Tennessee Football: 5 Burning Questions Ahead of the Volunteers' Bowl Game
Down time allows for fans to sit and ponder things about their teams, analyze every tidbit of information (and rumor) seeping through the cracks of their programs and ask questions about the future, and it's no different for Tennessee football.
Sure, it's fantastic that the Vols finished the season 8-4 after a rough start, and the Outback Bowl is an enviable destination for a program that has downcycled for nearly a decade. But now that the doldrums of binge-losing seem to be behind UT, the fans want definitive answers.
This is a program used to winning. A lot. The past few years of losing have made Vols fans appreciative of the uptick under third-year coach Butch Jones, but that's only if this is the beginning of better things.
Last year's .500 regular-season record and an ensuing TaxSlayer Bowl victory, that was a good first step, but everybody around Tennessee's program—from fans to coaches to players—wanted more. They got it in 2015, but it only raises expectations even higher.
Next year is lining up to be one that could be extremely strong for the Vols.
The underlying question that becomes the narrative of the Jones era from here on is this: Can he take the Vols back to the forefront of college football?
He already has made the Vols popular among recruits again, rebuilt the program and taken Tennessee back to the postseason on what appears to be a consistent basis. But UT fans want SEC championships, and they'd love another national championship to go along with the last one from 1998.
Of all the questions surrounding Tennessee, getting back to the top of the polls is the biggest. But what are the more immediate, pressing concerns that keep UT fans up at night?
Let's take a look at the burning questions circling Rocky Top like the fog around the Smoky Mountains.
Will This Be the Final College Game for a Trio of Vols Stars?
While the seasons of junior cornerback Cameron Sutton and outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin probably warrant a deep look into their NFL draft potentials this season, there's another possible early entry some Vols maybe overlooked.
Redshirt sophomore backup running back Alvin Kamara was dynamite in his first year in Knoxville, teaming with starter Jalen Hurd for one of college football's best one-two punches.
Now, could he go pro? It's something that's been discussed several times throughout this week, as all three at least are looking into it. Though they said they wouldn't make a final decision until after the Outback Bowl, it's noteworthy that the possibility is on the table.
Neither Sutton nor Kamara wanted to talk about the topic with reporters this past week, according to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan.
"We've got one more (game), and after that, I'll make my decision on all that stuff and worry about that after," Sutton said. "But we're working on another win."
Added Kamara: "We're just preparing for the bowl game. I'm not really thinking about that. Just enjoying my teammates, enjoying my coaches and enjoying being at Tennessee."
It's always difficult to project fringe NFL prospects coming out early because players' personal situations are not always at the forefront. Also, you never know what kind of advice (and from who) they're getting.
But of the trio, the player who appears most likely to leave based off pro potential is Sutton. Though he isn't universally loved among mock drafters, one of the most prominent, ESPN.com's Todd McShay, had him going in the late first round of his initial mock to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That would be nearly impossible to pass up.
So, the Vols will have to wait and worry about the trio of star players and what decisions they will make until after their time in Tampa. Subtracting those guys from the '16 roster would create some major gaps to fill.
Is Joshua Dobbs an Elite Quarterback?
Perhaps the single biggest question looms like a cloud over the Vols' single biggest star.
There is no question junior quarterback Joshua Dobbs is capable of putting Tennessee on his shoulders and either running it or throwing it to victory. He has done it before (South Carolina in '14 and Georgia in '15), and he should have another remarkable win on his resume.
Had the Vols defense not choked away the Florida game, perhaps we wouldn't be having this conversation.
But the third-year junior signal-caller needs to get some more resume-building wins to go along with Georgia this year, and there's no other way to say it. One of the most polarizing figures among UT fans is one of the most beloved around the SEC.
Dobbs is brilliant, well-spoken, potentially electric, makes highlight-reel plays and can take over games with his running ability. But while the arm talent is there, the arm consistency isn't. He proved that against Oklahoma and Arkansas in frustrating losses. There were plenty of "What was that?" moments when he threw the ball.
Tennessee can be a pretty good football team with an inconsistent quarterback at the helm, but it can be a great one if Dobbs improves tremendously throwing the ball.
Unlike Mississippi State's Dak Prescott, who improved drastically from last year to 2015, Dobbs will have the supporting cast around him next year to do special things. At times this season, Prescott was a one-man show.
Dobbs is currently a rung below Prescott, but he has the same elite potential. If he can get the passing game going against Northwestern in the bowl game and especially next season, the potential for UT is making the end-of-the-year College Football Playoff.
That's why it's critical Dobbs goes from having elite potential to being an elite quarterback. If he does, the Vols will be one of the teams to beat in the country next season. These extra practices need to help Dobbs take the next step.
What Staff Changes Will Butch Jones Face?
Jones already has one coaching vacancy to fill after the bowl game when tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Mark Elder takes over as the head coach at Eastern Kentucky.
