Tennessee’s recurring theme over the past few years may as well be “missed opportunities”. In 2015, they won nine games, but their four losses were by a combined 17 points. In 2016, they won their first five games (capped by a stirring last-second victory at Georgia), but dropped their next three, the last one to South Carolina, to see their early-season momentum disappear.
So what will 2017 hold?
The first, most important thing to note about Tennessee is that they’ll be without several of their key offensive weapons. Joshua Dobbs has graduated and was drafted by the Steelers in the fourth round. Running/receiving threat Alvin Kamara decided to declare for the NFL Draft and went to the Saints in the third round. Leading receiver Josh Malone gave up his senior year and, like Dobbs, was taken in the fourth round. But one of the more significant departures came in the backfield with Jalen Hurd, hampered by injury in 2016, and his transfer to Baylor.
So, yes, things could be a little better in that department. The hope is that Quinten Dormady, on the strength of a good spring, can slide into Dobbs’ vacant slot at QB. Jauan Jennings is the likely spotlight wideout and should be Dormady’s primary target. John Kelly will be a player to watch at the running back slot as he showed well last year after taking the reins for the injured Hurd, but incoming freshman Ty Chandler could push him and, if he lives up to expectations, could give the Vols a nice one-two punch. Keep your eye on another freshman: Trey Smith, the highly-regarded in-state OL, could push to get himself in the rotation early on.
But Tennessee’s most significant losses from last year weren’t on offense; it was on defense as a pair of anchors on the defensive line - Derek Barnett (13 sacks, 19 TFLs) and Corey Vereen (seven sacks, 11.5 TFLs) are both gone. In fact, with Danny O’Brien being kicked off the team in October, only Kendal Vickers remains from the Vols’ starting front four a season ago. The jury might be still out on tackle Kahlil McKenzie - banged up last year after being recruited as the #6 player in the country in 2015 - but the team has to be encouraged at the potential of former JUCO transfer Jonathan Kongbo after a good campaign last year behind Barnett at end. However, that defensive front will be a group to keep an eye on as it is the area of most uncertainty for Tennessee. Fortunately for the Vols, apart from Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton, the D is largely intact, especially with players like Todd Kelly and Micah Abernathy at safety and Rashaan Gaulden at nickel. Plus, they get a big boost with the addition of former Louisville corner Shaq Wiggins.
Will the Vols be able to avenge their loss to Carolina last year at Williams-Brice? If the (relatively) new faces up front on defense and on offense are able to gel for them, and their linebacking corps and secondary can play to their strengths, they’ll hold serve at Neyland. But if their new-look offense and d-line don’t enough by the time this one rolls around, that might be a part of their game the Gamecocks could exploit.