Coach: Butch Jones (12-13 entering third season; 62-40 overall)
2014 results: 7-6 (3-5 in SEC, fourth in SEC East)
Tennessee is counting on quarterback Joshua Dobbs to help spark the Vols’ offense.
Look back: Tennessee stood 3-5 after the program’s ninth straight loss to Alabama – a hard-fought 34-20 decision – and on the way to another disappointing season. But a quarterback switch against the Crimson Tide to third-stringer Joshua Dobbs would breathe new life into coach Butch Jones’ second season with the Vols.
Tennessee rallied behind the sophomore to win four of its final five games and finish 7-6. The Vols capped their season with a 45-28 win over of Iowa in the Taxslayer Bowl that marked the school’s first postseason victory since 2008.
The 6-foot-3 Dobbs’ dual-threat abilities were highlighted when he rushed for 166 yards and three scores during a 45-42 overtime win against South Carolina. The Vols were 4-2 during his six games and enter the season a contender in the SEC East.
Offensive starters returning: 9
Offensive starters lost: 2
Defensive starters returning: 9
Defensive starters lost: 2
Key losses: QB Justin Worley, LB A.J. Johnson, CB Justin Coleman, WR Vic Wharton, DT Jordan Williams
Top returnees: QB Joshua Dobbs, RB Jalen Hurd, WR Pig Howard, WR Von Pearson, WR Marquez North, DE Derek Barnett, DE Curt Maggitt, CB Cameron Sutton, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, S Brian Randolph
Strengths: The Vols are loaded at defensive end, running back and receiver. Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett combined for 21 sacks last season, 11 by Maggitt. Tailback Jalen Hurd, a hard-running 6-foot-3, 227-pound sophomore, debuted with 899 rushing yards as a freshman.
Big things also are expected of Dobbs. With him at quarterback, Tennessee averaged nearly 100 more yards of offense. The junior will benefit from the return of a deep receiving corps. Orlando Edgewater standout Pig Howard (54 catches, 618 yards, one touchdown in 2014), Von Pearson (38 catches, 393 yards, five touchdowns) and Marquez North (30 catches, 320 yards, four touchdowns) form one of the SEC’s most explosive trios.
Besides Maggitt and Barnett, the Vols’ defense returns leading tackler Jalen Reeves-Maybin (101 stops in 2014) and cornerback Cameron Sutton, an All-SEC candidate and one of three starters back in the secondary.
Weaknesses: Jones has landed two consecutive top-10 recruiting classes, but the Vols are young, leading the coach to question whether Tennessee has the same depth as the conference’s elite programs. No other quarterback outside of Dobbs, for example, has taken a college snap.
Outside of his defensive ends and Sutton, Tennessee also needs another difference-maker on defense. The Vols started five new offensive linemen in 2014 and return four of them. But the unit has to show more consistency for Tennessee to reach its goals on offense.
Kicker Aaron Medley was 1-of-6 on field goals of 40 yards or longer. Meanwhile, punter Matt Darr will be missed.
Outlook: The Vols have momentum and high expectations. Tennessee also has some history to overcome. The team’s last winning SEC season was in 2007. Tennessee last beat its primary rivals – Florida, Alabama and Georgia – a decade ago.
Jones’ squad is loaded at the skill positions on offense, but needs Dobbs to stay healthy and the offensive line to develop if Tennessee is to challenge for the East title.
Sept. 5 Bowling Green (in Nashville)
Sept. 12 Oklahoma
Sept. 19 Western Carolina
Sept. 26 at Florida
Oct. 3 Arkansas
Oct. 10 Georgia
Oct. 24 at Alabama
Oct. 31 at Kentucky
Nov. 7 South Carolina
Nov. 14 North Texas
Nov. 21 at Missouri
Nov. 28 Vanderbilt
College Football / College Basketball Handicapper. 2011 won 74%, 2012 won 72% 2015 SPECIAL. CALL, 877.WIN.ATS9 EMAIL,V@VincentRizzoSports.com