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South Carolina 2016 opponent preview: Tennessee’s skill, talent make them SEC East favorite

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The Vols’ biggest issue last year was finishing games. They should have that problem solved in 2016.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Northwestern vs Tennessee Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s one words that can describe 2015 Tennessee football, it’s this: Snakebitten. Volunteers fans were probably thinking of other words during the course of the season while watching the below scenarios unfold, but kids might be reading this so I’ll refrain from putting them here.

How many close losses can one team endure? They frittered away a 14-point fourth quarter lead against Oklahoma in an overtime loss at home, then gave up a eventual game-winning touchdown to Florida two weeks later on 4th and 14 with 86 seconds remaining (barely missing a game-winning field goal), dropped a four-point decision to Arkansas, and gave up a game-winning score to Alabama with less than two and a half remaining. At the risk of hyperbole, this team at the very worst was a few plays away from an undefeated season, if not a spot in the College Football Playoff.

There’s no questioning the talent on this roster as it is easily the most dangerous in the East from top to bottom. The dynamic Joshua Dobbs (more on him in a second) returns for his senior season and could shoot up the draft boards with another solid season. Two of Dobbs’ top three targets (Josh Malone and Josh Smith) are back, the two-headed monster at RB (Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara) is ready to go, and all but one starter on the offensive line returns. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (105 tackles, 14 TFLs, six sacks), DE Derek Barnett (10 sacks, 12.5 TFLs), and versatile corner Cameron Sutton return to anchor a very strong defense. Conventional wisdom, especially with so much coming back from last year, says that this should be one of the most dangerous teams in 2016. It’s just a matter of finishing games.

Best returning player: Joshua Dobbs

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Northwestern vs Tennessee Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This could have been one of several players, but the depth of Dobbs’ game makes him probably the biggest key to the Vols’ success in 2016. He not only threw for 2,291 yards and 15 touchdowns, he registered 11 scores and nearly 700 yards on the ground. Not Chad Kelly numbers by any stretch, but enough to make him the best signal caller in the East by a long shot - and maybe the best player in the division, period. It’s a huge plus for Tennessee to have such a talented dual threat quarterback and not one, but two skilled running backs in sophomore Alvin Kamara (107 carries/698 yards/7 TDs on the ground and 34 catches/291 yards/3 TDs receiving and Jalen Hurd (1,285 yards rushing, 12 TDs). Kamara and Hurd could probably sustain a team on their own, but Dobbs is the one that stirs the drink and makes things go for this Tennessee squad.

Prognosis: The Vols’ pre-open week schedule won’t be a cake walk: a very good Appalachian State team; Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway; Ohio; Florida; at Georgia; at Texas A&M; and Alabama. Things open up after the bye as the remaining five games are against FCS Tennessee State and four teams projected to finish at the bottom half of the league table. Although they’ll be looking to get conference play off on the right foot against Florida in Week 4, they can ill afford to look past their first three games against their non-league foes, because neither of those squads are no slouch. While I’m of the belief that this squad has learned from last year’s disappointments and probably has the strongest chance to get to the SEC Championship Game at this point in time, let’s not forget: the Gamecocks played them close at Neyland last season. Who knows what October 29 at Williams-Brice will bring?