Daniel: Not ready to call a win over Alabama yet, but you certainly have to like Tennessee’s chances better than any other year since maybe 2006 or 2007. Alabama loses a ton – its quarterback, running back, a couple key offensive linemen, most of the defensive front seven and a couple big parts of the secondary. But as always, at least in the Nick Saban era, there’s a lot of talent behind most of those spots, and wide receiver, in particular, looks extremely loaded for the Tide next year.
And in terms of it being the best chance to win a championship this decade –I’m going to make a bold statement and say yes. I know UT fans hope the future only gets brighter and brighter after 2016, and maybe it will, but there are a lot of stars aligned for 2016. The non-conference schedule is manageable, the crossover West opponent (Texas A&M) is in a bit of disarray right now, the East is down, Alabama and Florida are in Knoxville, UT has the most experienced QB in the SEC, a ton of returning starters all over and at least a couple studs in Jalen Hurd and Derek Barnett that will playing for draft stock.
Nathanael: What’s it say about my confidence in UT’s ability to beat Florida that I actually think the Vols have a better chance of beating Alabama than the Gators this year? Yes, Florida should be as down as they’ve ever been, but we’ve all said that the past two or three years. Bama loses a ton after this year, but they’ll likely just be able to reload like usual. But I do think having them in Neyland in 2016 is a huge plus, and the Vols played them to the wire this past year. With more experience and even more play-makers on the squad in 2016, the Vols very well might just do it.
And as far as this being the year the Vols win a championship: No. If I had to pick a winner of the SEC East with a gun to my head, I’d pick the Vols. But I don’t think they can win the SEC Championship. And by extension, no national championship either.
“What young players that didn’t play much, or at all, this year do you see breaking out next season?” – @Chuck_Des
Daniel: Watch out for the freshman receivers – Vincent Perry and Preston Williams – who had injury issues in 2015. They have very different skills sets, but both have a lot of raw talent if it can all be put together. I think Drew Richmond gets a look at the offensive tackle job, but can’t project him as the starter yet. Rashaan Gaulden, coming off the injury as a redshirt sophomore next year, should start in 2016. Micah Abernathy, Austin Smith and Darrell Taylor are some other young guys I saw get better as the season went on in games and/or practice and should have a role next year.
Nathanael: Might be a couple obvious choices, but I think Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie are going to be monsters this year. We already say Tuttle starting to find himself before he got hurt, and McKenzie came on strong to finish the season. Those two should be the starters next year at defensive tackle, and I think they are definite breakout candidates.
“What’s the deal w/ the Kyle Phillips to Vandy talk?” – Jake Tidwell
“Will there be a QB transfer and very interested in the Kyle Phillips talk – Dale Neblett
Daniel: The quarterback question was asked before the Sheriron Jones news broke, so there’s the answer there. And I’ve seen the Phillips rumors floating around, but can’t validate anything at this time. To my knowledge, he’ll be back, but I also think there will be at least a few transfers – it’s just part of college football. Tennessee fans should just hope they’re bottom-half of the roster type guys.
Nathanael: There will definitely be a few more transfers to happen in the coming weeks, but I don’t think Phillips is one of them. I wouldn’t be surprised if one was a guy, much like Derrell Scott of last year, who is in line for more playing time but transfers for some other reason. I don’t have any candidates myself, but we’ve seen it happen all across the SEC. No reason why the Vols should be exempt.
“Which was rougher: Jalen’s stiff-arm or Chewbacca going off after?” – @DavidMaxedon
Daniel: That stiff arm from Hurd was just nasty. He threw a DEFENSIVE LINEMAN like it was nothing.
Nathanael: For those of you who haven’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens yet, turn away now because there are SPOILERS in this answer.
Jalen Hurd’s was rougher from a nasty perspective. What he did isn’t legal to do to other people off the football field. Chewbacca’s reaction is rougher on the emotions, however. His reaction to Han’s death still gets me.
