Tennessee Football: Predicting the Vols' 2016 Win-Loss Record
This could be a special season on Rocky Top for the Tennessee football team.
Not only do the Volunteers have a slew of talent, but they also have several players who've held key roles on the team since they stepped foot on campus and more depth than they've had in a decade, making this year's schedule finally manageable.
That's not to say there aren't pitfalls. Those will always exist in the SEC. But that won't dampen the excitement, which Knoxville News Sentinel columnist John Adams says may match 1998's:
The Vols should not only win the SEC East. They seemingly have enough talent and experience to challenge for greater championships. The most optimistic fan's excitement is approaching the 1998 level. That's when the Vols last won the SEC title. It's also when they went undefeated while winning the national championship. So a comparison is in order—as long as you make it for preseason only.
He goes on to say nobody was talking about national championships that year, either. Yet, the Vols went on to win one. While few are talking about the possibility of UT going all the way, it isn't out of the question for the first time since the early 2000s.
Championship ingredients are in place, and the hiring of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop along with the return of stars Cameron Sutton, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Alvin Kamara only enhance that.
But to have the opportunity to do great things, the Vols must accomplish some goals they haven't achieved in a long, long time, beginning with beating rivals Florida and Alabama.
Those are just two of the obstacles standing between the Vols and taking another tangible step forward after last year's 9-4 season culminated with a domination of Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. So, just how far can the Vols go?
My assessment is a 10-2 regular season with a trip to Atlanta. But where will those setbacks come from, and can the Vols get over the two biggest humps they have as a program?
Let's take a way-too-early look at a game-by-game prediction for UT's 2016 season.
Appalachian State, Sept. 3
As far as season openers go, Tennessee has an intriguing anything-but-cupcake tilt to start the 2016 campaign.
In 2015, Mid-American Conference foe Bowling Green met the Vols in Nashville and put up a high-flying, valiant effort before falling 59-30. The too-close-for-too-long win exposed some issues for UT that would plague them during the early part of the season, such as defensive holes.
Again, Tennessee has a small-conference powerhouse on the docket to begin '16. This year's team is Appalachian State, the nearby neighbor from Boone, North Carolina, that hasn't skipped a beat since making the leap from the Football Championship Subdivision's Southern Conference.
Last year, the Mountaineers won the Sun Belt with an 11-2 record and went on to come from behind and beat Ohio 31-29 in the Camellia Bowl.
Appy State returns star quarterback Taylor Lamb and running back Marcus Cox, among other good, young players, but beating the powerful Vols in Neyland Stadium is too tall of a task to ask. Scott Satterfield's team is good, but upsetting an SEC blue blood is going to be tough.
The Vols will pull away in the second half from the Mountaineers, and the final score—much like last year's game against the Falcons—won't be indicative of the first few minutes of the game.
If Tennessee goes out and takes care of business, wins decisively and has no issues, that could be a precursor of things to come, because Appalachian State is a really good football team.
This could wind up being the perfect opening-game measuring stick, or it could be a bit of a scare.
Prediction: Vols 44, Appalachian State 20
Virginia Tech, Sept. 10 (Battle at Bristol)
For literally decades, Tennessee and Virginia Tech representatives (and fans) have been discussing a football game at Bristol Motor Speedway, equidistant between the two close historically powerful programs.
That will finally come to fruition with 2016's "Battle at Bristol," which is expected to host a crowd of more than 150,000 fans in what will be the biggest crowd to ever watch a college football game in person.
Now, that's a huge stage.
The Vols will find out really quickly if they're ready for the national spotlight.
Last year, they choked down the stretch in a late-night, nationally televised home game against Oklahoma in this schedule spot where UT coach Butch Jones had his team in control before it slipped out of the Vols' hands late. With a decisive talent advantage over the Hokies this year, UT will try to hang on.
