The One Position Unit That Can Help Push Tennessee to Playoff Contention

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterApril 20, 2016

Tennessee WR Preston Williams
Tennessee WR Preston WilliamsMark Humphrey/Associated Press

On Nov. 1, 2014, Tennessee roared back from a late two-touchdown deficit to stun South Carolina on the road 45-42 in overtime. 

Since that point, the program has been on the brink of something special.

The Vols have lost five games since that night in Columbia by a total of 25 points, including an overtime loss to Big 12 champion and College Football Playoff participant Oklahoma, a one-point loss to SEC East champion Florida in Gainesville and a five-point loss to eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 2015 in which the Vols held late leads in both.

What will get the Vols over the top? With a roster that's loaded everywhere else, the downfield passing attack is the missing piece of the puzzle.

That piece looked like it was sliding into place during the Orange and White Game on Saturday. 

While quarterback Joshua Dobbs takes the brunt of the downfield passing attack criticism after finishing 10th in the SEC in yards per attempt at 6.7—behind Florida quarterback Treon Harris and South Carolina's Perry Orth—he didn't get much help from his wide receivers. 

No Volunteer receiver had more than 38 catches or 409 yards last year, and leading receiver Von Pearson—who led the team in both categories—exhausted his eligibility.

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Enter: Preston Williams and Jeff George.

Tennessee WR Preston Williams
Tennessee WR Preston WilliamsWade Payne/Associated Press

Williams was a hot-shot recruit in the class of 2015 but didn't get cleared by the NCAA until the week of Tennessee's season opener and struggled with hamstring issues as a true freshman. George came to Rocky Top from Dodge City (Kansas) Community College with the expectations of making a big impact.

Both did on Saturday.

Williams, a 6'4", 209-pounder from Hampton, Georgia, had a team-high 77 receiving yards on three catches and looked to be in tune with Dobbs (0:48 mark). George, a 6'6", 190-pounder originally from Leavenworth, Kansas, caught four passes for 28 yards and a nice touchdown catch on a fade (1:25 mark). 

Head coach Butch Jones commented on the duo in postgame quotes released by Tennessee:

[The wide receivers] were challenged in terms of having the injuries at that position and being set back, but also it provided tremendous teaching opportunities and valuable repetitions when you look at the amount Preston Williams was able to gain. Even Jeff George coming in here, really now understanding the endurance that it takes to play the receiver position, the mental toughness that it takes, the intensity that it takes day in and day out with your habits, your practice, your style of play, all that. 

As Nick Carboni of WBIR-TV in Knoxville noted on Twitter during the game, George's stature will present problems down near the goal line.

Tennessee's passing attack looked dangerous on Saturday, and that was without veterans Josh Smith or Josh Malone, as well as former quarterback Jauan Jennings—who was raw last year after changing positions but has potential.

If either Williams or George becomes a threat downfield, the rest of the wide receiving corps will have a much easier time finding room to roam.

With a downfield passing attack suddenly in play or, at the very least, a threat, it will give even more room to the multidimensional rushing attack that features Dobbs and running backs Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd; and it will give tight ends Ethan Wolf and Jason Croom one-on-one matchups that both can exploit.

It will also vault Tennessee into playoff contention and make the 2016 Vols elite.

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

The Vols opened at plus-1500 to win the national title, according to Odds Shark—by far the best odds in the SEC East and third-best in the entire conference behind Alabama (plus-600) and LSU (plus-1200). That was with questions in the downfield passing attack.

If the spring game success of Williams and George translates to the fall, look out CFP—the Vols could be coming.

The Florida loss cost Jones the SEC East title—something that has eluded the program since 2007. The Alabama loss came after Dobbs led the team down the field on a drive that culminated with a go-ahead touchdown run from Hurd with 5:49 to play. 

Those two games will be in Neyland Stadium this year, and both rivals have plenty of questions to answer prior to the kickoff of the 2016 season. 

As I pointed out earlier this year, don't fall into the trap that Tennessee always has hype in the offseason. The Vols have been picked to finish higher than fourth in the SEC East at SEC media days once since 2010 (last year, when they were picked second behind Georgia) and haven't been picked to win the division by the assembled members of the media since 2005.

What's more, Jones has improved upon his record every year that he's been at the helm after taking over a roster that former head coach Derek Dooley treated like a run-down rental property.

If the passing game just presents a threat to opposing defenses, the multidimensional rushing attack and loaded defense should not only land the Vols in Atlanta in early December, but they could lead them back to the Georgia Dome on New Year's Eve, when it hosts one of the two national semifinals.

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted. Recruiting information 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.