Will Tennessee finally be able to win the SEC East?
The college football season is rapidly approaching, with the anticipation building with each day. As the hunger for the upcoming season gets stronger we’ve got something here at SQ that will hold your appetite for the time being. Over the next few weeks we’ll be rolling out previews of the teams in our top-25. Yesterday we got to peek into what #24 Notre Dame’s season might look like. Today we continue our countdown with #23, Tennessee.
Team Name: Tennessee Volunteers
2016 Record: 9-4
Finish in AP Poll: 22
Coach: Butch Jones (30-21, fifth year)
Previewing Tennessee’s Offense
The offense hasn’t been a problem for the Volunteers recently, averaging more than 35 points per game over the past two seasons. However, coming into the 2017 season, the Volunteers will be in a little bit of a transition phase after losing key pieces, namely QB Joshua Dobbs, RB Alvin Kamara, WR Josh Malone, and TE Jason Croom. The most notable difference will come from under center without Dobbs leading the Tennessee offense.
Dobbs not only controlled the air with the passing game but also knew when to use his legs to make something happen. The Steelers’ fourth-round pick led the team with 831 rushing yards, a good 200 yards more than the next closest rusher on the team. But now that Dobbs’ skill set is gone, the Tennessee offense will have to build around either junior Quinten Dormady or redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano.
Of the two, Dormady is a typical drop back quarterback with a big arm, and also carries around the most experience of the two. In his two seasons behind Dobbs, Dormady completed 24 passes for 357 yards and one touchdown, while averaging 9.15 yards per pass attempt. Dormady doesn’t offer the same dynamic that Dobbs did on the ground, but Butch Jones says he’s “sneaky athletically.”
But what Dormady lacks, Guarantano excels at. The former four-star recruit was the number one dual-threat QB coming out of the 2016 class, according to the 247Sports Composite, and brings a mix of athleticism and arm strength to the table. Although Dormady might be the better passer, Guaranto has the advantage with his legs, and the Tennessee offense has looked a lot smoother with a dual-threat QB in charge. Tennessee fans would rather not want to remember the days when Justin Worley was under center.
And while one may seem to have an advantage over the other, Butch Jones won’t shy away from the possibility of using both this season.
Junior RB John Kelly came out of nowhere last, out-rushing both Kamara and Jalen Hurd with 630 yards. Kelly came on strong against Texas A&M halfway through the season and never turned back, averaging over six yards per carry. In fact, in the seven games where he carried the ball at least seven times, only Nebraska held him under five yards per carry. Carlin Fils-aime should be able to provide some depth after rushing for 58 yards and two scores last season, as should true freshman, four-star recruit Ty Chandler.
When looking to who will be catching passes for the Vols this year, look no further than Jauan Jennings. Jennings will no doubt be the number-one option for either Dormady or Guarantano after catching 40 passes for 580 yards, averaging 14.5 yards per reception. It’s also likely that the tight ends will see more targets this season, as the depth behind Jennings is thin. Look for TE Ethan Wolf to get plenty of opportunities this season after totaling 239 yards while averaging over 11 yards per catch last season.
Previewing the Tennessee Defense
Looking back on the 2016 season, the Tennessee run defense was a real letdown late in the season. The defense just couldn’t stop anyone from rushing against them. There was a six-game stretch during the season where the Vols gave up a total of 1,843 yards, or an average of 307.17 yards per game. The Vols finished the season ranked 104th in rush defense, 72nd in pass defense, and 95th in total defense. Needless to say, this is an area of the game in which the Vols desperately need help during the offseason. However, with quite a few key cogs to replace, it’s easier said than done.
Losing Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen up front is a huge blow since both defensive ends were crucial to the team’s pass rush. However, Jonathan Kongbo looks to step up after playing largely in a reserve role last season. Kongbo didn’t post any eye-popping numbers, registering only one sack and three tackles for loss, but the former JUCO transfer did register seven QB hurries. If Khalil McKenzie (pectoral) and Shy Tuttle (knee) can both manage to stay healthy this year, the former five-star duo will be a force to be reckoned with up front from the tackle spots.
The linebacker group should give Tennessee a little more stability on defense, as a lot of experience returns. Junior Darrin Kirkland is back and ready to lead the unit after missing five games last season due to a high ankle sprain. The junior managed 45 tackles and five tackles for a loss in the eight games in which he did play. Former walk-on Colton Jumper gained an extra season of eligibility and will be reclassified as a junior this season, and that’s good news for the Vols since he racked up the most tackles (61) out of any of the team’s linebackers last season.
All in all, the secondary should be the most reliable unit for the Vols and also has the most upside. Safety Todd Kelly Jr. led the team in tackles (71) last season and is currently the team’s active leader with eight career interceptions. On top of Kelly’s production, four of the Vols’ top five tacklers also came from the secondary. Both S Micah Abernathy and CB Emmanuel Moseley are also going to be keys to this unit’s success after combining to make 126 tackles, while also breaking up 10 passes.
Three Key Games
1. Sept. 16 at Florida - Tennessee got the proverbial monkey off its back last season by ending Florida’s win streak against it. As usual, if Tennessee wants to have a chance to win the SEC East, they’ll have to beat the back-to-back SEC East champs. This should be an interesting conference matchup early on, as both teams are in the midst of transition phase, trying to find the right fit at different positions. Traveling to Gainesville is always tough, and the Vols would rather not want to remember the last time they played the Gators in the Swamp.
2. Sept. 30 vs. Georgia - If the Volunteers can get past Florida with a win, the next team standing in their way is Georgia. The Bulldogs are the media’s favorite to win the division this season, as they feature one of the top QBs in the SEC, Jacob Eason, on top of returning 10 starters on defense. Last year’s game featured a lot of excitement in the last two minutes of the game, with Tennessee prevailing on a Hail Mary as time expired. If this year’s game is even close to that, then fans will be on the edge of their seats until the very end.
3. Oct. 21 at Alabama - It’s pretty much obligatory to feature Alabama as a key game on any team’s schedule. The defending SEC champs are always the team to beat in the conference and force every team to play with a chip on their shoulder. Unfortunately, Tennessee didn’t live up to the hype last season, and the Tide ran all over the Vols. Alabama returns some great talent while reloading at positions that others have left. Tennessee is going to have to play its best game of the season if it’s going to have a chance against Alabama.
Tennessee is a bubble team right now. With the turnover at key positions, this season could lead to a chance at winning a division championship for the first time since 2007, or to another disappointment in the Butch Jones era. However, if the quarterback play picks up where Dobbs left off and Kongbo can be a force in the pass rush, then Tennessee will turn out to be more of a contender than a pretender.
This is a make or break season for Jones, and he needs to perform if he wants to keep his job. The Vols should be alright on offense as long as Dormady or Guarantano can be effective enough to keep the pressure off of Kelly. On the other hand, the defense might need a little more improvement. Although this was one of the worst defenses in the country last season, there is plenty of upside to this unit as long as its members stay healthy.
Overall, this should be a decent season for the Vols. After being the clear favorites to win the SEC East last season, it’s unclear as to whether the Vols will be able to make a run at it this season. This team should still be able to win at least nine games as it did a season ago. Facing Florida and Alabama on the road does Tennessee no favors, but at least LSU and Georgia come to Neyland Stadium.
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