This was supposed to be billed as Jones vs. longtime Tech coach Frank Beamer, but he retired after last season, giving way to former Memphis coach Justin Fuente. The Hokies have some personnel issues, but they've still got some weapons to give UT fits.
Dr. Jerry Punch, ESPN college football and motorsports analyst, told the Johnson City Press' Jeff Birchfield of the game:
Tennessee has to be the favorite since they're probably going to be a preseason top-15 or preseason top-10 pick. They're favored to win the SEC East since they have the best defense and best quarterback coming back. But, Justin Fuente comes in with Bud Foster's defense, which you know has been good for 29 years. Then, you add his wide-open offense that had been so successful at Memphis.
If you're Butch Jones, you don't know how you’re going to prepare for that. I think it will be a close football game. But, you not only want to play in the biggest game in college sports history. You want to win the biggest game in college sports history.
The Vols should exploit some of the weaknesses in Foster's rebuilding defense, and that's where Tennessee should control the game. Also, while Fuente will have the Hokies offense back soon, there just aren't enough proven playmakers besides running back Travon McMillian.
Make no mistake: This is a major test for the Vols, but it's one they'll win.
Prediction: Vols 28, Virginia Tech 17
Ohio, Sept. 17
Another MAC opponent finds itself on Tennessee's schedule in 2016, and this time, it's former Nebraska coach Frank Solich's Ohio Bobcats.
Last year, the Bobcats went 8-5 before nearly pulling off the upset of Appalachian State in the Camellia Bowl, but after some seasons of struggle, it was a nice rebound. They did so with a lot of young players, too.
Even so, there are still some gaps to fill this season. Ohio has to replace leading passer Derrius Vick, but DJ Sprague is back at quarterback, and he has a nice skill set. The Bobcats also have to replace their second-leading rusher, three starting offensive linemen and most of their secondary.
There are some quality young players to help them do that, but asking Solich to whip up an early-season concoction with so many holes on the road at Neyland Stadium against the best Vols team in a decade is unrealistic.
Tennessee's offense is just too good. Last year's Bowling Green team that lost by 29 points to the Vols beat Ohio by 38. That should give you at least a modicum of an idea of the odds the Bobcats are facing here.
The Vols aren't built to score points in bunches like that, but they'll find other ways to dominate this game. Ohio may have a nice season in the MAC, but this will be a game the Bobcats want to erase from memory quickly.
Prediction: Vols 38, Ohio 6
Florida, Sept. 24
After years and years of frustration, Tennessee found yet another way to collectively lay its fans on the surgical table and rip their hearts out in a new, miserable way last year against the Gators.
Following a fourth-quarter touchdown to put the Vols up by 12 points, Jones inexplicably elected to kick the extra point to make it a two-touchdown, two-extra-point lead that would have been tidy. What happened next was both predictable if you've followed the UT-UF series and unpredictable if you saw how it shook out.
Not only did the Gators score a touchdown to close the gap, Tennessee went ultra-conservative and punted the ball back to them. All they had to do was stop a 4th-and-14 play to win the game. Instead, Will Grier hit Antonio Callaway for a touchdown, and the extra point gave Florida the win.
That will-crushing defeat gave UF 11 straight wins over the Vols.
Though it's been predicted Tennessee would exorcise those demons in each of the past couple of years, this season seems to be the year for that to happen. Not only do the Vols return much of their roster, but the Gators lost a ton of talent.
They've also got to find some offensive playmakers, which most likely will come in the form of transfer quarterback Luke Del Rio and running back Mark Thompson.
Those guys expect to be the new heroes for the reptiles when they come to hated Neyland Stadium. But the Vols will be looking to exact a little revenge this year.
Finally, it should happen.
Prediction: Vols 27, Florida 21
@ Georgia, Oct. 1
Tennessee's first true road game of the season won't come until a month after it first kicks off the season. It may just wind up being the toughest.
