Tennessee Vols 2017 Season Outlook
Setting the State
Just by looking at the record, you would think the Butch Jones era at Tennessee is a steady march forward. The Vols have posted records of 5-7, 7-6, 9-4, and 9-4 over Jones’ first four seasons. But it’s been anything other than that for Vols fans.
Often times, the numbers just don’t tell the true story. It hasn’t been a steady march forward. It’s been a wild roller coaster ride of emotions. Tennessee fans were impressed early. Jones put together impressive recruiting classes coming out of the Dooley years. And even though 2013 was a disappointment, Tennessee looked competitive in every game save against Oregon and Alabama.
Roller Coaster Ride
In 2014, things were a little better. But a bowl thrashing of Iowa ignited the coal pits of the hype train for the next season. 2015, Jones’ third, was a season of cautious optimism. Fans knew there was talent. With any luck, Tennessee would be back atop the SEC East and playing for something big in late December. That luck never came. Tennessee lost four games by a combined ten points (taking out the overtime points). In two of those losses, Tennessee yielded big yardage fourth down conversions late in the fourth quarter. Tennessee held fourth quarter leads in each of those four games. Another late season bowl thrashing of 12th-ranked Northwestern, coupled with the return of a bevy of talent, led to the unabashed optimism of 2016.
Last season may have been the most disappointing 9-4 season in Tennessee’s history. Led by six future NFL draft picks, Tennessee fans were eager to get back to national prominence. But after a 5-0 start, including wins against Florida and Georgia, Tennessee let the SEC East slip away. Losses to South Carolina (off of a bye week) and Vanderbilt, along with numerous injuries and locker room drama, cast a dark cloud over an otherwise decent record.
After the cautious optimism of 2015 and the expectations of 2016, Tennessee fans now find themselves cautiously pessimistic heading into the 2017 season. There’s some reason to be pessimistic. But there’s also some signs that things might not be as bad as many expect.
On the Offense
Tennessee’s offense is also steadily marching forward. The Vols have increased their season scoring average from 24 points per game in 2013 to 36 points per game last season.
But there’s a reason for pessimism here. Tennessee lost Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara at running back, program record holder Joshua Dobbs at quarterback, and leading receiver Josh Malone. Of the 58 total touchdowns from last season, the returning Vols skill players only represent 29% (17/58) of scoring production.
The Key to Success
The good news is up front. Tennessee’s new offensive line coach, Walt Wells, will have four of five starters returning. And there should be depth up front as well. For Tennessee to avoid the seemingly destined disappointment, the offensive line will have to be play very well.
And the skill players that do return, notably John Kelly at back, Jauan Jennings at receiver, and Ethan Wolf at tight end, certainly have the potential to find the end zones. The biggest question is the depth behind that small group.
On the Defense
It’s much the same story on defense. The big names are gone to the NFL, so the question remains whether the next group can step up and fill their void. Derek Barnett, the program’s all-time sack leader, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and Cameron Sutton are all off to the big leagues.
Reason to be Hopeful
But the defense actually has a chance to be better. Sutton and Reeves-Maybin both missed significant time last season due to injuries. That allowed many of the younger players to get significant playing time in critical situations. Proven performers Darrin Kirkland, Jr. and Todd Kelly, Jr. will anchor the linebackers and secondary. The secondary will be better than last season. The addition of Charlton Warren as secondary coach is one of the more under-rated hires of the entire off-season.
Bob Shoop‘s defense actually returns eight of the top nine tacklers from last season. That’s the most surprising statistic entering training camp.
Stepping Up And Staying Healthy
The biggest question for Shoop’s unit will be run defense. With Kahlil McKenzie, Shy Tuttle, Kyle Phillips, and Jonathan Kongbo, the Vols have a formidable front four. But in the SEC, you must have a rotation on the defensive front. Can Kendal Vickers, Quay Picou, Darrell Taylor, or Alexis Johnson step and up and provide the much needed depth up front? This is certainly the unit to watch closely entering the first week of the season.
The other big concern is staying healthy. The defense was decimated with injuries last season. The defense alone had over 50 missed starts to injury. The defensive front was especially hit, including Phillips, McKenzie, and Tuttle. Jones hired Rock Gullickson as the Strength and Conditioning Coach to help address the health of the team. Gullickson is the third Strength coach in as many seasons for the Vols.
Tennessee’s schedule this season is generally favorable. Or at least as favorable as it can be for the team that has Alabama as the permanent cross-over opponent. They get the best East team, Georgia, at home. In addition, they get the other West team, LSU, and the two East teams that beat them last season, South Carolina and Vanderbilt, at home as well.
The minimum expectation for this team should be 8-4, with a chance at a 9-3 season. There’s seven “should win” games on the schedule (Indiana St., Massachusetts, South Carolina, Kentucky, Southern Miss, Missouri, and Vanderbilt). There’s one “shouldn’t win” with Alabama. That leaves four games as “toss ups” — Georgia Tech, Florida, Georgia, and LSU. Even with a stumble against a “should win” team like Kentucky or Vanderbilt, Tennessee can still meet the eight win mark with two out of four wins against the toss-ups.
Georgia Tech (Week 1):
The Rambling Wreck won three straight against SEC East opponents last season and Paul Johnson would love nothing more than to make it four straight. It’s always frustrating to play a triple option offense. This game is in Atlanta and will be an early litmus test on Tennessee’s run defense and discipline. We won’t have to wait long to see if the Vols are better against the run. To meet the minimum of expectations, the Vols have a must win right out of the gate. Prediction: Win, 38-27.
at Florida (Week 3)
This game will help gauge the maturation of the Jones program. Florida, the two time defending East Champions, continue to overlooked. The last two seasons it was Tennessee. This season its Georgia. This is a game where I think Tennessee still has a talent edge. In what could be a galvanizing moment for Tennessee, Butch Jones and company goes into the Swamp and makes it two in a row. Win, 31-27
Georgia (Week 5)
Georgia’s talent and depth on defense along with the experience and power at running back will be too much for the Vols. Still, this is one of the three “toss up” games. Tennessee — even in its decade of debacle — has always managed to play with Georgia. The Vols have a chance here in their backyard, but Georgia is too strong here. Loss, 27-20
LSU (Week 12)
While LSU isn’t as good as the national press thinks they are, Tennessee still hasn’t fared well against the SEC West in, well, as long as people can remember. Butch Jones still hasn’t beaten an SEC West team and the last time any Tennessee coach was victorious west of I-65 was in 2010 when Tennessee drubbed Ole Miss 52-14 under coach Derek Dooley.
Tennessee has a good chance of winning two of these “toss up” games. With the predictable slip up somewhere along the way with a “should win” team, that leaves my prediction for the season at: 8-4, 3rd SEC East.
Every season is important. But every season also tells us something unique. The story of 2017 will be whether or not Butch Jones is a long term investment for the University of Tennessee. The current great coaches in college football — Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Dabo Swinney — seem to have their programs steady and consistent above all else. They win the games they should, week in and week out.
No one discounts a tough schedule or injuries. But for the school and fans to consider Jones as an era-long coach, his teams must be better than losses to Vanderbilt and South Carolina off of a bye. It’s that roller coaster ride that marks a coach as expendable. Many Vols fans think that he is the future. But many enter the season feeling as if they are the next people to get on the amusement park ride.
It’s a feeling of cautious pessimism. And only time will tell if it turns out to be dreadfully accurate or delightfully wrong.
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