Down and Distance: THE BRICK BY BRICK ROAD TO ATLANTA

Previewing and Predicting Tennessee’s 2016 Match-ups.

 

There is only one thing standing between Tennessee and their long-delayed return to the SEC Championship Game in December: their opponents. There will inevitably be other factors that will try to derail the Vols, but those are even harder to predict. There will inevitably be weird weather, injuries, and the general distractions of 18-21 year old men. There will also be a high-profile rape trial in Sept for former captain AJ Johnson, and former defensive back Michael Williams. How the team will respond to that, if at all, is hard to predict. That, however, is for another column. For now, we must be satisfied previewing the 2016 slate of enemies, discuss their likely strengths and weaknesses, and dream a little dream about the outcome. Because it’s July, every Vol fan is constantly dragged between feelings of doom and glory. It’s as easy to imagine an undefeated year, as it is to imagine another 2015, where Tennessee regularly snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. We feel these things just like you do, but we’ll do our best to base these guesses on what is known. HERE WE GO:

 

9/3 vs Appalachia State.   Their name will be remembered forever, and their appearance on any major program’s schedule will forever invoke concern. THE Appalachia State, the one who brought the Michigan Wolverines (granted, a depleted version) to their knees in The Big House. Last year, the Mountaineers proved themselves worthy of their arrival in FBS by winning the Sun Belt and going on to win the Camellia Bowl. Tennessee will come into this game with plenty of things to distract them, from the constantly-increasing summer hype to the Battle at Bristol against Virginia Tech. Appalachia is not the kind of team you can look past. Fortunately, thanks to the Wolverines, no major program will ever look past them again. State returns a fun QB/RB tandem, but will simply be outclassed in this one. TENNESSEE 52, APP STATE 17.

 

9/10 vs Virginia Tech. It’s actually, finally happening. Vols vs The Hokies, in the largest college football event in history, taking place at the Bristol Motor Speedway, before a sold out crowd of a measly 150K people. No pressure. This game got far more unpredictable when Frank Beamer retired as coach of the Hokies last year. VT managed to snag highly-prized Memphis coach Justin Fuentes and his flashy, high-flying offense. Unfortunately for VT, the Vols went out and made a hire of their own, in highly-prized defense god Bob Shoop. This game will come unglued at the hands of Tech’s defensive rebuild, which shouldn’t be anywhere near prepared for Tennessee’s pace. This game will be fun for a bit, but eventually settle and disappoint a huge national audience. TENNESSEE 35, Va TECH 21

 

 

 

9/17 vs Ohio. The Bobcats come to Bob’s House to meet what will, by then, be a Vols team that knows their way around executing their schemes to the tune of live action. And unfortunately for Ohio, Tennessee will have already beaten a pair of superior opponents, compared to the middling representatives from the MAC. The Bobcats will have their strengths, but you don’t want to make a trip to Neyland with diminished running and passing depth, and while rebuilding your secondary and your offensive line. Look for a Dormady and John Kelly appearance in this one as soon as Butch can get them in, shifting focus at halftime to resting for the huge games on the horizon. Vols will skate and the O-cats may just goose egg this one. TENNESSEE 42, OHIO 3

 

9/24 vs Florida. Eleven. This is a streak that should have ended with the Bray/Hunter/Rogers passing attack in 2011. Every year since, Tennessee has appeared in position to walk away from the never-ending misery of being owned by your most hated opponent. That opponent, the Florida Gators, also boast one of college football’s most notoriously nasty fan bases. Tennessee fans are raked over the message board coals year-round, and until the Vols break the curse, the pain continues. So… like every year… this year’s Tennessee team looks like the one. The problem is, even though Florida has more question marks and fewer sure-bet talents on the 2016 roster, they are still Florida. The school sits in the middle of one of America’s crown jewels for high school talent, and Florida still constantly reloads with playmakers. This year’s Gators will come into Knoxville with problems, but none of those problems are significantly more serious than the problems they’ve brought into this game in the last 5 years. The Gators will come into Knoxville relatively fresh, after opening the season with (what ought to be) a trio of eyerolls against Umass, North Texas, and the Kentucky Wildcats. This is optimal for Tennessee, as Neyland can be shocking for teams that haven’t faced real noise/hostility on their schedule yet. But it was mighty loud in 2014, too. Just like much of 2015, Tennessee has to defeat itself in this one. Alabama and Florida and Oklahoma couldn’t beat Tennessee without a strong assist from the Vols. The composure to finally stop beating themselves is the one way to Atlanta. The composure to stop beating themselves, on a coaching and player level, decides this game every year, and all the talent and dominance the Vols have built up are not stronger than that composure. With it, nothing can stop Tennessee in 2016. Without that composure…oh lord. A big part of winning this game, in our opinion, is not letting this game feel like a circus. This Tennessee team already will enter this game with the weight of the world in expectations on their shoulders. No Tennessee fan should need a boost in game day experience to get up for this. When Florida came to Tennessee in 2014, the game felt like a huge spectacle, from Lil Jon talking trash on the big screen to the weird guitar solo guy in the stands. You have to let this game be as important as it is, and limit the additives. A focused game breaks for the Vols in a big way. Florida cannot win this mismatch on their own. If the Vols don’t help the Gators: TENNESSEE 33, FLORIDA 17.