Speaking of revenge, Georgia has plenty on its mind. Last year, the Bulldogs held a convincing 24-3 advantage over the Vols in the second quarter before UT converted a fourth down, scored a touchdown, capitalized on a special teams blunder and scored again.
The Vols went on to win in a dramatic comeback, and the season turned around from there.
It isn't like Georgia lacked chances in that one. Reggie Davis let a surefire touchdown catch slip through his fingers, and the Bulldogs also couldn't make an offensive play late in the game when they had the ball. If losing wasn't enough, they also lost star running back Nick Chubb to a season-ending injury in that game.
The Vols won because of Dobbs, who couldn't be stopped. He passed for more than 300 yards and ran for more than 100. He was a one-man show, and he's back to terrorize the Dawgs again.
"I just went out and did my job. My job is to score touchdowns," Dobbs told the media after that win.
That'll be his job again this year, and so far, he's been earning his scholarship.
It's a new era for the Red and Black as favorite son Kirby Smart took over for Mark Richt. While there are some holes on the roster and question marks (such as quarterback), there's always plenty of talent flocking in from the Peach State.
Chubb should be back, and if Jacob Eason is the answer at quarterback, expect this one to be an extremely good game again. But the Vols should have the edge this year.
Prediction: Vols 27, Georgia 20
@ Texas A&M, Oct. 8
What normally happens when a program hasn't been on top in a long time and it is building back to being able to compete on a yearly basis is a setback that really isn't supposed to happen.
The Vols are going to face some adversity in 2016, and how they respond to it will go a long way in determining the ultimate outcome of the season.
Back-to-back road games in Athens, Georgia, and College Station, Texas, is a really good opportunity for a really bad thing to happen.
Yes, the Aggies have experienced their share of drama in the past year—particularly at the quarterback position (and you thought Johnny Manziel was a handful…). A&M coach Kevin Sumlin brought in prep star quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray only to watch both of them transfer after last year.
Allen went to Houston, while Murray will finish his career at Oklahoma. Just this week, star quarterback recruit Tate Martell decommitted from the Aggies, too, due to Sumlin hiring offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, Martell's father told Rivals.com's Adam Gorney.
But for 2016, the Aggies will have Sooners transfer Trevor Knight leading the way. He's experienced, and he performed well against the Vols two years ago. There's also no shortage of skill-position or defensive talent in College Station, either.
So, at the end of this long stretch of games, that trip to A&M could be a trap. Of course, the Vols are more than capable of winning on the road. But they also could lose, which would be a heartbreaking setback before the Bama game.
It's a very realistic possibility.
Prediction: Texas A&M 30, Vols 27
Alabama, Oct. 15
Losing the week before in College Station would certainly dampen what could be a raucous, championship-type atmosphere in Neyland Stadium on the "Third Saturday in October."
Of course, the Vols hope they enter this game undefeated. If that happens, everybody will know by then that UT is for real. Even if they do, however, this will be the seventh game in seven weeks for a Tennessee team that will be beaten up and road-weary.
No matter how many studs Alabama lost off last year's national championship team, that's not a good formula for facing the Crimson Tide. After all, all Nick Saban does is win recruiting championships, so you know his team will be loaded with potential playmakers.
Players such as receiver Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart, tight end O.J. Howard and running back Bo Scarbrough still roam the field for the Tide. So, they'll have a full stable yet again.
After leading late in the game before falling 19-14 in 2015 to the eventual champions, the Vols aren't scared of this game in the least. For the first time in years, they've got the talent level to battle big, bad Bama until the very end.
Leadership such as that of Reeves-Maybin, Sutton and Derek Barnett will lead to what could be a classic game that will bring the rivalry back to its rightful place, building off last year's donnybrook.
But can the Vols close the deal? They're playing at home, which is huge. They've got a lot of talent and depth everywhere, but by this point of the year, it'll be tested considerably. If that bye week came just one week earlier for UT, it may be a little bit easier to pick the Vols to end the nine-year drought.