“Any word on Kamara, Sutton, and JRM, are they staying one more season with the Vols?” – Chad Odom
Daniel They have until Jan. 15 to decide. My best guesses? Sutton goes, JRM and Kamara stay. In most cases, I think you should go if you’re a top-100 picks. I think Sutton will be, not sure on the others at this point.
Nathanael: I absolutely think Sutton is going. I’m a little worried about JRM because of the health of his dad apparently being a motivating factor for him to leave early, but I think Kamara would be wiser to stay. I think the Vols will use him a lot more next year if he does.
“The Vols should’ve beaten Florida the past 2 years. But if we lose next year with their QB situation, where will Butch stand?” – Miles Hall
Daniel: There’s no excuse for losing to Florida next year. That being said, you can’t evaluate an entire season on one game – regardless of the ridiculousness of the losing streak at this point. If, hypothetically, that’s UT’s only loss or if the Vols lose that and one other and still win the East, that’s still a good season most likely. If they lose three or four, including that one to Florida, that’ll put Butch on some shaky ground, no doubt.
Nathanael: Like Daniel said, it depends on how many other losses the Vols have and if they still win the East or not. Regardless, the week or so after the Florida loss would be HELL for Jones. Again. But it would likely be worse than last year given, as you said, the quarterback position and the fact that it’s at Neyland and will likely be the Checker Neyland game this year again. You can’t judge a season by one game unless it keeps you from playing for a championship, and I sure hope that’s not the case with the Florida game if they lose.
“Who’s your favorite new Star Wars character in The Force Awakens? And if you haven’t seen it, what’s wrong with you?” – Doug Brooks
Daniel: I finally saw it over the break so I’m narrowly avoiding the “what’s wrong with you” part of the question. I really liked all the new characters, and though it’s not too creative, I think Rey and Finn were my favorites. Rey just felt so natural as a big part of the storyline and it was interesting to see the backstory of a stormtrooper in Finn’s case.
Nathanael: Doug, you have to ask the toughest question on here, don’t you? I mean my honest and totally biased answer is Rey because I have a major crush on both her and Daisy Ridley. But if I had to pick someone who wasn’t the main character, I would have to say either Poe or Kylo Ren. I always like the bad guys, and Ren is spectacular. And I can’t wait to see more about Poe.
“Does Mike DeBord have any reason to be worried about his job???” – Ricky Angel
Daniel: Simply put, no, not this offseason. Though there were certainly a few questionable calls, conservative moments and some regression in the passing game, he did accomplish his No. 1 task exceedingly well: he brought physicality back to the offense. That’s what Butch Jones wanted from him and that’s what he got. He’s not going anywhere this offseason.
Nathanael: Nope. He’s Butch’s guy, led the team to their second-highest rushing total in school history, and didn’t do enough bad to warrant any hot seat talk whatsoever. As frustrating as the passing game was and as irritated as I was at times with the offense, even I have to admit he’s totally safe right now.
Many people asked thoughts on defensive coordinator situation:
Daniel: It’s a question that simply can’t be answered right now – I need to see who they hire and how he fits. John Jancek did a good job at Tennessee – I firmly believe that. He took over a broken defense and made major improvements in several areas to make the Vols competitive on that side of the ball. Can somebody else take the Vols to the next level or at least forward another step? I think so. But I also think Jancek was a good SEC defensive coordinator, and Jones should be very careful here. Fit, continuity and getting “1% better” have all been things Jones talks a lot about when building his program. Jancek seemed to check all those boxes for the Vols, so Jones should feel some heat if the defense regresses next year.
Nathanael: I agree with what Daniel says and will add this: Give me Bob Shoop or a guy with a proven track record and I’m happy. Do not under any circumstances hire a position coach with “upside” to be the defensive coordinator heading into your most pivotal year as head coach. We’ve seen how that plays out at Tennessee.