College football countdown: Will Tennessee make the Playoff?
Note: Over the next two weeks leading into the first full slate of college football games, we will take a look at 14 of the top teams heading into 2016 and analyze their chances at making the 2016 College Football Playoff. We continue this series with Tennessee, a team that finished 9-4 last year and is ranked ninth in the 2016 AP preseason top 25 poll.
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Anthony Chiusano: In the wake of this morning's first AP top 25 poll, let's continue our countdown with newly-ranked No. 9 Tennessee.
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Tennessee's four losses last year came by a combined 17 points, including a deflating double overtime loss to Oklahoma in Week 2 when the Volunteers blew a three-score lead to allow the Sooners back in the game.
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This team is ready to win and will prove that it belongs at the top of the class of the strong SEC. A Playoff spot may follow right behind.
Ryan Cooper: A year of experience certainly helps, and I do expect Tennessee to be able to turn around some of those nail-biting finishes. But the reason why the Volunteers were in so many close games doesn't seem to be changing: it's an all-defense, low-offense team.
Now there's nothing wrong with that style of play, and it often lends itself to some very entertaining football and keeps a team in the thick of every game. But low scoring does mean a lot of close games, and there is such a thin margin for error when only four teams get in. If Tennessee coughs up just one or two of those close ones, that could be it for its chances.
AC: You're right about its defense being a strength with All-conference defensive end Derek Barnett back to lead the charge. But the Volunteers' offense isn't too far behind.
In fact, I think Tennessee can prove to be one of the best offenses in its conference -- let alone its division -- in 2016.
Under center, Joshua Dobbs is a strong decision maker and accurate passer that is primed to continue to develop in his third season. While he doesn't have the most dynamic wide receivers at his disposal, he makes the right throws (3:1 touchdown to interception ratio in 2015) and you can count on him to be a top-two SEC quarterback this season alongside Ole Miss' Chad Kelly.
Then there's the multi-faceted Jalen Hurd, who often gets forgotten about with the conference's strong group of premier running backs. Hurd is a strong runner, above-average pass catcher and solid pass protector. Behind Hurd and Dobbs, Tennessee's offense should be able to hang in there with any team.
There's only room for growth with this offense.
RC: I agree with you that Dobbs and Hurd are very good weapons on offense, but let's talk about who Dobbs is supposed to be throwing to. The main receiving option is expected to be junior Josh Malone. Malone, while he has good size and speed, averaged just 11.8 yards per reception over his first two years.
That hardly screams No. 1 receiver, and it could force the Volunteers to go extremely run-heavy on offense.
When you look at the schedule you see Alabama, Florida and Missouri, three of the best run defenses the nation has to offer.
AC: A very good point. It will be interesting to see who -- if anyone -- will step up among the corps and give Dobbs a reliable option to go to.
Nonetheless, Tennessee showed last year that it can be competitive with the top teams in the nation. While the loss to the Sooners was a heartbreaker, Oklahoma still wound up being the No. 3 team in the country entering the CFP. Then against the national champions in Alabama, a late touchdown from Heisman winner Derrick Henry was what it took to give the Tide a narrow 19-14 victory.
These showings have to give Tennessee hope entering this year when it plays the same two teams, ranked No. 3 and No. 1 again respectively. And with this great strength in schedule, the Volunteers don't have to pull out two tremendous upsets. As long as they keep it close - and maybe pick up one statement win - they will earn a deal of respect.
If Tennessee can play up to this top competition once again, take care of division rivals No. 18 Georgia and No. 25 Florida and get to the SEC title game, the Volunteers will be right where it needs to be. Assuming that Alabama does what it is expected to do and once again wins the SEC West crown, I think this Volunteers team is the most-equipped in the conference to outlast what will be a defensive battle.
It's a tall task no doubt, but it would certainly be quite a story come Playoff time.