It's the most wonderful time of the year again, and for the Tennessee Volunteers, they get to participate in the postseason football festivities over the holidays for the second year in a row.
That means the Vols are a few practices deep into the extra time allowed to prepare for a bowl game.
That's huge for coach Butch Jones' program, not only because it has the opportunity to beat Northwestern in the Outback Bowl and take another step forward, but also because it enables UT to get an extended look at some future players who didn't play a big role this year but will in the future.
In this day and age, teams everywhere have to deal with transfers that can gut already-recruited depth, and the Vols are no different. Jones dealt with it last year, and some of his postseason comments already foreshadowed the possibility again this season, such as this one, according to Scout.com's Cory Gunkel:
Losing young players because they didn't get to play right away or because something made them angry is a new, disturbing trend across college football. Look at Texas A&M. That may happen for UT, too, but for now, any transfer rumors are just that: rumors.
Those are worries for another day. It's Christmas week, and college football has only just begun bowl season. As season-ending festivities kick off everywhere, the Vols are getting some much-needed work for a still-young team.
What do they want in their proverbial stocking? Let's take a look at the holiday wish list for Jones and the Vols.
Potent Passing Attack Develops
There's no question that Tennessee's running game is the envy of many teams around the nation.
Between dual-threat quarterback Joshua Dobbs' inherent ability to make key cuts and gain positive yardage in the open field, the bruising style of Jalen Hurd and the electrifying ability of Alvin Kamara, Tennessee can come at teams with a dizzying ground assault.
But the passing game is inconsistent, at best.
The Vols will never turn the corner with Dobbs behind center until they develop the throwing game and the junior signal-caller gets more consistent, continues to work on his mechanics and improves in reading through his progressions.
Make no mistake: This is Dobbs' team, and it should be. Even as good as freshman Quinten Dormady looked throwing the ball at times and even with Sheriron Jones in the fold and prize prospect Jarrett Guarantano coming, it would be difficult to see them unseating a rising senior who has started parts of all three years.
It would be simply stunning for that to happen, according to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan in an interview with Kevin Ryan:
I think it's pretty clear that Joshua Dobbs will open next season as the Vols' starting quarterback. He's still developing as a passer, and he needs to be a bit more consistent next year if Tennessee wants to win a championship. But this is his team until further notice, and it probably would take an injury or Dobbs really struggling next year to change that.
So, he has to get better. That needs to happen immediately. Northwestern is 14th nationally against the run, and if those stats bear out, the Wildcats may make it difficult on the Vols to run effectively and consistently.
So, Dobbs needs to use this extra practice time to get better and develop a rapport with his oft-injured receiving corps. A breakout game in Tampa could bode well not only for the prospects of winning that game, but for beating quality opponents in a 2016 that has been earmarked as potentially special for years.
Lure the Legacy of a Legend
There's no question that Tennessee's recruiting class could use a little late-cycle firepower.
Few prospects could provide that quite like Peachtree Ridge, Georgia, 4-star safety Nigel Warrior. But the Vols not only need to convince the 5'11", 188-pound defender that he needs to come to Knoxville in order to gain a huge recruiting win over Alabama and Georgia, but also because he's the son of UT legend Dale Carter.
Most important of all, he's an instant difference-maker at a major position of need. He's a potential star, and recruiting services everywhere agree. Chad Simmons of Scout.com:
With Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil out of eligibility following the Outback Bowl, Tennessee needs somebody to step up alongside Todd Kelly Jr. next year.
Evan Berry and Stephen Griffin have that ability, and Rashaan Gaulden could slide back to safety if necessary, but Warrior would have the potential to come right in and start.
Warrior is a hard-hitting force who is also exceptional in coverage, and that's a big reason why a lot of the nation's top programs are hard after him. He's anything but a Tennessee lock, which means Jones has to ramp up the heat recruiting him.
