Rocky Top is in for an interesting few months. The Vols are about to go directly under the microscope, getting poked and prodded like never before with all the attention and scrutiny flying their way.
No, Tennessee didn't win the SEC Eastern Division in 2015, as Atlanta was merely a pipe dream after back-to-back collapses against Florida and Arkansas before the midway point of the 2015 season.
This was far from a playoff team, but after finishing the season with six straight wins, including an absolute drubbing of No. 13 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, Tennessee is going to soar up the short list of Eastern contenders in 2016. With the talent staying and the state of the division, Tennessee has favorite status, and it will be hard not to consider the Vols the front-runner.
That's a term that Tennessee fans abhor and Tennessee haters love to see strapped to the Vols. Recently, it seems like whenever Tennessee receives hype or praise before the games are played, the season turns into a relative disappointment.
Even though people around the program were adamant about 2016 being the real year for complete turnaround, Tennessee fell under the infamous "sleeper" tag in 2015. However, after a 2-3 start in which every loss was suffered at the hands of relinquishing a double-digit lead, it seemed like time to once again bury the Vols.
That was until they quietly won five straight before crushing Northwestern 45-6.
We didn't know what to think of this Tennessee team until that bowl blowout. The five straight wins to close the regular season came against teams that didn't finish with winning records. Three of those teams -- Kentucky, South Carolina and North Texas -- ranked 86th or worse nationally in defensive efficiency.
Then, Tennessee whooped Northwestern. The Vols piled up 420 yards and five rushing touchdowns on the nation's No. 5 defense, in terms of efficiency, and forced four turnovers. It was complete annihilation by a team that we now consider was the SEC East's best team at the end of the year -- despite Florida winning the division.
So with last week's triumphant finish in the books, Tennessee will likely become the trendy pick to win the East in 2016. Equipped with a solid group of talent on both sides of the ball in a wacky division with new head coaches at Georgia and Missouri and an enigmatic reigning division champ, Tennessee has no reason not to fight for a top spot in the SEC.
It's put-up time in Knoxville. We've waited and waited for this program to rise to the top of the league, or at least its division, but time and time again stumbling blocks have derailed those hopes. Front-runner status has tortured this team, but many around the program believe that the stars are aligning for Butch Jones and his players, whose core is mostly made up of back-to-back top-five recruiting classes.
It's not a stretch to say Tennessee currently has the East's most complete team.
The headliner is soon-to-be senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who will return in 2016 as the SEC's best dual-threat quarterback. While he still has a ways to go with his throwing ability, his impeccable running skill keeps defenses honest. He threw for 2,291 yards (completing 59.6 percent of his passes) with 15 touchdowns. He ran for another 671 yards and 11 scores, both highs for SEC quarterbacks.
Dobbs will have plenty of help, too. All-SEC talent Jalen Hurd returns at running back after rushing for 1,288 yards and 12 touchdowns, and four starters along the offensive line are back. So are three of Dobbs' top four receiving threats, and the hope is that former standout Marquez North will be healthier in 2016.
The defense should return just about everyone in its front seven, including All-SEC defensive end Derek Barnett, who has 20 sacks and 33 tackles for loss in two seasons. Getting linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin back for his senior season would also be a major win for this defense. However, the Vols will say goodbye to senior safety Brian Randolph, and it will be hard for cornerback Cameron Sutton to turn down his potential first-round draft status. The good news is that Tennessee has a solid, athletic group to work with in the secondary.
And you know Jones is serious about taking that next step because he fired defensive coordinator John Jancek after three seasons. The Vols ranked seventh in the SEC in defense (362 yards per game), fifth in scoring defense (20 points per game) and 26th nationally in defensive efficiency (68.6) this season, but those three early losses were plagued by defensive collapses.
Jones knows he has to shore up any deficiencies if the Vols are going to make a serious run in 2016. He's getting out in front of the hype machine, but that won't last. It's an unshakable beast that the Vols must finally overcome, to prove they belong at the SEC's table of elites.