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The East Keeps Opening Up For the Vols in 2016

Joshua Dobbs-1-3

I know, I know – there’s still a game to be played this season.

Tennessee has been diligently preparing for its matchup with Northwestern on Jan. 1 in the Outback Bowl, but as the team gets a few days off for a Christmas break, it’s a good time to look ahead a little bit to the season that Tennessee fans have been anticipating for a long time.

Sure, 2015 was a big one and enough pundits predicted the Vols to do big things that at least some of the fanbase bought in and got excited that this could’ve been the year that the Vols would go to Atlanta and maybe even play for more than that. Arguably, they should have. You probably know how the division would’ve shaken out if Tennessee got that one stop in Gainesville.

But 2016 is the year that most, deep down, have known is Tennessee’s best shot to put itself back on the national map. I don’t know exactly what it would take to do that – maybe a title, maybe a playoff appearance or maybe 10 wins and a New Year’s Six Bowl, possibly even a Citrus Bowl, appearance would do the trick. That all starts with winning the East, though. And that’s a task that at least seems to be more and more feasible for the Vols.

There’s still a bit of this season and then a lot of offseason in front of that for anything and everything to happen, but it’s difficult to find a more stable contending program in the East right now than what is in Knoxville.

Florida, a team that looked to be a juggernaut set to control the East for years just a couple months ago, limped down the stretch. Now many of the key figures from this 2015 surprise campaign are walking out the door. It started with the not-so-surprising news earlier this month that elite junior cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III will go pro early. At least four more key Gators have since left for one reason or another, including already-suspended quarterback Will Grier and starting running back Kelvin Taylor.

Add in the departure of key seniors defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard and linebacker Antonio Morrison, and there’s a lot to replace in Gainesville. A repeat division crown certainly isn’t impossible, but it’s difficult to say it’s super likely at this point either.

It’s been a crazy offseason for Georgia as well. A program that’s been a bastion of stability for the past 15 years will look significantly different in 2016. A fair amount of talent will still be there, and the return of Nick Chubb, to be paired with Sony Michel, gives the Bulldogs a backfield that can match up with anybody. But several key pieces on the offensive line and the defense are moving on. And it’s always tough to pick a team with a brand new coach and quarterback to win big in Year 1. It certainly happens – see Florida, 2015. There won’t be much excuse, however, for a team in Tennessee’s position to lose to an opponent in that situation.

It’s tough to envision sub-.500 South Carolina or Missouri stepping back into title consideration in their first years under coaches who aren’t proven winners. Kentucky and Vanderbilt can’t be seriously put in the conversation until they prove otherwise.

And it looks like the turmoil at Texas A&M, at least on paper, makes that trip feel more manageable for the Vols.

There’s a long way to go and a lot that could happen at Tennessee and elsewhere in the SEC that could shake things up. But it’s undeniable at this point that Tennessee heads into 2015 as the most stable contending team in the East. Possibly the most talented too.

There will be few, if any, excuses for Tennessee not to be in Atlanta in 2016.

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