What if? This has been the question burning in my mind since Tennessee destroyed Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.
The 2015-16 Tennessee football season was filled with its fair share of heartaches, more than I ever thought possible. Honestly, last year hurt worse for me than any season I can remember. Tennessee was so close to being perfect, but for whatever reason, they fell just short in the biggest moments.
That said, I don’t want to dwell on the heartache of last year because this is a new team with a new vision. Team 120 has a burning desire to go from above average to elite. Team 120 is filled with mature competitors. As Butch Jones so eloquently put it, “mature competitors are at their best when their best is required.” Well, their best is required right now.
Butch Jones is a football cliché machine, and quite frankly, I love it. When Butch arrived on Rocky Top four short years ago, he preached that he was going to build this program “brick by brick.” In my mind, he has fulfilled that promise. In 2013, I would compare the Tennessee football program to a leveled brick house. It still had some historic significance, but no program around the country feared the Tennessee brand. Here we are on the precipice of the 2016-17 college football season and I am confident in saying that every program in the country fears the Tennessee brand once again. This is a fear that Butch himself has delivered “brick by brick.” Butch Jones’ famous mantra has me singing the words of the immortal Practical Pig from the Three Little Pigs as he said:
“You can play and laugh and fiddle
Don’t think you can make me sore
I’ll be safe and you’ll be sorry
When the Wolf comes to your door”
Team 120 is prepared for the Big Bad Wolf!
I believe there are three position categories that determine a team’s ability to win big in the SEC. Fortunately for Tennessee, Team 120 will be dominant in all three (running game, defensive line, and special teams).
Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara are a special duo to put it mildly. The best running back tandem in college football, period. The perfect combination of Thunder and Lightning. Hurd’s bruising downhill style (which will likely break Tennessee’s all-time rushing record this year) mixed with Kamara’s shiftiness is enough to make the best defenders look average. They are scary enough as is, but you add to the equation the legs of Josh Dobbs and one of the most experienced offensive lines in the SEC, and they quickly become an absolute nightmare. Tennessee finished 2nd in the SEC last year with 223.7 yards per game, and I expect them to finish 2nd or better this year given they return 97.5% of their rushing yards. Good luck stopping the Tennessee rushing attack.
The defensive line is beyond loaded with talent with the Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen, Kyle Phillips, Darrell Taylor, LaTroy Lewis, Danny O’Brien, Kendal Vickers, Shy Tuttle, Kahlil McKenzie, Alexis Johnson, Jonathan Kongbo, Dimarya Mixon and others up front. That is a top-three SEC defensive line if I have ever seen one. Headlining this group is obviously Barnett, who has a chance to match the career sack total of the great Reggie White (in only 3 seasons that is).
They have an incredible mix of experience, depth, size, and speed. The talent alone speaks for itself, but you add in new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, and you have a nasty combination. Shoop historically prides himself on defensive line play, specifically his ability to stop the run. He is also phenomenal at bringing exotic pressures (hello Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr.), while playing sound defense on the back end. The SEC is a defensive league and the Shoop addition makes that side of the ball elite.
While special teams often get overlooked, I believe they are critical to the success of a great football team. Team 120’s special teams units will redefine the word special. Last season, Evan Berry ranked first in the NCAA and SEC in kickoff return average (38.3 yards), while also tying Willie Gault’s all-time Tennessee record of three kickoffs returned for a touchdown. Cam Sutton and Alvin Kamara are elite punt returners. Last year, Sutton averaged 18.7 yards/return and took two to the house. The return game is in good hands to say the least.
Special teams wouldn’t be complete without the kicking game and Trevor Daniel does not get the accolades he deserves. He truly came out of nowhere last year, but was critical to Tennessee’s success averaging 45.7 yards/punt. Aaron Medley struggled at placekicker early last season, but he finished strong and I expect that to continue. It is safe to say that Tennessee, as a whole, has the best special teams unit in the country.
The position categories above typically separate the good teams from great ones, but the quarterback position is also worth noting. Dobbs has been fairly criticized for his inability to throw the ball consistently, yet he remains one of the top two returning quarterbacks in the SEC. Dobbs certainly has some weaknesses in his game, but he more than makes up for them with his ability to improvise. He is a magician with the ball in his hands and he typically makes solid decisions. He also has a plethora of weapons at his disposal this year with added help at the wide receiver position, an experienced third-year starter at tight end (Ethan Wolf), and the backfield of Hurd/Kamara that I mentioned above.
While Dobbs has proven to be an above average quarterback for Tennessee, he has developed into an even better leader on and off the field. Dobbs is a young man that has the ability to carry this team on his shoulders and I fully expect him to do so. When the wins start to pile up for the Vols, don’t be surprised to hear the name Josh Dobbs in Heisman conversations!
Folks, the hype for Team 120 is real. So real that we won’t be asking any “what if” questions at the end of this season. Vol fans, go ahead and book your hotel rooms in Tampa because this Tennessee team is going 15-0! Your national champion will once again be clad in Big Orange!
Note: Opinion editorials published on RockyTopInsider.com do not necessarily reflect the views of the staff and/or ownership of RTI.