It doesn't, though. So, the Tide has the edge, barely. And UT will have to rebound from consecutive losses after being at the top of the world.
Prediction: Alabama 23, Vols 21
@ South Carolina, Oct. 29
Tennessee's off week before this game won't bode well for South Carolina, especially after the Vols have a week to stew on the frustrations of the past two close losses.
Even though the Vols must travel to Columbia, the game against the Gamecocks won't be as close as the one in 2015 when UT needed a late turnover to seal the win.
First-year coach Will Muschamp never lost to Tennessee when he was Florida's head coach, but he won't have as good a team this year as he tries to rebuild a South Carolina team that was torn down by Steve Spurrier's recruiting failures in recent years.
One of the players he didn't miss out on is freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain, whose first glimpse in front of the nation showed plenty of firepower as the mid-term enrollee dominated the spring game, giving him a chance to win the starting job over Perry Orth, Lorenzo Nunez and others.
"Competition is our best friend as coaches," Muschamp told the Greenville News' Mandrallius Robinson. "That's going to help our football team get better. I think we have enough savvy and leadership in that group that they'll do a good job in the offseason."
Even with the quarterbacks looking improved, there are too many talent holes to fill.
That game against the Vols is always close, but Jones has yet to lose to the Gamecocks since he's been in Knoxville. Two years ago, Dobbs held his coming-out party in a comeback overtime win over Carolina.
It won't take overtime this year. The Vols will be rested, fresh and prove they're ready for the stretch run with a lopsided win.
Prediction: Vols 31, South Carolina 13
Tennessee Tech, Nov. 5
Several Tennessee fans familiar with high school football will remember longtime Greenback coach Bill Satterfield, and, in turn, they may remember his son, Marcus, playing for him back in the early 1990s.
After a successful stint as Temple's offensive coordinator, Marcus was announced this year as Tennessee Tech's new head coach, replacing Watson Brown. Satterfield's return to the Greater Knoxville area likely won't be one to remember.
He inherits some offensive playmakers in Cookeville, but the cupboard is close to bare. Still, Satterfield is an up-and-coming young offensive mind and could have the Golden Eagles back to playing respectable football before long.
A late-season game against the Vols in Neyland Stadium won't be one of those times.
Much like last year's North Texas game, this will essentially be another off week for Tennessee before the season's final stretch run and a nice payday for the Vols' Interstate 40 neighbors over the Cumberland Plateau.
Tennessee can put things on cruise control, get the backups some important reps and still run away with this one. But the Vols likely won't do much embarrassing when it comes to the FCS foe. Still, it'll be thorough.
Prediction: Vols 55, Tennessee Tech 3
Kentucky, Nov. 12
The past two seasons, Kentucky's football team went from a surprising early-season story to a late fade. When the opponents get tougher as the season wears on, the Wildcats simply haven't been able to hang.
As coach Mark Stoops' solid recruiting classes begin to materialize into a team that is "his" this year, everybody will be able to see if that's going to change or if this is Big Blue's ceiling. With Drew Barker at the helm as quarterback replacing Patrick Towles, Wildcats fans are optimistic.
Barker was a Kentucky high school phenom who chose to stay home over some huge offers. This spring, he took a major step forward, Stoops said, according to A Sea Of Blue's Jason Marcum:
I've seen a big change in Drew and I want to continue to see that. This is one semester. He needs to have a great summer; he needs to be a great leader in organizing all voluntary workouts and throwing with receivers and running backs and tight ends. But I have seen a change.
I've seen a maturity in him. I’ve seen him much more composed on and off the field. I see a guy who’s very hungry to learn and just settle in and continue to grow.
Can that change be the difference in winning a big game and losing one, though? There are no bigger games for Kentucky than the ones against rivals Tennessee and Louisville, and the 'Cats haven't fared well in those recently.
