Optimism is the highest it has been in years, and so is the excitement level over Tennessee Volunteers football entering 2015. It has been five years in the wilderness but the branches are separating and the Big Orange is poised for a rebirth. The Vols have been 28-34 in those five seasons that saw the end of the Derek Dooley era, the disastrous Lane Kiffin year, and the first two years under Butch Jones. But they definitely have their man on the sidelines now.
UT football had lost its identity, and Jones has returned it. Tennessee always stood for toughness, for grit, for not doing anything the easy way and being proud of that. It never stood for style over substance. It took two years but that signature is back; there are numbers to back it up; and the Good Ship Orange is just about ready for takeoff. But there is one issue. Is it a big one or not? That will determine the success of launch.
Joshua Dobbs is the man Jones is counting on. The junior quarterback has either been sharp or just plain awful in his chances up until now. The physical skills are there but the SEC defenses have posed some problems for him. Dobbs has tremendous quickness and running ability, but decision-making and accuracy have been issues. He was voted third-team all SEC in preseason, so many believe he will turn the corner. If he does, this could be a very special season in Knoxville.
Tennessee is loaded everywhere else on offense, with more than enough weapons to help a quarterback, even should he be a struggling one. Sophomore Jalen Hurd returns as the feature back, and hopefully his concussion problems are behind him. Once known as Wide Receiver U., this Tennessee team could have the best group in the country with Alton ‘Pig’ Howard, Josh Malone, Marquez North and Von Pearson. There is size, speed, and big-play ability everywhere. Ethan Wolf is one of the best tight ends in the conference, and the offensive line is the strongest since the Fulmer years—though the loss of Marcus Jackson to injury was a blow in camp.
The defense is also growing in stature, with all-conference players at every level. Derek Barnett could have a breakout season at DE; Curt Maggitt is a proven commodity at LB; and Brian Randolph and Cameron Sutton are the core of the secondary. In all, 17 starters return on both sides of the ball, 18 before the Jackson injury. The kicking game is solid with Aaron Medley returning as PK after a 20-for-26-freshman season, and Nathan Renfro comes in from Maryland as the punter.
The Vols open at Nissan Stadium on September 5 against a talented Bowling Green squad, and Oklahoma comes to Neyland in week two in the highest profile non-conference home game in years. Many questions about Dobbs will be answered then. After a soft game against Western Carolina comes the SEC gauntlet at Florida, Arkansas and Georgia at home, then at Alabama. But the typical softer November awaits them so a late run is possible, with a trip to Missouri on November 21 looming large.
Tennessee was picked second in the East, but certainly has the talent to win it should Dobbs be what they hope. Depth, particularly on defense, could be a stumbling block should attrition be a factor. But Jones has instilled the traditional Tennessee Way once again, and he has the players believing it. Great momentum carries from last season, the fans are back, and Tennessee is a title contender again.