COLUMBIA — Among the fashionable trends for this fall: floor-length trench coats, military-inspired outerwear, bold 1980s styling, and picking the Tennessee Volunteers to win the SEC’s Eastern Division.
Time will tell if the latter is one of those trends with staying power, or the kind that never makes the leap from the runway. It’s easy to see why so many view Tennessee as one of the teams to watch in 2015, given the emergence of quarterback Josh Dobbs, the return of 18 starters, and the way the Volunteers finished last season — with plenty of momentum after winning four of their last five games.
It’s not hard to become enamored with this team. Tennessee finished with a winning record for the first time in five years, and earned its first bowl victory since 2008, by playing 23 true freshmen, the most of any Football Bowl Subdivision squad in America. The Vols finished the year with just four seniors on their depth chart. In short, virtually anyone of any importance is back.
But is Tennessee ready to make the leap from critical darling to headliner, and challenge Georgia and Missouri for the SEC East? The Vols didn’t beat a power-five team with a recird better than 7-6 last season, though they were more than competitive in close losses to Georgia, Florida and Missouri. The improbable comeback on the road at USC likely stands as their best victory of last season.
That seemed to be the moment where Butch Jones’ team truly bonded. They were 3-5 coming in, and went 4-1 the rest of the way. They keep making that kind of progress, and the SEC’s most fashionable fall trend might turn into a big hit after all.
Head coach: Butch Jones (12-13 in two seasons at Tennessee, 62-40 in eight seasons overall)
Returning starters: 18 (10 offense, eight defense)
2014 record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC, fourth in Eastern Division)
Scoring offense: 35.2 points scored per game (26th nationally)
Scoring defense: 24.2 points allowed per game (35th nationally)
Series: Tennessee leads 24-7-2
Opposing beat writer: Dustin Dopirak, Knoxville News-Sentinel (@TennesseeBeat)
Last meeting: Tennessee 45, South Carolina 42 (OT) on Nov. 1, 2014 at Williams-Brice Stadium. The worst of USC’s trio of fourth-quarter collapses, this one made Steve Spurrier think about hanging up his visor. USC led 42-28 with 4:52 remaining, but Dobbs and the Vols stormed back to hand USC a crushing defeat which obscured a 286-yard, four-TD night from Pharoh Cooper.
1. There’s a new offensive coordinator in Knoxville. Mike Bajakian left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so Jones hired Mike DeBord as his new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. DeBord worked most recently in athletic administration at Michigan, where he served two terms as OC. He also spent five seasons in the NFL, most recently with the Bears from 2010-12.
2. Did we mention the Vols were young? Nearly half of the players who took the field for Tennessee last year were seeing action for the first time. Forty-eight percent of Tennessee’s roster in the TaxSlayer Bowl were new players, the bulk of those true freshmen. The Vols were one of five FBS schools to have at least five true freshman starters for the final game of the regular season.
3. The Tennessee D made big strides. The Vols recorded 35 sacks last season, the most simce a school-record 50 in 2000, and a marked improvement from their 18 the previous season. Standout linebacker A.J. Johnson is among the few notable losses on a Tennessee defense which has 26 lettermen coming back.
Week before: At Texas A&M
Next week: Florida
On the horizon: The Citadel comes marching in