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2015 season preview: Tennessee Volunteers

Joshua Dobbs' performance down the stretch has raised expectations at Tennessee, but the Vols are still a young team. AP Photo/Wade Payne

For going on eight months, we've listened as Tennessee Volunteers coach Butch Jones has done his best to downplay expectations.

It's been a smart move for a coach that knows his team is still young and thin at a lot of positions. Relieving even the slightest sense of pressure could go a long way.

But the hype machine doesn't care. It doesn't listen to reason. It sees four- and five-star talent, sizes up a weak SEC East and pegs Tennessee as the primary challenger to Georgia in the division.

Ready or not, here come the Vols.

2014 record: 7-6

Most important player: For two years, Butch Jones and his coaching staff tried unsuccessfully to hide Joshua Dobbs with a redshirt, only to have injuries intervene. But along the way Dobbs gained valuable experience, starting nine games. When the Vols won five of their final seven games last season, it was with Dobbs as the starter, scoring 17 touchdowns while turning the ball over six times. If he can keep up that kind of production, then the sky's the limit on offense. With Marquez North, Von Pearson and Pig Howard at receiver, Ethan Wolf at tight end and Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara at tailback, Dobbs will have plenty of weapons to work with.

Breakout player: He started all 13 games, had seven tackles for loss in a single game, eight in another and finished tied for the team lead in total tackles. But who is talking about c these days? For better or worse, he was overshadowed by fellow linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt last season. But with Johnson now gone, maybe it's Reeves-Maybin's time. The 225-pound junior isn't on many preseason all-SEC teams, but with another 100-tackle season, he should find his way into the spotlight.

Most important game: As big and as hyped as the Oklahoma game will be, it's not the most important game on the schedule. Rather, spin ahead a few weeks to the start of SEC play and a trip to Gainesville, Florida, to face the Gators. Granted, UF isn't what it once was. But Tennessee should have beaten the Gators at home last season and didn't, and going on the road to The Swamp will be an important moment for a team that's still awfully young and growing with confidence. With Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama the next three games on the schedule, the trip to Gainesville could be seen as a must-win.

Biggest question mark: Depth, depth, depth. It all comes down to depth for the Vols this season. Their top-level players are good enough to compete right now. But what's beyond Dobbs at quarterback? A true freshman. And who's behind Cameron Sutton and Derek Barnett on defense? To be honest, we're not exactly sure. Jones has turned over the roster dramatically the last few years and started so many freshmen that he's unintentionally created a void of experience on the bench. If there are no significant injuries this season, it won't matter. But when faced with the grind of an SEC schedule, is that a realistic possibility?

Class of 2015 signee to watch: Defensive end Derek Barnett had a major impact on the Tennessee defensive line last season, and the Vols are hoping monster defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie (6-4, 341) will have a similar impact this year. McKenzie certainly has all the physical tools to be successful on the college level, and if the fifth-ranked defensive tackle in the 2015 class can pick up the mental part of the game, he should find himself on the field early and often as a true freshman. -- Derek Tyson

Class of 2016 storyline: Tennessee has finished with the fifth-ranked recruiting class in each of the last two years and is hoping to continue that trend. As it stands, the Volunteers have the 15th-ranked class in the recruiting class rankings and have a total of 15 commits, including six which are ranked in the ESPN 300. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano leads the way for this talented Tennessee recruiting class. He did very well at the Elite 11 over the summer, and at 6-foot-4 and 194 pounds, he has all the tools to be a big-time player on the next level. The Vols are hoping a successful season on the field will lead to even more success on the recruiting front. -- Derek Tyson

Best-case scenario: Everyone stays healthy, Dobbs has a big year and Tennessee upsets Georgia to win the East. Now whether that would lead to an SEC championship and a trip to the College Football Playoff, that’s another story. But if McKenzie and Shy Tuttle can play beyond their years as freshmen and help the depth of the defensive line, there’s a chance the Vols can reach the double-digit win mark. And in a down East division, that could be enough.

Worst-case scenario: Keep in mind that for all the improvement Tennessee made last season, the Vols didn’t beat a ranked team. And they had to win five of their final six games to finish above .500. So how is it that they go from 7-6 to competing for a division title? Without quality depth (i.e., experience), that’s a tall task. Injuries will hit at the wrong time and the Vols’ title hopes will be put on hold for another year.

2015 prediction: By beating Oklahoma at home, don’t be surprised if the Vols jump out to a 4-0 record and indulge the already considerable hype surrounding the program. But that run of Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama in consecutive games is going to be brutal. In the end, the Vols will show significant improvement, yet have only one more win than last year’s record to show for it.