Let the hype begin. Tennessee for SEC East champ in 2016. Or at least that’s what folks in Knoxville are thinking after the Volunteers put a beatdown on Northwestern in Friday’s Outback Bowl.
We’ve been down this road before, though. Just last year, people were talking up Tennessee after its big win in the TaxSlayer Bowl. How did that work out?
But the players are hungry. They know what all they have coming back next year.
“We’re not done,” Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs said after the bowl game. “We’re just scratching the surface. We know our potential. We know we have to work and grind to get there, but we know what we can do as a team.”
In the meantime, here are five questions facing the Vols this offseason.
1. How good can Dobbs be?
Nobody expected Dobbs, a three-star recruit in high school, to do much when he got to Tennessee. But he surprised some people when he was thrown in the fire his freshman year. Then he improved as a sophomore, making plays with both his arms and his legs. This season was his best yet. He threw for 2,291 yards, rushed for 671 yards and had a combined 26 touchdowns. So what’s next? The biggest knock on him would still be his throwing ability and accuracy. If he can improve that, there’s no telling how far this team can go.
2. Which underclassmen, if any, will bolt for the NFL?
If nobody leaves early, Tennessee will return nine starters on offense and eight on defense. That’s a big if, though, especially considering the season linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin had for the Vols. The junior led the team in tackles (105) and tackles for loss (14) and was second on the team with six sacks. Reeves-Maybin was among three Tennessee players who submitted paperwork to the NFL draft advisory for feedback on declaring early. The other two, running back Alvin Kamara and cornerback Cameron Sutton, are less likely to make the jump.
3. Will Curt Maggitt ever play for Tennessee again?
When healthy, Maggitt is one of the best players on this Tennessee defense. The problem is he has not been able to stay healthy. He tore his ACL in 2012, which forced him to miss the entire 2013 season. Then this year, in what was supposed to be his senior year, Maggitt injured his hip in the Week 2 loss to Oklahoma and never returned. There are some who believe Maggitt might seek a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA and return to Knoxville next season, but if healthy he could just as easily pursue his dream of playing in the NFL.
4. Who takes over at left tackle?
Underclassmen aside, the biggest loss for this Tennessee team will be the loss of senior left tackle Kyler Kerbyson. Over the last two seasons, Kerbyson started all 26 games, including 23 starts at left tackle. He was a constant, and he became the leader for the Vols’ offensive line when fellow senior Marcus Jackson went down in August with an injury. Behind him on the depth chart is true freshman Chance Hall and redshirt junior Dontavius Blair. The two will likely compete for the starting job when the team returns to practice in the spring.
5. How do the Vols deal with expectations?
This might be the biggest question this offseason. Everybody knows Tennessee will be a contender in the East. A lot of folks will pick them to win the division. How will the Vols react to having the target on their backs? Some teams, namely Alabama, feed off that pressure. It makes them stronger. But Tennessee had letdowns this year against Oklahoma and Florida that make you wonder about whether this team can finally get over the hump. Their mentality and their preparation this offseason will be critical to their success in 2016.