Ever since former UT head football coach Lane Kiffin left the program in shambles, the Vols have experienced a tough road and now Butch Jones is primed to lead the Vols back to national championship territory. Joe Cox at Saturday Down South shows us how Tennessee can have a dream or drought season.
After a relatively lengthy down cycle for the program, things shape up well for the Tennessee Volunteers as they prepare for the 2016 season.
How well? Well enough that the Vols are the odds-on favorite to win the SEC East for the first time since 2007, are considered to have a fair shot at an SEC title, and are a dark horse candidate for the BCS title playoff.
But in a program that is just a few years removed from a streak of losing seven games five times in six seasons, there is a possibility of underachieving. Considering both Vol fan dreams or disasters, here are the best and worst of all possible worlds for UT in 2016. Let’s tee it up!
5. Streak busted! On Sept. 24, the Volunteers end their 11 game losing streak to the Florida Gators in Neyland Stadium. Let’s be honest — the streak is kind of fluke-ish at this point. (Fourth-and-14 on their own 37 … for a game-winning touchdown?) Florida, even in some terrible seasons, has managed to beat Tennessee, even while the East title fell to South Carolina or Missouri. But with UT likely to be 3-0 heading into this game and with a daunting three-week run at Georgia, at Texas A&M, and against Alabama following, this game can not only end UT’s Florida curse, but also springboard the Vols to bigger things.
4. Owning the East: Following a win against Florida, UT goes to Georgia and wins between the hedges, taking control of the battle for the East. In that division, it’s dangerous to assume anything, but wins over Florida and Georgia should almost clinch the division for the Vols. Tennessee’s proven two-headed offensive monster, with Joshua Dobbs passing or running, and with Jalen Hurd or Alvin Kamara running as well, stands to be the most potent attack in the East, if not the entire SEC.
3. Turning the Tide: Beat Alabama — either at Neyland on Oct. 15 or in the SEC title game, preferably both. Tennessee’s other losing streak — nine games to the Tide — is a little easier to understand than the Florida streak. It also would be a bigger milestone to end, be it in the regular season or in the SEC title game, with a likely playoff semifinal spot on the line.
2. Hurd for Heisman: On his way to a nearly 2,000 yard season, and fresh off an upset of Alabama, Hurd becomes UT’s first Heisman Trophy winner. He gives a shout out to Peyton Manning in his victory speech, and his huge performance lifts UT into a top-ranked recruiting class for 2017.
1. Party like it’s 1998: Hurd and an opportunistic UT defense race into the playoff championship game, and take down Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes for UT’s first national title since 1998. Butch Jones signs an extension through 2028, and the UT administration has to begin playing an annual home game in Bristol, just to satisfy the ticket demands of rabid Vol fans throughout the south.
5. Butch bolts? Several of the above actually come to pass—maybe Nos. 4 and 5 for instance, and after a 10-win season and a New Year’s Day bowl game, Jones bolts for the NFL. All of the gains of the last several seasons fade away, and a new coach — is that Peyton Manning’s music? — has to try to keep the ship on course.
4. Playoff letdown: Tennessee wins the SEC, and at least sends Hurd to New York for the Heisman ceremony, but gets overconfident and comes out flat in the semifinal, getting boat-raced by Meyer and Ohio State, paving the way for OSU to beat Oklahoma in the national title game, amidst constant sniping that the SEC is overrated.
3. Dobbs injured: Dobbs tears an ACL in Week 2 at Bristol, and Quinten Dormady, while a serviceable replacement, can’t end the streaks to Florida or ‘Bama, and loses at Georgia and A&M. An 8-4 UT team finishes third in the East, makes a lower-tier bowl, but leaves Vols fans wondering if Jones is really the man to lead UT back to glory.
2. Still can’t finish: Tennessee has another season where it is snake-bit in close games. In the polar opposite of last year’s Florida game, the Gators win a 10-7 stunner when they stop UT on 4th-and-1 four times. Against Alabama, Tennessee appears to have the game won, but a blocked field goal to end the game is flagged when a Tennessee player takes off his helmet in celebration. Given a second chance, ‘Bama scores and wins. Will Muschamp has his crowning moment of 2016 when the Gamecocks stun UT on a blown coverage in the last minute. Tennessee goes 7-5, with all of the losses coming by six points or less. Firebutchjones.com becomes a real thing and a popular one.
1. Legal woes: The NCAA, doubling back on its inaction on the North Carolina academic scandal, decides, in its typically random non-logic, to punish Tennessee for the allegations made in the Title IX civil suit. The Vols are banned from bowl games, and flounder their way to an 8-4 season, after which Jones leaves for Ohio State, where Urban Meyer just won another national title and promptly retired again.