Tennessee Football: 5 Things Standing in the Way of an SEC Championship
This 2016 Tennessee football team is deep enough, talented enough, experienced enough and has enough top-end star power to win the program's first SEC championship since 1998.
But will it?
Eighteen long years could come to an end this season. Leaders such as quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, defensive end Derek Barnett, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton are determined to put Rocky Top back on the map.
With a slew of stars like that, it's hard to bet against UT this year, and that's why a lot of the experts around the nation are buying the Vols when it comes to legit contenders.
Nobody in Knoxville is dodging the darts being flung in their direction.
"We understand we have a lot of talent on this team and we can be as good as we want to be," Dobbs told the Associated Press' Steve Megargee after the spring game. "The goal for us is just take it day by day, focus on the process and embrace the grind."
Though the schedule is never easy in the conference, this year's sets up better than the past few. The Vols get Alabama and Florida at home. A road trip to Texas A&M won't be easy, but it isn't as daunting as in years past. Yes, Georgia is in Athens and South Carolina is in Columbia, but those programs have new coaches.
Things are shaping up quite well for a deep run and a good opportunity to knock the hated Gators off the SEC East throne.
But there are still numerous obstacles for UT, and when you aren't used to having your name in lights, the glare can be blinding sometimes. Already this offseason, some off-the-field transgressions and allegations have threatened the stability of the program.
Tennessee has stood firm through those issues so far, but what are some of the on-field things standing between the Vols and the SEC title? Let's take a look at five familiar hurdles.
Break on Through
Tennessee can't be considered a serious contender until the Vols wrestle that 1,000-pound reptile that's been hanging on their backs for the past 11 years.
The hated Florida Gators haven't lost to Tennessee since 2005, and they are seemingly inventing new, heartbreaking ways to hand UT gut-punching setbacks.
Everybody remembers last year's 63-yard touchdown grab by Antonio Callaway on 4th-and-forever to bring the Gators back from 13 points down to beat the Vols. If you're in orange, you still cringe at the thought of the long Aaron Medley would-be, game-winning field goal sailing wide to complete the nightmare.
You still wonder how then-defensive coordinator John Jancek spied UF quarterback Will Grier on that fourth down and how the Gators converted every fourth down they faced. You ask over and over why UT couldn't be a little more aggressive on offense rather than just try to limp out the game.
So many questions that lead to so many doubts even amid all of the optimism surrounding the program.
The words of Jim McElwain still echo through the sullen halls of Tennessee fans' minds: "Deep down, you just don't lose to Tennessee, and they didn't." Get mad all you want to, Vols fans, but it's true.
Until it isn't.
This year, the Vols have all of the advantages. The game's at Neyland Stadium. The Gators lost a slew of defensive talent (though they return several playmakers, too) and they'll be breaking in a new quarterback, new running back and a bunch of unproven receivers.
Callaway and Treon Harris are still suspended (per the Palm Beach Post's Anthony Chiang), and questions abound for the Gators.
The stars seem aligned in an orange twilight, but several times over the past few years Tennessee outplayed Florida only to lose in forgettable fashion. Until the Vols win that game, nobody can truly believe.
That Sept. 24 game should be circled on everybody's calendar. If Tennessee wins it, the Vols will get that swagger and the season could turn toward big things. But it can't happen if they don't win.
The Passing Game
The SEC Network telecast of the spring-ending Orange and White Game did everything short of everybody holding hands and singing "Kumbaya" when the announcers gushed over and over about how accurate Dobbs was. To be fair, he did have a nice game throwing the ball.
But one scrimmage does not make a struggle a strength.
The bottom line is Dobbs' accuracy, the drops from the wide receivers and a level of consistency throughout the 15 spring practices were just not there enough to ease worries. As great as Tennessee's rushing game will be, it's passing game still needs work—lots of it.
It all starts with Dobbs.
The dynamic athlete does so much for UT and is the face and ambassador of the program, and he leads with his sheer warrior mentality through games so much that it stinks to call him on the one thing he just hasn't done consistently: throw the ball.
He's got the arm strength. He's got the intelligence. He's got the grasp of the offense. But, for whatever reason, sometimes he just isn't on the same page as his receivers.
When it comes to his pass-catchers, Dobbs' receivers have done him no favors, either. The Vols finished 13th, ninth and eighth, respectively, the past three years in passing offense. In that time, the highest any UT receiver finished in receptions in the SEC was Pig Howard in 2014 at 17th.
The Vols haven't had an alpha dog step up at receiver since the days of Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson.
Candidates are there this year. Josh Malone, Preston Williams and Jauan Jennings all have the ability to be No. 1 targets. Junior tight end Ethan Wolf and junior receiver Josh Smith are nice targets, too. The Vols have a bunch of talent entering the mix at receiver this summer.
The elements are there, but everything has to be put together. Dobbs doesn't have to be explosive downfield to muster a quality passing game; he just needs to get the ball to his playmakers in space, and his receivers need to do a better job of putting themselves in position to make plays.
UT's running game will have the Vols in a position to win every single football game they play. But they won't win enough if they can't make plays in the throw game.
Defensive Tackle Depth
Shy Tuttle hasn't played since last year's Georgia game. Kendal Vickers sat out the entire spring after shoulder surgery. Alexis Johnson has still never donned an orange and white jersey after getting hit with an aggravated assault charge after enrolling in Knoxville mid-term.
That's three very important cogs in a rotation of Tennessee defensive tackles that, right now, still looks like it's only going to go six-deep at best in 2016.
New defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has so much talent to work with on his side of the ball from a horde of talented pass-rushers to two of the best linebackers in the SEC in Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr., to a secondary that's going to have two or three players good enough to start most places standing on the sideline.
