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Starting the 2015 Hype Train for Tennessee Football

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterJanuary 5, 2015

Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs
Tennessee QB Joshua DobbsSam Greenwood/Getty Images

Tennessee, meet the hype train. Hype train, meet the Tennessee football program.

You two get comfortable with each other, because for the next nine months, you're going to be locked arm-in-arm.

Tennessee capped off its first winning season since 2009 with en emphatic 45-28 win in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Friday in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the score indicated. The Vols jumped out a 42-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter before Iowa made it look respectable with a few garbage touchdowns in the game's final frame.

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones
Tennessee head coach Butch JonesSam Greenwood/Getty Images

"We wanted to start fast," head coach Butch Jones said in quotes released by Tennessee. "We thought that was critical in this game. We did start fast. I believe we only had three third downs in the entire first half. When we're moving on offense, we're generating first downs on first and second down."

It capped off a 7-6 season for a young Vols team in which 38 of the 79 players to play in the regular season made their first appearances in orange and white, according to the final game notes of the season.

Hype machine, you can commence spinning. 

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Others are more wary of the Vols and what the bowl performance will do to voters, who undoubtedly were impressed with the way they capped off 2014.

If, by "drastically," you're picking Tennessee to earn a College Football Playoff berth, then yes, you need to pump the brakes. But the SEC East? That's much more attainable for the 2015 Vols.

The hype is warranted, but only a small piece of it has to do with the actual bowl game itself. Here's why:

The Progression of Joshua Dobbs

Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs
Tennessee QB Joshua DobbsSam Greenwood/Getty Images

For the first time in Joshua Dobbs' career as Tennessee's starting quarterback, he got first-team snaps in a camp-like setting leading up to the trip to Jacksonville. 

It showed.

Dobbs completed 16 of 21 passes for 129 yards, one touchdown and one pick, and he rushed 13 times for 76 yards and two scores in the rout of Iowa. A true dual-threat, Dobbs also showed the consistency in performance and the maturity to lead an offense that thrives with a quarterback who's efficient.

Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs
Tennessee QB Joshua DobbsSam Greenwood/Getty Images

"Sometimes Josh has options on plays, not just pass plays but run plays, where he can hand the ball off or run the play," Jones said according to the postgame quotes. "I thought Josh did a great job of really managing the offense all game long. Some of those sweeps were him reading it, and others were pre-called."

Dobbs took over for an injured Justin Worley in the middle of the season, and he showed flashes of brilliance as a runner and a passer in an offense that had nagging injuries to a number of its wide receivers, including Josh Smith, Von Pearson, Marquez North and Jason Croom. 

Now Dobbs gets a full offseason as the unquestioned starter with a wide receiving corps that was forced to establish depth in 2014 due to injuries. On top of that, it's not like Dobbs has to throw for 400 yards every game. He's a slippery runner who's deceptively fast and adds a dimension to the the Vols offense that wasn't present under Worley.

Dangerous Front Seven

Oct 11, 2014; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers defensive end Derek Barnett (9) rushes in for the sack on Chattanooga Mocs quarterback Jacob Huesman (14) during the first half at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Texas A&M freshman defensive end Myles Garrett stole most of the freshman defensive headlines this season for breaking Jadeveon Clowney's SEC freshman sack record (eight) with 11.5 on the season, but it was Tennessee freshman defensive end Derek Barnett who had a bigger impact in the backfield.

Barnett's 10 sacks also topped Clowney's record, and he finished his inaugural campaign in the SEC with the second-most tackles for loss in the conference (20.5)—two shy of Missouri's Shane Ray.

Brandon Shreff (back) vs. Derek Barnett (front)
Brandon Shreff (back) vs. Derek Barnett (front)USA TODAY Sports

In the TaxSlayer Bowl against Iowa, Barnett squared off with star tackle Brandon Scherff. While he didn't record a sack, Jones was pleased with Barnett's performance against a player who's slated to go 17th overall in B/R NFL draft lead writer Matt Miller's latest first-round projections.

"He's a great, great player," Jones said of Scherff. "I know Derek accepted the challenge. He's one of those individuals on New Year's Eve, we did the bed check, couldn't find him. But he was sound asleep at 10:00 at night."

Toss in hybrid veteran Curt Maggitt and leading tackler Jalen Reeves-Maybin at linebacker and a front seven that included one senior on the entire two-deep depth chart at the end of the season, and the Vols are loaded.

What's more, the Vols have monster 5-star defensive tackle Khalil McKenzie, 4-star defensive tackle Shy Tuttle and 4-star defensive end Kyle Phillips, Andrew Butcher and Darrell Taylor committed in the class of 2015. 

The foundation for defensive success is already on Rocky Top. After all, they didn't finish second in the SEC in opponent's third-down conversion percentage (34.21 percent) by accident. Now that experience has been gained from the youngsters.

Thunder and Lightning

Tennessee RB Jalen Hurd
Tennessee RB Jalen HurdSam Greenwood/Getty Images

It's clear that the Vols have the potential to be ridiculously good up front. What's the common theme in football even in an age of exotic offenses? You have to run the ball and stop the run.

The Vols will be able to run it very well. 

In addition to Dobbs' emergence as a true dual-threat weapon at quarterback, Jalen Hurd emerged during his freshman year as a player who can be counted on to be an every-down back in the SEC. Hurd rushed for 899 yards and five touchdowns in 2014, and he capped it off with a 122-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Hawkeyes.

Hurd also realizes how important this offseason is for his progression.

"I walked in the locker room a couple weeks ago, they already have a chart," Jones said in the postgame quotes. "There's a contest between [tight end] Ethan Wolf and Jalen Hurd, a number of guys about their offseason lifting totals, what they're going to do."

Another full offseason for Hurd—who enrolled early last January—will do wonders for his progression.

Tennessee RB Alvin Kamara
Tennessee RB Alvin KamaraButch Dill/Associated Press

He's going to have company in the backfield, too.

Jones inked junior college transfer Alvin Kamara—a 5'10", 210-pounder from Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College in December. The former Alabama running back rushed for 1,253 yards and 18 touchdowns in junior college and is the second-best junior college running back in the country.

Hurd and Kamara are both true all-purpose backs who excel in different areas, which opens the playbook for Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian.

It's not crazy to think that Tennessee is going to take a massive step forward in 2015. The Vols have the foundation for success, are accumulating more talent and play in a down division.

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones
Tennessee head coach Butch JonesStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

The hype train should be gaining steam this offseason. As long as it's headed on a track that has the Vols contending for the SEC East, that's appropriate.

Anything more would be a stretch—but that might not last much longer.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays, 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.