Dr. Saturday will unveil its preseason Top 25 team-by-team during the next 25 days. This list is based on returning starters, schedule and prospects. However, we all know that once the games begin, things can change very quickly. Still, we thought we’d give our best guess heading into the 2015 season.
No. 22 Tennessee
2014 record: 7-6, 3-5 in SEC
Returning starters: 10 offense, 8 defense
2015 Outlook: It's time to put up or shut up for Butch Jones and Tennessee.
[Yahoo Sports Fantasy Football: Sign up and join a league today!]
The school was very happy to make the TaxSlayer Bowl (and thrash Iowa), but a .500 regular season isn't going to be considered a success in 2015. And it shouldn't be, not with 18 returning starters and another great recruiting class.
We'll have a great idea of how Tennessee has progressed from 2014 to 2015 in the second week of the season. The Volunteers host Oklahoma, who won the first game of the series 34-10 in Norman in 2014. We won't go as far as to say that Tennessee should win, but it's a game that the Vols could win. Two years ago, we're probably not saying that.
If you believe that a team has to learn how to win big games, a win against Oklahoma is a must. The Volunteers have flat struggled against ranked opponents in recent years. Tennessee's only win over a ranked opponent in the past five seasons is its upset win over South Carolina in 2013. And yes, the Vols have played a lot of ranked opponents in that timeframe by being in the SEC.
After that, Tennessee's schedule is favorable for a possible run at the SEC East crown. Georgia and South Carolina both visit Knoxville, in addition to Arkansas. Yes, a road trip to Alabama in the annual series between the two teams looms, but it's unlikely anyone is going undefeated in the SEC East. A November trip to Columbia, Missouri could be an SEC East title game. Or, at least, a battle for second or third.
Player to watch: Josh Dobbs, QB
You likely know Dobbs as the super-smart engineering major who's also a quarterback. With a full season at the starting quarterback position, he has a chance to flip the order of the identifiers.
Dobbs took over the starting job from Justin Worley in the middle of 2014 and played well. He had a higher completion percentage (63.3 percent) than Worley and had more yards per attempt (6.8). It was no fluke that the Volunteers won four of the final five games of the season and scored 45 points against South Carolina and 50 against Kentucky with Dobbs under center.
But his greatest value comes as a runner. While Worley was in the negative figures rushing, Dobbs had 469 yards and eight touchdowns. The threat of Dobbs in the backfield forces defenses to account for more than just the running back. With a full season of reps, don't be surprised if Dobbs challenges the 1,000 yard rushing mark. If he does that – and continues to improve as a passer – Tennessee is a legitimate top-25 team.
"We understand what we're getting with Josh, and we always talk about consistency and performance," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said at SEC media days. "And we know what we're getting with Josh day in and day out, week in and week out. He's done a tremendous job. We challenged him this spring to be what we call a CEO quarterback, an individual who owns the team, who owns the offense, that can solve problems on his own, that can provide the leadership and stability that you expect from that position. So we're excited about him."
Breakout player: Alvin Kamara, RB
2015 was the second-straight year that Tennessee had the No. 5 recruiting class in the country, according to Rivals.
A key member of the 2014 class, Jalen Hurd, established himself as the Volunteers' lead back as a freshman. Hurd ran for 899 yards; no other Tennessee running back had more than 300. While Dobbs was able to give Tennessee an added rushing threat when he was on the field last year, Tennessee's run game revolved around Hurd. And defenses knew it. Against Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama and Missouri, Hurd ran for less than four yards per carry.
Hurd won't have to shoulder the load at running back all by himself again this year. Alvin Kamara, a four-star recruit and the No. 2 running back in the class of 2015, has been praised by Jones and is expected to step in and be a complement to Hurd. While Hurd stands over 6-feet tall and 240 pounds, Kamara is at 5-10, 197. While he could be a change of pace back from Hurd, don't also be surprised if Tennessee finds ways to get both of them on the field at once.
"That's one thing we've really challenged Jalen is his durability," Jones said. "Being 6'3", obviously, he runs with a physical presence, but it's lowering the pad level. He's added the size and the weight he needs to. He's about 242 pounds. Right now we've challenging him with his sleep, we've challenged him with his nutrition and taking care of his body. He's been as determined and focused and as determined a young man as we have in our program right now. Now you couple that with Alvin Kamara, and we're really, really excited. Alvin stepped in our program from day one and didn't say a word and just kept working and working and working, and he has earned the respect of his teammates. We look forward to those two playing football together."
For more Missouri news, visit PowerMizzou.com.
- - - - - - -