February Distractions Shouldn't Impact Tennessee's Quest for SEC East Title

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterFebruary 22, 2016

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones
Tennessee head coach Butch JonesScott Cunningham/Getty Images

Instead of a celebration of another solid signing class, the month of February has been loaded with controversy on Rocky Top.

The news of a Title IX investigation into the athletic department's handling of sexual assault cases and allegations broke on February 10. Former Vol and Super Bowl champion quarterback Peyton Manning's case involving a trainer from two decades ago bubbled back to the surface thanks to a New York Daily News report that included the accuser's affidavit from a 2003 defamation lawsuit. Former Vol and recent graduate Mack Crowder was arrested on felony charges related to a child sex sting. Current Vol and recent junior college transfer Alexis Johnson was arrested and suspended indefinitely following an arrest for aggravated assault and false imprisonment.

Not all of these issues are related to current head coach Butch Jones' time, but it's up to the head Vol to address them.

He did just that at Tennessee's basketball game on Saturday.

"We've worked very hard to build our culture," Jones said, according to the Associated Press (via ESPN). "We'll continue to defend it, but we're very proud of what we have here."

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"We take all accusations very seriously," he continued. "Can we continue to improve? Yeah, just like any team, company or organization. But our players have done a great job, and we have great people here at Tennessee."

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones
Tennessee head coach Butch JonesJoe Robbins/Getty Images

That's all he can say—and all he will say until these issues are resolved.

Will the run of awful news distract Tennessee from what looks to be a season in which it should contend for the SEC East title?

I don't think so.

While the Title IX lawsuit is very serious, it's more of a 40,000-foot story rather than one that will actually impact the players on the field. Jones is mentioned as one of the people involved in creating a hostile sexual environment in the filing, so he will certainly have to answer some tough questions privately while giving his best version of "no comment" publicly. 

As a result of increased scrutiny, that might mean more targeted speakers for the Vols' "4th-and-1" program, which is a year-round personal growth and development program that typically includes about 50 speakers per year. It could also mean more programs specifically geared toward domestic and sexual violence.

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones
Tennessee head coach Butch JonesWade Payne/Associated Press

Crowder hasn't been with the program since January when the Vols topped Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. Could Jones or anybody else on the staff have seen warning signs that this was a possibility? Sure.

Johnson's indefinite absence, if it continues, would be the one significant impact on the 2016 Vols.

The 6'4", 295-pounder was already enrolled in school, was being counted on to be a rotational defensive tackle on a Vols defense that has been solid on third downs in each of the last two seasons and was the only defensive tackle signed by Jones in 2016.

Championship teams need 8-10 defensive linemen to rotate up front to keep everybody fresh for a full 60 minutes and take advantage of offensive lines that are worn down. Even though Tennessee has a loaded defensive line that includes Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie—both of whom were rotational players last year—Johnson was being counted on immediately in that department.

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones
Tennessee head coach Butch JonesJohn Raoux/Associated Press

The other issues, for the most part, are athletic department-level problems that, while serious, won't infiltrate the football bubble, save for a few tough questions for Jones and some staffers and more education on an important topic.

Tennessee is still set up for a division title run. 

The same dynamic, multidimensional running game that features quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running backs Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd is still intact, along with an offensive line that features four returning starters. There's also plenty of depth in the defensive front seven, including linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and a secondary that will benefit tremendously from the return of cornerback Cam Sutton.

On top of that, they get rival Alabama at home in 2016 after pushing the Crimson Tide to the brink in Tuscaloosa in 2015. They also get Florida at home, after the 4th-and-14 Will Grier-to-Antonio Callaway touchdown late in last year's matchup cost the Vols an SEC East title in 2015. 

Tennessee has a full offseason to manage these issues and still have the best and deepest roster in the division. Unless the latter changes, it should remain as the favorite to win the SEC East in 2016.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.