But you can't be really good in the SEC without being strong up the middle, and there may not be a bigger question mark on UT's entire team.
The injury setbacks this spring made things difficult across the board, defensive line coach Steve Stripling told SEC Country's Dave Hooker.
"Last spring was tough," said Stripling, referring to all of the injuries in the '15 spring, "but this one's almost a little bit more to be honest with you."
Sophomore Kahlil McKenzie took a gigantic leap forward this spring toward being an every-down defensive tackle, and rising senior Danny O'Brien seems to have put his rocky junior season behind him after winning the spring's most improved defensive player award.
Those two, along with Quay Picou, make up the healthy depth right now at the position. Yes, Tuttle, Vickers and even Johnson could all return this fall, but the Vols still need to move a defensive end (or two) to the middle.
Players such as Andrew Butcher and Dimarya Mixon—who played the position some two years ago—are potential candidates to slide inside for depth purposes.
So, while things could get better from a depth standpoint, what happens if Tuttle doesn't get back to 100 percent? What if Johnson never suits up? What if some of the players with high upsides don't reach their potential this year?
The Vols don't have a lot of depth at defensive tackle, and the margin for error is very thin.
Big Bad Bama
They loom, larger than life, on the schedule every year.
While most SEC teams get a bit of a break from time to time with their yearly cross-divisional opponent just by the cyclical ebbs and flows of the schedule, Tennessee's natural rival and annual opponent from the SEC West is Alabama.
It just so happens the Crimson Tide has been the nation's juggernaut ever since head coach Nick Saban arrived, and they're coming off of yet another national championship.
Most Vols fans would have to go brush their teeth after giving 'Bama their due, but the Tide can simply say, "Kiss the crystal." They're a top-class recruiting, consistent, pro-churning football factory, and the Vols are going to have to go through them to make it to Atlanta.
Then, they may have to go through them again to get out with a championship.
Tennessee hasn't beaten the Tide since Saban arrived, and while the thoughts of beating UA twice in one year is the equivalent of sugar plums dancing in the heads of Vols fans, they've got to beat them once first.
It's been a long time.
Last year, UT held a late fourth-quarter lead before UA quarterback Jake Coker orchestrated a fantastic, go-ahead drive to give Alabama a 19-14 lead in Tuscaloosa. Then, when the Vols got the ball back, UA linebacker Ryan Anderson edge-rushed Chance Hall, forced a sack-fumble of Dobbs and secured the win.
It was yet another gut-wrenching UT loss (this one low-lighted by three missed field goals from Medley) but the Vols did gain something: the knowledge they can play with their rivals. They matched them toe-to-toe, and no matter the excuses about being tired, 'Bama had to battle for its life in that one.
This season, the game is in Knoxville, and the Vols have a lot of the elements in place to hang with Alabama. But can they win?
There are few bigger obstacles in Tennessee's way than the Tide. It's the big, crimson mountain standing between the Vols and an SEC title.
As Ric Flair would say, to be the man, you gotta beat the man.
Coaching to Win
Butch Jones is rising up the nation's coaching ranks. He consistently recruits top classes, rebuilt UT's program from the ground up and took the once-dormant Vols to bowl victories the past two seasons.
He's got Tennessee on the precipice of great things. Now, he's got to seize them.
Last year, the Vols flat-out lost the Florida and Oklahoma games because of coaching decisions.
Whether it be sitting on a double-digit lead against Oklahoma to blowing Math 101 in kicking the extra point against the Gators to a lack of aggression on offense and defense in both, there were coaching snafus. Players have to make plays, sure, but there were errors on the sideline, too.
Not trusting his talent cost the Vols some early season wins down the stretch.
Those setbacks hurt, and they're frustrating to look back on, but Jones and crew did some great things in '15, too. They rallied the team, beat Georgia and turned around the season. Then, they obliterated Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.
So, while 2015 was 17 points away from being great, it was still a definitive step in the right direction. It all started with that game against the Bulldogs. Until then, offensive coordinator Mike DeBord seemed to have training wheels on Tennessee's offense.
The Vols offense rewarded him taking them off by proving it could make big things happen. CBSSports.com's Jerry Hinnen agreed in his postgame analysis of the season-turning win:
"[Dobbs is] still going to have the occasional clunker by QB rating, but Jones and first-year play-caller Mike Debord let Dobbs get more aggressive throwing down the field, and the move paid dividends both in the passing game and in opening up more space for Dobbs in the rushing department."
Jones proved this offseason he's willing to make a gutsy, surprising decision to take the Vols to another level when he fired Jancek and hired Shoop, who is widely considered one of the best defensive coordinators in all of football.
The head coach also trusts DeBord, and how much the veteran offensive coordinator grows in his play-calling and management of late-game situations will go a long way in determining how good UT can be and how favorably the Vols can look back on that hire.
Coaching can be aided by comfort, but sometimes going out of that comfort zone benefits programs as well. Jones has done both, and the experiment will come to a head in 2016. How it shakes out will be interesting to see.
Tennessee has a whole lot of talent. The Vols have playmakers all over the field, and while they can overpower opponents with a dynamic run game and aggressive defense, they've got to get in a pull-out-all-stops mode with games on the line.
You've got to trust your players to make big plays in crucial moments. Making those plays is the difference between really good teams and great ones. Having the gusto to call those plays is the difference between long-time solid coaches and championship winners.
The Vols have all the ingredients to win it all. They've got to play for it all.
They've got to coach that way, too.
All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports unless otherwise noted. All stats gathered at CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.