Once upon a time—for Tennessee football fans, it probably feels like back when dinosaurs roamed the earth—the Volunteers expected to win every game. They were staples in the rankings and churned out NFL players by the dozens.
Those days ended with the malaise of Phillip Fulmer's final few years and the disastrous hirings of Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley, the latter of which may be the worst head coaching hire in the history of the Power Five.
In 2016, however, the Vols will travel back to the future.
With coach Butch Jones at the helm in Knoxville, the program is surging and recruiting is going swimmingly. He's won with virtually no NFL-ready upperclassmen during the past two years, and last year officially marked the end of the Dark Ages.
The Vols are expected to win big, and the Vols expect to win big.
After running back Jalen Hurd shredded Northwestern in last year's Outback Bowl whipping, the game's MVP was asked by a reporter about returning to Raymond James Stadium, the site of this year's national championship game.
"We're already prepared for it," he said.
Tennessee has improved every year under Jones, going from 5-7 to 7-6 to 9-4. More importantly, it isn't just paper progress. The Vols' talent has soared, and the transformation has been thorough.
|Rising to the Rocky Top (Vols rankings under Butch Jones)|
|Total Defense||Rush Defense||Pass Defense||Total Offense||Rush Offense||Pass Offense||Points Per Game|
With that kind of improvement, there's reason for excitement, as B/R colleague Barrett Sallee recently reiterated with this tweet:
Can this be the year they surpass even the highest expectations?
Jones proved this offseason that he had the guts to make bold moves to take UT to the next level, parting ways with steady defensive coordinator John Jancek and hiring reputable, respected Bob Shoop.
The Vols also upgraded when tight ends coach Mark Elder left, hiring former Miami interim head coach and ace recruiter Larry Scott. They, too, have added some elite attitudes to UT's program.
It's good to be confident—and Tennessee players are certainly that, allowing themselves a little swagger this offseason.
But how much of it is real, and how much of it is lip service? When you strip away all the excitement the UT fanbase is basking in right now, what should the expectations for this season truly be?
Let's wade through the hype and churn out some truth about what 2016 should hold for the Vols on both sides of the ball and what fans should ultimately expect.
There are multiple reasons to be excited about the prospects of the Vols this year, but glee starts on the ground.
The triumvirate of Hurd, fellow junior running back Alvin Kamara and dual-threat quarterback Joshua Dobbs should strike fear into the hearts of even the staunchest defenses. Last year, the trio fueled the Vols to 2,908 rushing yards—the second-highest total in school history.
With an improved, veteran offensive line and all three of those guys returning in '16, it wouldn't be out of the ordinary to see Tennessee eclipse 3,700 rushing yards.
Though the Vols were methodical, punishing and consistent, even against quality competition a season ago, they were far from dominant. Too many times, when they needed to get important yardage at key moments, they didn't. Also, they rarely broke any big plays.
While the Vols were 15th nationally with 95 runs of 10-plus yards, they were 22nd in runs of 20-plus, 63rd in runs of 30-plus and steadily declined from there.
With better blocking and three quality runners returning (not to mention budding sophomore John Kelly) the Vols should improve those numbers, both in short yardage and long. That will equal a bigger year on the ground.
Nobody doubts the Vols' ability to grind games out, but if UT is going to compete for bigger, more important things, Dobbs has to be more accurate and get some chunk plays through the air.
Last season, the junior signal-caller threw for just 2,291 yards and completed less than 60 percent of his passes. That just won't cut it. No, he didn't get a lot of help from his receiving corps, but Dobbs wasn't sharp, either.
This season, the Vols appear to have a true, emerging alpha pass-catcher in Preston Williams, and he should team with Josh Malone to give UT a strong one-two punch. Josh Smith and Jauan Jennings are also able players with a lot of game reps, and a slew of young talent will help, too.
Dobbs is a veteran quarterback and should soon start throwing like one. If he can elevate his throwing game to finish with 2,800 passing yards and increase his completion percentage (which should be fueled by a short-passing philosophy and more yards-after-catch guys) it will be a much more balanced year.
As far as offseason awards go, there's little chance for any major hardware such as a Heisman Trophy with so many quality players on offense, but if the Vols live up to expectations, it wouldn't be a surprise to see any of the Big Three on first-team All-SEC lists, with potentially an All-American sprinkled in there, too.
So much for quietly sneaking into the national spotlight.
Since he's arrived on campus, the ever-confident Shoop has brought with him a brand of swagger and hasn't shied away at all from all the praise heaped on his new team and the defense he inherited.