 

 

10/1 @ Georgia. Things don’t relax for Tennessee for a while, and that starts with their first actual road game, traveling to Athens. The 2016 Bulldogs, like every year, are sitting on a wealth of talent, but also an unusual amount of uncertainty. The Dawgs hired long-sought-after coach Kirby Smart away from Alabama. Any time you change coaching regimes, the first year can be dicey. Major boom/bust potential in Georgia is amplified by a change at Quarterback and along both lines. Another major point of concern is how Nick Chubb will run after last year’s devastating knee injury. Georgia’s 2015 offense was predicated around him, and suffered without him. If growing pains are an issue and Chubb isn’t what he once was, Tennessee could expect to find themselves in a more comfortable situation than usual on the road. Back in reality, there are no easy Saturdays for visitors between the hedges. Tennessee will need to exploit the changes happening on both Georgia’s offensive and (especially) the defensive line, where the Bulldogs had to replace everyone. Georgia will head into fall camp with a quarterback battle and a very young receiving corps, so there should be opportunities to exploit the passing-game inexperience and force the Dawgs to play one-dimensional offense. Georgia will be coming off a pair of conference road games, including what could be a miserable trip to Ole Miss. So, there are a lot of factors heading into this game, including a potentially rejuvenated Tennessee, if they’re coming off a long-desired win against Florida. Georgia will likely see the top of the SEC with their young talent and upgraded coaching (shout out to Jim Chaney), but with too many questions at QB and both lines, Tennessee should gut out their first big time test.

TENNESSEE 28, GEORGIA 20.

(NOTE: I also predict major tension between Tennessee defensive interior and Georgia OL Brandon Kublanow, who delivered a (there’s no nice way to put it) filthy hit on rising-star Freshman Shy Tuttle which shattered his leg and ended an amazing first year. Tuttle still hasn’t seen the field, but is expected to be nearing full-strength by camp. This narrative will flare up in the week before the game. Mark it.)

 

10/8 @ Texas A&M. This is going to be a weird week for Tennessee. Pinned between a hard and uncertain trip to Athens and a historically massive clash with the SEC resident monster Alabama, the Vols have to travel to a very difficult and unfamiliar place. Any game in-between Georgia and Alabama would be a trap game, by all historical definition. Add to that one of the nations most talented defenses, coordinated by John Chavis, who has a long-standing enmity against the Vols, rooted in the fall-out surrounding the end times of Vols coach Phillip Fulmer. Now add to that Trevor Knight, an Oklahoma transfer that picked Tennessee apart when the Vols last visited the Sooners. And he’ll be throwing to a talented group of wideouts, including the troubled but supremely talented rising junior, Speedy Noil. So, it’s not your classic trap game. It’s a weird trap game, because it would’ve been a medium-difficulty game no matter where it fell, but it falls into an energy vacuum between giant, red-letter games between Georgia and Alabama. The determining factor in this game will be whether or not Aggie coach Kevin Sumlin can keep all that talent safe from the A&M trend of wasted potential. There are plenty of signs that Texas A&M is trending towards a mess which could end Sumlin’s stay in College Station. If that mess comes to call this year, the Vols will make quick work of the Aggies.

Any average (or above) Aggie team, though, will be a big problem for what is sure to be a physically and emotionally exhausted Tennessee team in desperate need of a week off. I think UT will have a chance to win this one, but you have to think the emotional heights of the previous two weeks will rob the Vols of the extra gear when faced with a game they have no real emotional investment in. If A&M is in turmoil, it’s going to be a big day for even a weary Tennessee team, but we’re expecting that this game will simply mean more to an Aggie team searching for an identity.

TEXAS A&M 28, TENNESSEE 24

 

10/15 vs Alabama. The damn Tide, in Neyland, against what should be the best Tennessee team in over a decade. This rivalry will finally return to legitimate relevance in 2016. Alabama will have faced Ole Miss on the road already at this point, and will (like the Vols) be in their 7th straight game without a bye weekend. Saban and company will also be coming off of a trip to Fayetteville to face the always-grimy Arkansas Razorbacks, a game the Tide cannot phone in. They are an amazing team, year in, year out, but they are still mortal. So, don’t make fatigue an excuse for Tennessee. Weaponizing Neyland Stadium will be more important than ever for this team, as this game is really an opportunity to not just finally stop the bleeding of hard recent years for Tennessee football, but to declare themselves rightful contenders, instead of scrappy underdogs. There is no reason for Tennessee to lose this game. Alabama might be the best team in the country, but they were better last year and had Tennessee at home and barely pulled it off. If the Vols fall to A&M, I think they come into this game on fire. If they win at A&M, I think they come into this game even better. Might be wrong/crazy, but let’s go with it while it feels realistic. TENNESSEE 24, ALABAMA 17 and we celebrate for 2 straight weeks.