But will he be the only defection?
Rumors ran rampant in the weeks following the end of the season, especially about passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni, whose name was tied to the offensive coordinator job at Maryland that the Terrapins gave this week to Arkansas State offensive coordinator Walt Bell, per Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman.
With that vacancy filled, it seems likely for now that Azzanni will stay in Knoxville.
Other names have floated around at other places, such as Tennessee defensive backs coach Willie Martinez joining Mark Richt's staff as the defensive coordinator at Miami, but nothing has come of that besides rumored names in stories.
A lot of times, coaching changes don't occur until after the bowls and around the coaches convention, but with so much coaching turnover and turmoil this year, there was a lot of shuffling, wheeling and dealing taking place throughout December. The "silly season" started early.
So, the Vols aren't out of the woods yet when it comes to solidifying their staff. They could still lose some coaches, and the Elder spot is still open.
Where will UT go with that vacant spot?
It would certainly not be surprising to see Jones promote graduate assistant Nick Sheridan (a former assistant at Western Kentucky and South Florida) to a full-time role. If that happens, he'll coach quarterbacks, shifting offensive coordinator Mike DeBord's focus over to perhaps tight ends or exterior offensive line.
There's a possibility Jones would make a move outside of the program, but the Sheridan promotion makes sense for continuity purposes and seems to fall in line with what Jones would typically do. It's the safe move.
Until the carousel stops, there will be plenty of speculation on how the staff will shake out.
What Will the 2016 Roster Look Like?
This time of year, everybody's anxious to get to the bowl game and try to win it, but it's impossible not to look to the future.
The biggest thing most fans like to read about during bowl practices is how the young players are stepping up. What redshirt freshman we forgot about because he wasn't playing is turning heads? Who looks like he'll be the star of tomorrow?
DeBord praised both of his freshman quarterbacks to GoVols247's Wes Rucker this week.
"I think everybody has taken advantage of 'em, and I think that our young offensive linemen have gotten better," DeBord said. "Sheriron Jones has gotten better. Quinten Dormady has gotten better. Everybody has; receivers, all positions. I think everybody's taking advantage of 'em."
This day and age, though, there are no guarantees that Dormady and Jones will both be on the 2016 roster. With Dobbs returning as the incumbent starter, the duo of youngsters likely will have to wait another year before they get to play.
In the not-so-distant past, playing two years for a college team was all a prospect could hope for. These days, that's fodder for transfer. Jones already has hinted to Callahan that there would be transfers because "that's just the world of college football."
Last year, the Vols had nine transfers, and most of those came after the bowl game. With rumors always running rampant about who is unhappy, who wants to play more, who wants to be closer to home or who is going to be encouraged to look elsewhere, it's all widespread speculation at this point.
Toss in that this time of year everybody wants to know how their teams are going to close the recruiting class down the backstretch of the cycle, and there are plenty of roster questions ahead.
The past two seasons, there was more of a warm-and-fuzzy feeling surrounding recruiting in Knoxville than this season. The Vols can still finish strong, but the start hasn't been as good as in the previous classes under Jones. So, there is plenty of wondering how UT's 2016 roster will look.
That's always a hot topic of conversation.
How Will the Vols Perform as the Favorite Against a Good Team?
Tennessee is no stranger to being the favorites when it comes to Vegas lines. The Vols were an early-season darling, though Florida and Arkansas wound up beating the favored UT squad.
Later in the season, Vegas picked the Vols to win every game after the Alabama game, and they did following a 19-14 heartbreaking setback against the Crimson Tide.
But, against Northwestern, UT is more than a touchdown favorite, according to Odds Shark, against a 10-2 Wildcats team ranked in the Top 15. The lines expect the Vols to win and do it relatively easily. That's the first sign of the massive expectations people will place on this team beginning now.
It isn't just coming from the fans; the national media believe in all the talent Coach Jones has compiled as well.
When that talent doesn't get the job done, the national narrative can get ugly, as was evidenced by close losses to Oklahoma and Florida early in the year that featured questionable coaching decisions.
That hurts perception, and it stunts the growth of a program.
Tennessee wound up banding together and finishing strong, but people will expect the Vols to win key games next year, such as the Battle at Bristol opener against Virginia Tech. They also get Florida and Alabama in Neyland Stadium. Yes, Georgia and Texas A&M are on the road, but those teams have questions.
There's no reason why UT shouldn't be in every single game in 2016. After a frustrating '15 where they came out too many times on the wrong end of close losses, the Vols are battle-tested. They used those lessons to win games against Georgia and South Carolina.
Just like players have to learn to win in the rugged SEC, coaches do, too. After an up-and-down year, the Vols should know how to win, and they'll get every opportunity to show it beginning with Northwestern.
The Vols are about to be the hunted, so they'd better get used to playing with a killer instinct.
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.