When you've got stars who are also your leaders, such as outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, cornerback Cameron Sutton, defensive end Derek Barnett and middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., you let your tongue wag a little.
Shoop's done it. First, he told GoVols247's Wes Rucker that you can't run from the headlines.
"You have to embrace it," he said. "The thing I'm so excited about with Team 120 is that they're so confident coming off last season, but they've embraced the winter program. They're worked hard in the weight room in the winter program, and they've watched a significant part of film on their own, and they're not satisfied."
Then, just this week, Shoop went on Knoxville radio and boasted about a rush defense whose fortunes he intends to improve from last year's No. 45 national ranking:
If they can back him up, that'll be huge news for the Vols, especially considering that depth in the defensive interior is one of the biggest question marks on the entire team.
With comments like that, you know Shoop knows the kind of talent he has. A coordinator with his track record doesn't say things like that without a loaded gun. So what should you expect?
The rush defense may be improved, but it still won't be the strength of the team. That's going to come when teams try to pass against a secondary that got much better throughout last season and will have a veteran, talented group on the back end.
UT wasn't very good rushing the quarterback last year (30 sacks), so regaining some of that firepower off the edge will be a major point of emphasis this season.
The ultimate success of Tennessee's defense will hinge on two factors: pressure and turnovers. They go hand in hand, and with Shoop at the helm, the Vols have the perfect personnel to run his attacking, aggressive scheme.
While the Vols were 28th in turnover margin a season ago, they were an awful 74th in takeaways; they simply didn't cause ball disruptions. This year, that'll change. With Barnett, Reeves-Maybin, Quart'e Sapp, Corey Vereen, Jonathan Kongbo, Kyle Phillips, Darrell Taylor and others, UT will get after quarterbacks.
While Jancek was a solid coordinator, he was too conservative, rarely coaching to complement his talent level, as demonstrated by the quarterback spy on 4th-and-14 against Florida that will haunt UT nightmares for decades. Shoop will.
More blitzing will equal more sacks and more backfield harassment. That will create more turnovers, and UT will be a better defense because of it. This season, Tennessee will be a top-20 team in creating turnovers and will have a top-15 defense under Shoop.
The past four years, Shoop's defenses at Penn State and Vanderbilt have respectively ranked 14th, second, 23rd and 19th nationally. Now he inherits the best talent he's ever coached.
That's bad news for the rest of the SEC.
The Vols had arguably the best all-around special teams in the nation last year, and there's no reason to believe they won't duplicate that this season.
In punter Trevor Daniel, UT has a potential All-American. After some vital moments of shakiness (see: missed big, long kicks against Alabama and Florida) Aaron Medley had a solid year, and the strong-legged junior should only get better.
In kick returner Evan Berry and punt returners Sutton and Kamara, the Vols have three of the best specialists in the nation, and the kick coverage units have been consistently brilliant.
This will be a team strength again.
So, all of that gets us here. But what does it tell us?
A team that's going to be better running, better passing, boast a defense that creates more possessions for a potent offense, employ a special teams full of house-callers and unleash a slew of players with postseason accolades is going to go all the way to the national championship, right?
Well, the Vols certainly have that ability.
But to predict that after a four-loss season—even when those losses were to four strong teams by just 17 points and included two total collapses—is a large leap.
There are just too many pitfalls. Tennessee is going to be an aggressor this year, and the Vols will win many more than they lose, but a four-game stretch that includes a home game against Florida, road games at Georgia and Texas A&M and a return to Neyland Stadium to play rival Alabama is wince-worthy.
When you factor in that the Crimson Tide is the last game of seven consecutive weeks of games and on the back end of that rugged run, UT could be weathered and weary. It's difficult to imagine the Vols going unscathed in that stretch.
But winning the SEC East should be the goal. As a matter of fact, anything less will be a disappointment, and most of the Vols players or coaches should probably say the same.
This year's Vols have the leadership, veterans, top-tier talent and depth (in most places) to not only win but win big. They should finally beat Florida and set up a Battle Royal with Georgia in Athens to see who goes to Atlanta. If UT gets there, the season will be a success.
Who knows what can happen in the conference championship game? If Tennessee gets there, it has the talent to win there. When that happens, the victor normally finds itself in the College Football Playoff.
The expectation here is an 11-3 season with a loss in the SEC championship game and a major bowl win. But reaching that pivot point and getting over the hump in Atlanta could send the program back to the next level.
One thing is certain: That feeling where Vols fans expect to win every single game and the team can actually back it up on Saturdays? It's back on Rocky Top.
Now it's up to the Vols to turn that potential into production.
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.