Vols embrace higher expectations, status as favorite in 2016

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs doesn't hide from the Vols' three losses in 2015 that resulted from squandered double-digit leads.

Dobbs isn't proud of losses to Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas that should have never happened, but he does use last year's failures as this year’s learning tools. And he sees them as more reasons why everyone should be jumping on the Vols’ creamsicle-colored bandwagon in 2016.

“We see that we can play with anyone,” Dobbs said. “We had leads in all four of our [losses ...] and we’ve learned how to close out games. Those four losses, even though they hurt last year, they’ll definitely help us this season.”

Somehow, that team finished 9-4. It ended the year with six straight wins, including a 45-6 drubbing of No. 13 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. Now, thanks to the return of Dobbs, one of the few genuinely experienced SEC quarterbacks suiting up this fall, as well as nearly 20 starters in all, Tennessee is a trendy pick in 2016. Indeed, with the quarterback issues throughout the East and new coaches at Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri, it's hard not to pick Tennessee to represent the East Division in Atlanta.

“We hear expectations outside of the program and those things you really can’t see yourself in,” cornerback Cameron Sutton said. “Some of them are good expectations, some of them are out the window.”

Welcome (almost) back, Tennessee. Whether your stay at the top is long or short-lived will be determined by how you handle the increased attention and scrutiny going forward.

Whether hype means anything or not, Dobbs said he embraces the championship-level expectations returning to Knoxville. For a program that hasn’t won 10 games since 2007 (three coaches ago), having this sort of attention isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Dobbs said, but it’s important that players stay grounded.

“We see the preseason rankings that we’re picked [to win the East] and win however many games, but we know from last year that all the preseason stuff really doesn’t matter once the first kickoff comes,” he said.

However, few could blame the Vols for loving this. Nine offensive and eight defensive starters are back. Some injuries cut some valuable practice time for guys like Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Evan Berry and Chance Hall this spring, but coach Butch Jones has finally loaded this team with the quality depth it needs in most areas, thanks to back-to-back No. 5 recruiting classes in 2014 and 2015.

The immediate talent on both sides of the ball is the best it’s been in years, starting with Dobbs, who totaled 3,020 yards of offense and 27 touchdowns last year. Assisting him is one of the league’s best running back duos in Jalen Hurd (1,288 yards and 12 touchdowns) and Alvin Kamara (698 and seven), along with four starters on the offensive line. Four of Dobbs’ top five receiving targets are also back.

The defense, however, could see the biggest positive changes this year. The hiring of Bob Shoop as defensive coordinator was a major upgrade, one that will have this defense flying around even more with Shoop’s aggressive, blitz-happy style.

It doesn’t hurt that most of the front seven is back and, like Reeves-Maybin, Sutton turned away from a possible first-round NFL draft selection to return to school. One of the league’s best cover corners, Sutton (32 passes defended and six interceptions) heads an athletic and fast group in a secondary that will learn from a coach who has seen his defenses register 74 interceptions over the past five seasons.

“We’re fast on defense,” said Barnett, who has 33 tackles for loss and 20 sacks in two seasons. “Speed-wise, we can fly around from sideline to sideline. Us being young and having a bunch of speed, that’s gonna help us win a bunch of ball games when we’re aggressive and we’re attacking these offenses.”

So much is in store for this program – both good and bad – in 2016. Hype isn't the only obstacle, as a Title IX lawsuit that involves allegations against former players, as well as one that Jones told a former player he "betrayed the team" by helping a woman who said she was sexually assaulted by two of his teammates, hovers over the university.

Dobbs said it hasn’t been a distraction this spring. Players are aware but shifting their focus elsewhere. It's working now, but it’s impossible to tell what this situation will look like in September and how this team will react then.

Still, Dobbs isn’t worried about his team's mindset. He calls it the “hardest working team I’ve ever been around.” It’ll have to be this fall because false idols are doomed in this league and Tennessee must avoid the trap that's cost so many teams before it.

“We have our own expectations for ourselves,” Dobbs said. “We hear the outside stuff – you can’t miss it – but we have to focus on just doing our jobs and coming out ready to play in September.”