 

10/29 @ South Carolina. Whether the Vols drop both or split the previous two games against A&M and Bama, Will Muschamp and his deeply depleted South Carolina team will have to face a tough, efficient Tennessee team that plays very fast and very angry. Muschamp helped build this grimier, meaner Tennessee in his tenure at Florida, and this game really will serve as a dose of karma for the Vols. There are questions at QB heading into fall camp for the Gamecocks and that’s really the best news for them. They will be short on depth everywhere else and likely still adjusting to a Muschamp scheme that rarely even worked at Florida with more talent. TENNESSEE 28, SOUTH CAROLINA 10

 

 

11/5 vs Tennessee Tech. Hashtag Bloodbath. This game will disappoint if we don’t get at least ONE special teams “house call” from Sutton and/or Berry. Dormady and John Kelly will get serious reps in this one. Not much to talk about, honestly.

TENNESSEE 10000000, TENNESSEE TECH ?

 

 

 

 

 

11/12 vs. Kentucky. It’s hard to imagine a world where Tennessee ever takes Kentucky for granted again, after a Dooley-era humiliation that broke Tennessee’s decades-long streak against the Wildcats. The Butch Jones era has been particularly cruel to Kentucky the past two years, and the Cats will now face the fully-realized version of Jones’s Vols. Kentucky has stepped up its recruiting under Coach Stoops, will have a young, but quite talented, Quarterback in Drew Barker, and equally fierce/fragile running back Boom Williams is always a serious threat when healthy. But … there is a reality to face, if you’re Mark Stoops. That reality is that Kentucky has become traditionally, regularly terrible on defense. In spite of improved recruiting, the Wildcats will have very little depth/experience on the defensive side of the ball, and in the SEC, that is a legitimate death sentence. Until Stoops catches up on defense, Kentucky will continue to sag mid-season as their schedule intensifies. Oh, and this game is in Knoxville. Sorry, guys.

TENNESSEE 42, KENTUCKY 13.

 

11/19 vs. Missouri. The Missouri Tigers spent their first two years of SEC play on a magical double-rocket ride to Atlanta. They shocked the conference, winning back to back Eastern titles. And now things are different. In an opposite situation to Kentucky, Missouri is regularly robust on defense. But, though they have reloaded for 2016, the talent level will inch backwards with the departure of Kentrell Brothers. Meanwhile, the Missouri offense…well, it was in bad shape before embattled head coach Gary Pinkel left, and now it is in relative shambles. The Tigers will have between 1 and 0 quality receivers, no depth at running back, and a Drew Lock at QB that has wilted in the face of expectations, to this point. All this while installing a new head coach, Missouri will only win games in 2016 on the will of their defense, and in Knoxville, that will not be enough.

TENNESSEE 28, MISSOURI 3

 

11/26 @ Vanderbilt. Ah, the school in Nashville. After some weirdly glorious years for Vanderbilt under James Franklin, the Commodores have recessed to their historical role, battling Kentucky for the title of SEC tackling dummy. Mason is a very good coach who happened to take a traditionally difficult job. When he inevitably leaves Vanderbilt, it’s likely that he’ll do very well with a less challenging hill to climb than keeping Vanderbilt football respectable as an SEC contender. That being said, I believe Mason has made Vandy as good as they can be, and this year, they’ll have a few more pieces to work with, particularly on offense. Unfortunately, even at absolutely full-strength, Vanderbilt would struggle with Tennessee’s depth and pace. Instead, the Anchor Downers get the Vols after trips to Auburn and Missouri, followed by a potentially punishing visit from SEC-West powerhouse Ole Miss. It could be a very demoralizing homestretch for Vanderbilt.

TENNESSEE 45, VANDERBILT 14.

 

So, we started out aiming to predict 10-2, and still believe that might be the smart bet for the 2016 Vols, but in the process, couldn’t commit to worse than 11-1, based on depth, experience, and a general Tennessee desire to not re-live the heartbreak of 2015. The difference-maker last year was an absence of killer instinct in the Tennessee Volunteers. If that extra gear reveals itself in 2016, the Vols will finally find themselves on the dishing-out end of punishment in the SEC, at long last. Experience is no longer an issue. Talent is no longer an issue. Quality depth is no longer an issue. The Vols should be scary fast on offense and scary-deep on defense. The unmet challenge of last year is to simply finish in the big moments. If Tennessee manages to get out of its own way, they may find very few others standing between Butch’s Brick Squad and the ultimate goal, which lies in Atlanta and beyond.

 

Next month, we’ll be covering fall camp. The droning madness of the no-football season is nearly over. Be still my heart.

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