It was a positive sign for UT when fellow Georgia recruit Breon Dixon recently told 247Sports' Kipp Adams that "I think Tennessee has the momentum" for Warrior, but that's secondhand information, and things change in recruiting all the time.
Jones hasn't lost any legacies he's coveted since coming to Knoxville, and this wouldn't be a good time to start. Warrior has elite potential, and he may just be the top target on Tennessee's entire recruiting board.
Solidify the Future Front
One of the biggest surprises of the 2015 season was the play of Tennessee's offensive line, which benefited from the insertion of longtime NFL offensive line coach Mike DeBord as the Vols offensive coordinator.
That, along with the unit taking its lumps a season ago and growing up together, learning how to play with one another and getting a year better, led to an impressive season. Not only were the Vols second in the league in rushing yards, they cut sacks allowed by more than half, from 43 to 21.
It was a revival that really carried UT's turnaround more than anything, and it left quite a legacy for senior offensive tackle Kyler Kerbyson, who pointed to the resurgence as a point of pride to Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter Troy Provost-Heron.
But how can it stay that way? Kerbyson is leaving, and so is backup guard Mack Crowder. Considering Kerbyson is the team's starting left tackle, that's a big void to fill.
So, these bowl practices are an ideal time for Tennessee to look toward the future and get an incumbent ready. The most obvious choice to replace Kerbyson would be former star prospect Drew Richmond, who redshirted this season.
The Memphis, Tennessee, product, who flipped from Ole Miss to Tennessee on this year's national signing day, just this week got his black stripe removed—a rite of passage for newcomers who've shaken the first-year struggles. With things clicking, he may live up to those massive expectations soon.
Jones told GoVols247's Callahan on Saturday that the extra work has already proven beneficial to Richmond:
I've been very encouraged by the growth and development of Drew Richmond. These (bowl) practices have been invaluable for him. The defensive line actually took his stripe off yesterday, and I think that's quite a compliment coming from them because he goes against them every day in (scout-team work). So I see him progressing.
Along with starting right tackle Chance Hall and second-team guard Jack Jones, the Vols could have three huge freshmen cornerstones around which to build. That's not even including Venzell Boulware, who also has a bright future.
Tennessee still has some work to do recruiting that area as well. While the Vols have a strong cog in 4-star tackle Ryan Johnson, Tennessee wants at least another couple of linemen in this 2016 class. A "big fish" would be 4-star versatile lineman Landon Dickerson, who is wanted by many of the South's top teams.
A bit of a developmental prospect whom UT has offered that could grow into a good tackle prospect is Cincinnati product and current West Virginia commit Nathan Niehaus. If the Vols could lure Dickerson and Niehaus into the class, it would go a long way in solidifying the future of the front.
Without question, the most important thing the Vols can do in the next couple of weeks is close the 2015 season on a high note with a win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.
The early season was undoubtedly sour for Tennessee as it blew big lead after big lead, but beating a Top 15 team and finishing with a 9-4 record would mark a successful season. With a foundation for the future solidly in place, that would be a major step for UT.
Sure, it could have been better, and nothing can change that. But most of the experts believe that the Vols can begin competing for conference titles next year, and closing this season with five consecutive wins would fuel the hype heading into that important campaign.
With Dobbs, Hurd, Kamara and others likely entering their final season next year, it will be a year when much is expected. Really, all of that starts right now. The Vols are more than a touchdown favorite (per Odds Shark) over Northwestern despite the fact that Pat Fitzgerald's team has 10 wins.
The Vols are expected to win on Jan. 1, and with all of the coaching and talent overhauls in the SEC East, they'll be one of the favorites to represent the division in Atlanta next year.
The expectations have arrived, and Jones and company need to get used to them. Beat Northwestern, and the excitement is going to swirl around Knoxville throughout the offseason. If the Vols lose, frustration will flicker throughout the fanbase as everybody begins to wonder just how much of a contender UT can be.
All stats gathered from CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted. All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports, unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.