The RTI writers gives their quick takes on some of the biggest storylines so far in the 2015 season with the Vols sitting at 3-3 at the bye week with six regular season games remaining:
Most pleasant surprise: I’ll go with special teams in general, but want to shine specific spotlights on punter Trevor Daniel and kickoff returner Evan Berry. Nobody saw this coming from Daniel in particular. I saw him punt in the spring and early in camp, and while I certainly saw him hit some good ones from time to time, I didn’t see the consistent evidence that he could turn into one of the best punters in the nation. He’s been awesome. And as I wrote earlier this week, I don’t know that the Vols beat Georgia without his borderline-miraculous late punt that trickled out at the 1. Berry has carried the momentum over from a strong freshman debut as a kickoff returner. He’s also among the nation’s best, and while his two kickoff returns for touchdowns haven’t had the same direct impact in the big win column for UT, he’s emerged as one of the most dangerous weapons in special teams in the nation.
Biggest disappointment: I may have gone with the downfield passing attack up until this weekend, but the positive steps there against Georgia lead me to say that the biggest overall disappointment this year has been Tennessee’s inability to hold a lead. The Vols have been just atrocious when they go on top against major competition. All three losses came after holding double-digit leads and the second-half meltdowns against Florida and Oklahoma, especially, will be indelibly marked in UT fans’ memories. Even in the win over Georgia, the Vols were cruising in their come-from-behind effort until they actually took the lead. They blew it once and then, if not for Daniels’ perfect punt, the Vols might have lost it again based on how UGA marched down the field. It’s at a point now where UT fans are hoping to get down big early. This staff and team just seem to perform better in that circumstance.
How I was right about this team: In general, I thought this team would take a step forward in 2015, but I did stop short of predicting that the Vols could go to Atlanta, reach the nine-win plateau or be in any kind of playoff conversation. I feel pretty good about that general assessment so far, though there was no way I could’ve predicted the dramatic swings that this team and program would go through in just six weeks. It’ll be interesting to see how the rest of this season unfolds though. If the Vols were to find a way to win out, I would’ve actually undershot my prediction. But if they lose to Alabama as expected and then drop one or two they’re not expected to down the stretch, even my fairly conservative outlook for this team will prove to have been too high of expectations.
How I was wrong about this team: I was off on a few things, but I think overall the defense has fallen short of my expectations. It hasn’t been awful, the stats don’t tell the whole story and injuries have certainly played a big role, but I thought this was, at minimum, a top-5 SEC defense coming in to 2015, and the numbers just don’t show that right now. In fact, they show a unit that is in the bottom five of every major statistical category in the conference. Even when Curt Maggitt was healthy, I didn’t see a defensive line that lived up to the hype overall, and without him, it hasn’t been a dominant bunch. Nobody has really stepped up at LB outside of Jalen Reeves-Maybin and the secondary has, frankly, been a disappointment to me overall. Fatigue and lack of depth have played a role for sure, but it’s been especially disappointing to see to see how often the defense has given up big plays late that have hurt UT’s chances to finish out games.
Second-half of the season expectations: After riding a particularly wild roller coaster through six weeks, I can’t help but strap in and expect some more sharp turns, sudden drops and a few high points over the second half of the season. I think Tennessee should win five of six down the stretch with Alabama representing the lone loss. Will the Georgia win give enough confidence to Tennessee to get over the hump in late, close games? We’ll find out. I think, in the end, UT ends up with seven or maybe eight wins and gets to a “Pool of Six” SEC bowl selection (Belk, Music City, TaxSlayer, Liberty, Texas, Outback) in a season that shows progress, but leaves fans wondering what could’ve been at times.
One bold prediction for the rest of the year: Tennessee will lose to either Vanderbilt, Kentucky, South Carolina or Missouri. Some UT fans think those four are all but in the bag for the Vols, but I disagree. All of those matchups have something scary about them for UT. Vanderbilt’s defense is stingy. Kentucky is improving and is hosting UT on Halloween night. The Vols have never defeated Missouri, regardless of how bad they’ve looked early in the season, and who knows if an interim head coach might galvanize the Gamecocks a bit. Some of those games will at least be close in my opinion, and with UT 1-3 in tight contests so far this year, I could easily see them dropping one to one of those teams, even if they have the talent edge in every game.