team we had absolutely not business losing to - a classic let-down game and all-too-familiar occurrence .  This season, it's Alabama in Athens and then up to Knoxville in the span of 8 days, a time fraught with danger.  Still, as of this writing, I feel Georgia should prevail in Knoxville.  Mark Richt is 5-2 in Neyland Stadium.  Tennessee absolutely poses a threat against anyone in 2015, but to suggest they are the favorite to win the SEC East - granted a Division with its fair share of weaker teams - is not paying attention to their youth and depth issues particularly on offense.  They will still be prone to growing pains that young teams must endure.  Although they only have 4 road games, they're all tough:  Florida, Alabama, an improving Kentucky team, and Missouri. I totally get the enthusiasm of Vol Nation.  They're a proud bunch up there on Rocky Top, and they've been Down in a Hole longer than Alice in Chains.  Last season's finish was an inspiration and the recruiting news (despite some losses) continues to trend up.  It's cyclical.  Butch Jones can recruit.  Can he coach?  We're about to find out.  Tennessee will be back - as in "SEC East Champs" back.  Might be next season, might be another 10.  Just not quite this year.

Go Dawgs!