The anticipation in Knoxville about the upcoming University of Tennessee Volunteers football season is almost palpable. Coach Butch Jones, despite a few seemingly bad decisions in his first couple of seasons at UT (starting Nathan Peterman at quarterback on the road versus Florida in 2013, going far too conservative against Florida in the second half of last year’s game and relegating quarterback Joshua Dobbs to third string in the early part of 2014 are three examples), has done a very good job of recruiting and exciting the fan base. Vol Nation desperately wants this team to exceed expectations. The issue with this is that the team may not be ready to meet those goals. There are still several questions about this team that need to be answered on the field. Will the offensive line, because of experience and fresh talent, be better and by how much? Will Dobbs be able to play a full season effectively as team’s build their defensive schemes towards slowing him? How ready are freshmen defensive tackles, Shy Tuttle and Khalil McKenzie? Who will play middle linebacker? Will the receivers stay healthy and will more of them be productive? How different, if any, will the offense look under new coordinator Mike DeBord? There may just be too many questions for a team to reach a nine or ten win regular season.
Tennessee should definitely be an improved team, and continue to improve over the next few years, but what is a realistic win total for this year’s version? A good start to this season is a must if the team wants to exceed goals for this year. Let’s take a look at the September part of UT’s schedule and take a guess at how the Vols might begin the season.
The Matchup: Bowling Green on September 5th at 4 p.m. ET in Nashville.
Bowling Green has possibly the best quarterback Tennessee will face this season in Matt Johnson. Johnson was injured in 2014, but in 2013 he had a 161.7 passer rating. He throws the ball. A lot. And the Falcons like to play at a fast pace. They also return every starter but one on offense. BGSU is no stranger to success. They went to their third straight bowl game last year and ended the season at 8-6. The problem is that the defense is not good, especially against the pass. The pass defense ranked 101st last season, and that was against a fairly mediocre schedule. BGSU was 0-5 against the top 70th ranked teams last year and lost by an average score of 46-20 in those games. Plus, a fast paced offense might actually be a detriment to a defense that is overwhelmed.
The still-young Vols defense might be tested early against a fast-paced, experienced offense that has had months to prepare for Tennessee. Eventually, though, the defense should start to slow the Falcons’ offense while Tennessee’s offense has a huge day. This should be a game where we see one or two of Dobbs’ backups play. Any experience true freshmen quarterbacks, Quinten Dormady and Sheriron Jones, gain early will help in both their development going forward and, in a worst case scenario, filling in for Dobbs in case of injury. It would not be surprising to see running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara both approach 100 total yards. On defense, defensive ends Curt Maggit and Derek Barnett should have ample opportunities to add on to their sack totals from last year. The big question for the Vols’ defense will be who plays middle linebacker and how quickly they react to what the Falcons are doing. In the end, this should not be a close game. Final score: Vols 52 Bowling Green 20.
The Matchup: Oklahoma on September 12th at 6 p.m. ET in Knoxville.
Simply put, the game against the Sooners is huge for Tennessee. Tennessee has been wandering in the college football wilderness for a while now, but seems to be on the verge of sustained success. For Tennessee to meet or exceed expectations this year and to give notice to the rest of College Football that the program is again important, the Vols must win this game. Oklahoma does not lack talent, but where the Sooners appear to have weaknesses due to inexperience or underperformance in seasons past are areas where Tennessee should have strengths. For example, while Oklahoma returns excellent tailback Samaje Perine, who ran for 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns last year, they lost four starters on their offensive line. And while the Sooners return linebacker Eric Striker (is there a better name for a linebacker?) as well as Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans, they lost tackle Jordan Phillips early to the NFL. Last year in Norman, the Sooners defeated UT in a game that was closer than the final score of 34-10 would indicate. Still, the Sooners, who underperformed last year and finished 8-5, were clearly better. Has Tennessee improved so much in one year’s time that they are now the better team? Or do Vol fans simply want so badly for Tennessee to be good that they perceive UT being a better team than the Sooners when, in fact, they may not be?
Obviously, the Vols are a different team than the one that played Oklahoma last season. Tennessee has a quarterback capable of taking over a game and they did not have that early last season. UT’s offensive line is more experienced. The defensive line has more experience and more talent. Tennessee has added another threat at running back in Kamara, and Jalen Hurd should be healthy for the entire game this time. As opposed to last season, Oklahoma has the inexperienced offensive line and unproven quarterback. This may turn out to be the perfect storm game for Tennessee; a game that they have been waiting for to show on national television that they are a power again. Tennessee should win this game. If UT does not win this game, one wonders what the fan reaction will be. Final score: Vols 28 Sooners 24.
The Matchup: Western Carolina on September 19th at 7 p.m. ET in Knoxville
Western Carolina is a Football Championship Subdivision team who had their first winning season since 2005 last year. The Catamounts run a two quarterback system, and both quarterbacks who took the majority of snaps from last year, Troy Mitchell and Wes Holcombe, return. The team is well-coached by Mark Speir. The Catamounts will play hard, but ultimate stand little chance in defeating Tennessee.
The fact that UT has to have quarterback get experience to be able to step in, if needed, and that the three main reserves are all true freshmen means we should get to see a lot of them this game. This game should be decided fairly quickly, so the backups and players who play positions that still do not have a clear starter should see lots of playing time. Final score: Vols 48 Catamounts 14.
The Matchup: Florida on September 26th in Gainesville, Florida.
The Florida Gators have now defeated the Vols in 352 consecutive games. Ok. That’s not true. But it surely feels that way to Vol Nation. If there are such things as must-win games, this may be Jones’ first at Tennessee. Vol fans expected the team to win last season’s matchup against Florida, and they probably should have. The team lost after leading late to a backup quarterback and may have caused some fans to question Jones judgment for the first time. Florida had another underwhelming season, as it turned out, and fired their defense-first coach, Will Muschamp. New head coach Jim McElwain inherited a roster that suffers from a lack of offensive talent. The offensive line, both with starters and depth, is extremely inexperienced. There is no proven quarterback. On the defensive side, the Gators still have talent, but Muschamp was a very good defensive coach and one could expect some decline since he has now left. Florida scored only 10 points against Tennessee last year. While the offensive coaching may be better this season, the talent is not there. The Vols should dominate defensively.
With Dobbs entrenched at quarterback, and with the talent around him, the Vols should score enough to win this game going away, even if the game is at Florida. If the Vols find another way to lose to the Gators, some fans may begin to doubt whether Jones can be a long-term solution in Knoxville. Accumulating talent is one thing, but developing that talent and then having the team win the games the fans expect is another. Jones has been successful at every stop he has had in his head coaching career. He says all the right words, appears to be running the program cleanly, he’s had two straight top five recruiting classes and won a bowl game in a blowout last year against Iowa. Jones needs to lead his team to victory over Florida this season. Final score: Vols 24 Gators 7.
Starting off with a 4-0 September does not necessarily mean the Vols will win the SEC East this year. They have a difficult first three games in October, playing Arkansas, Georgia and at Alabama. It would not be a surprise to see UT have a 5-2 record after the first seven games, but if one or two negative things happen, it would also not be surprising to see UT sitting at 3-4. Tennessee has a lot of young talent, but now they have to win real football games. It is up to Jones to have them ready.