I see Stewart Mandel joins the list of pundits who pick the Vols to win the SEC East this season.
I’m not buying Tennessee as much as some (as you’ll see, I have them losing at home to Oklahoma), but I still see the Vols winning a mediocre East. Georgia and Tennessee both play Alabama as a crossover foe, but the Dawgs also have to visit Auburn while Tennessee hosts Arkansas.
Okay, so it’s not the most enthusiastic blessing you’ll ever see… in fact, I’m not even sure why, given the recent history in the series, Mandel sees Georgia traveling to Auburn as being that significant a difference from playing the Hogs in Knoxville. But taking it for the sake of argument as an acceptance that Tennessee is back, maybe not as a conference powerhouse so much as at least not hopelessly outclassed in the division any more, why so?
I get that the Vols have had two very strong recruiting classes in a row. But Tennessee is far from the only SEC team which can make that claim. And I also get that, as a result, the overall talent level of the team is better than it was under SOD. But that’s really damning with faint praise, given what went on with Tennessee recording between the end of Fulmer’s term and Jones’ arrival.
The 85-scholarship era has hurt power teams like Tennessee and Nebraska who reside in states that don’t produce much talent. The Vols specifically have been hurt by a string of coaching mishaps, from the messy exit of Phillip Fulmer to the one-and-done year of Lane Kiffin to the ineffective Derek Dooley. The thought of hiring a recruiting ace in Kiffin wasn’t bad in and of itself after declining results from Fulmer’s classes, but the strikeout rate on Fulmer’s final two and Kiffin’s one class is just crazy. Dooley turned out to be in over his head with the job anyway, but trying to dig out of that hole was never going to be an easy task for anyone.
It’s a deep, deep hole that Jones finds himself trying to climb out of, in other words. And the big issue there is depth.
The one part of the rebuild that Jones hasn’t had time to do yet is build true depth. Non-Vols fans out there can’t name Dobbs’s backup, and don’t say Nathan Peterman—he transferred to Pitt. There is basically nothing behind Hurd and Kamara at running back. Last year’s offensive line was a mess in part to turning over all five positions, and it’s unclear if this year’s will be leaps and bounds better or just kind of better. The defense is in better shape in this regard than the offense is, although linebacker other than Maggitt (who splits time as an end) and Reeves-Maybin is a question mark.
So what’s it gonna take for Tennessee to win the East in 2015? Some luck with health, some hope that the schedule cooperates (although Missouri, which is riding a three-game winning streak against UT, has a far easier path than the Vols do) and every other contending team in the division falling on their collective faces. And remember, this is a team and a coaching staff that has yet to find major success handling a conference slate. That’s a lot of reaches for a program that barely scraped into a bowl game a year ago. Admittedly, stranger things have happened. But that’s a pretty thin margin for error Jones has to work with.