They also need running back Stanley "Boom" Williams, who is electrifying when at full-strength, to have a healthy season and the receiving corps to do a better job helping out Barker, too.
But the biggest puzzle continues to be on defense. Kentucky again must replace some of its top players from that unit, but that side of the ball is where the biggest recruiting wins have come. So, depth may actually be improved this year, even though experience won't be.
The past two seasons, UK has been essentially embarrassed against Tennessee. The Vols have owned Kentucky for three decades, and that doesn't appear to be changing anytime soon.
Until there's any evidence of that gulf closing on the field, it's difficult to predict anything but a lopsided UT win, especially in Neyland Stadium.
The Wildcats may finally go bowling this year, but it won't be because of anything that happens on Nov. 12.
Prediction: Vols 37, Kentucky 17
Missouri, Nov. 19
There are few bigger messes inherited around the country than what Gary Pinkel left Barry Odom on Missouri's offense.
Not only is quarterback Drew Lock not yet living up to his massive expectations, but he also doesn't have any proven playmakers around him. The running back position behind Ish Witter is particularly a mess, and if Alabama transfer Chris Black doesn't have a huge year, the receiving corps is devoid of difference-makers, too.
But that defense is an equalizer.
There's no doubt the Tigers will desperately miss leading tackler Kentrell Brothers, but it's amazing how they churn out defensive linemen; there are four or five future NFL players on that line. If Harold Brantley can return from that gruesome car accident that cost him all of 2015, Mizzou will be even better.
Beating Tennessee in Knoxville is going to be a tall order, though.
The Vols have enough weapons on offense to find ways to generate points against that strong Missouri defense, and if the Tigers can't score points, they're not going to beat the Vols.
It's just tough looking at the depth chart on that side of the ball for the Black and Gold and seeing anybody who can flip a loss into a win in this game.
Mizzou is going to load the box and make Tennessee pass the ball to win, but no teams had any success stopping the Vols' run in '15, and with the Vols' offensive line a year-stronger and better, that will be a difficult game plan to win.
The Vols are going to win this one easily, even if the final score is devoid of style points.
Prediction: Vols 24, Missouri 9
@ Vanderbilt, Nov. 26
There's at least a glimmer of optimism in Nashville. After a disastrous debacle in Derek Mason's first season on West End, 2015 was a bit better. The Commodores didn't set the SEC on fire or anything, but some markers of improvement were evident.
Running back Ralph Webb is proving to be a gem who may wind up as one of the best players to ever wear a Vanderbilt uniform. While quarterback Kyle Shurmur hasn't been handed the starting job as the 'Dores' signal-caller, he looks like a capable thrower.
VU gets two top receivers back who missed last season, and Mason's 3-4 scheme has some promising players to outfit a team that came within a long field goal of upsetting Florida a season ago.
Some puzzle pieces are beginning to show up for Mason.
But that Tennessee game last season was flat-out ugly for Vanderbilt. The Vols won 53-28, and Mason told Steve Megargee of the Associated Press it was just one of those nights for his team after a 33-point outburst by the Vols turned it into a laugher:
We were our own worst enemy tonight. I thought we hadn't done anything any different just in terms of game plan and execution. We looked at these guys. We knew who they were, and they weren't any different than what we thought. We just needed to tackle better, we needed to get off the field on third down and just do a better job overall of just playing the game.
In Nashville, it'll probably be a little closer. But the Vols have the opportunity to close out another strong season with a big win, and they'll do it. The victory will enable UT to finish a year where it wins the SEC East and heads back to Atlanta.
Whatever happens from there will be interesting, as the Vols will have the firepower to do some damage and perhaps play for bigger and better things. To be honest, it's tough finding losses on Tennessee's schedule. The Vols are capable of winning every single game.
Will they? That's the biggest question mark facing a team that is ready talent-wise to win but must get past some psychological hurdles before championships follow.
Prediction: Vols 38, Vanderbilt 16