One look at preseason polls, and you're virtually guaranteed to see Tennessee near the top.
If head coach Butch Jones' crew is going to match that preseason hype and dance around the College Football Playoff discussion, quarterback Joshua Dobbs will have to stay healthy and make a Heisman run.
That last part is tricky because, while Dobbs has been stellar on the ground throughout his career (671 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015), he has been inconsistent through the air, and 6.7 yards per passing attempt—which is what he finished with last year—hardly stresses defenses vertically.
If he fixes that, Dobbs can vault into the Heisman discussion.
Let's make the case for and against Dobbs taking the next step and contending for college football's most prestigious individual award.
The Case For...
Dobbs is bound to be a star due to the natural evolution of quarterbacks.
Last season was his first full season as the starting quarterback. While he wasn't a superstar through the air, he was effective on the ground and kept his team in every ball game. He has also established Tennessee's backfield with Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara as one of the best in college football and should earn the confidence of Jones and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord after another successful offseason in the system.
Jones was pleased with Dobbs' progression as a passer following the spring game.
"I look at efficiency, pass efficiency, 'Are we doing the right things? Do we take care of the football? Are they managing the game? Are they making decisions, good decisions with the football?' I thought the quarterbacks were able to do that [in the spring game]," he said according to Tennessee.
Plus, he should have more consistency at wide receiver thanks to the emergence of sophomore Preston Williams and 6'4" red-zone threat Jeff George, who enrolled this spring after spending last year at Dodge City (Kansas) Community College.
Dobbs gets the majority of the criticism for Tennessee's absence of a downfield passing attack, but inconsistency and injuries outside played a part as well.
"Everyone always says, 'accuracy, accuracy, accuracy,' but a lot of you guys don't realize, it is a two-way street," Dobbs said. "Obviously it helps to play a lot with the receivers. Do they get a good release, how they get open. The receivers are working hard every day."
Dobbs scored a total of 27 touchdowns last season, including one as a receiver against Florida in a game that he led the Vols in passing, rushing and receiving. Heisman Trophy voters love video game stats like that from quarterbacks.
What's more, it's still a quarterback-driven award. Sure, Alabama's Derrick Henry won it last year. But he set an SEC rushing record with 2,219 yards and put his team on his back en route to the national title, and it's pretty much a prerequisite for any non-quarterback to not only set individual records, but lead his team into the national title picture when votes are due in early December.
Tennessee should be a part of that picture if Dobbs simply takes a small step forward as a passer, which not only should be the goal, but should be expected of the rising senior considering the talent around him and the familiarity with the system.
The Case Against...
Haven't we seen enough of Dobbs to etch it in stone that he won't be that downfield threat that he needs to be in order to vault into legitimate consideration?
His yards per attempt average has been consistent over the last two seasons on Rocky Top, and his 6.7 average last year placed him 10th in the SEC behind Florida's Treon Harris and South Carolina's Perry Orth.
|Joshua Dobbs Year-By-Year Passing Stats|
"We still have to continue to work on our accuracy, have to continue to work every day on the deep ball and just consistency, when we have a receiver or a tight end or a running back open, delivering the ball," Jones said. "Those groups have to be consistent in catching the football, and we have to be consistent in the way we pass protect as well."
Even if his wide receivers do progress, he hasn't shown the ability to hit his receivers downfield yet and shows no signs of doing that moving forward.
What's more, Tennessee is more sizzle than steak this year.
Sure, the Vols are rated highly preseason and have assembled a roster that should contend for the SEC East again in 2016, after coming just short against Florida in what turned out to be the division title game last year.
But they've lost 11 straight to Florida even when Florida was down (by Gator standards), and they have to play permanent cross-division rival and defending national champion Alabama every year. Those two games will be inside the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium, but even if they only lose one, it's hard to imagine the Vols running the rest of the table and landing in the national spotlight.
Without the national spotlight, Dobbs will take a backseat to guys like Ohio State's J.T. Barrett, Baylor's Seth Russell, Clemson's Deshaun Watson and other quarterbacks with video game numbers who will be featured more prominently down the stretch in 2016.
He still could be good, but there will be far too much traffic ahead of him to actually win the Heisman Trophy.
Dobbs is listed 10th in current Heisman Trophy odds, according to OddsShark.com, tied with Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine, Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley and UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen at (+2000).
That's a solid starting point and should land the eyeballs of Heisman voters on the 6'3", 207-pounder from the moment the season kicks off.
His team will be in the thick of the SEC East race, and Dobbs playing a pivotal role in the Week 4 showdown with Florida on Rocky Top will be an enormous boost to his Heisman campaign. Beat the Gators and look good in the process, and the Dobbs train will get going at full speed heading into October.
At that point, you should hop on board.
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.