Tennessee is loaded entering the 2016 season, but can the Vols exorcise old demons and finally win the SEC East?
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A cool breeze blew through Neyland Stadium on a recent Saturday. Dozens of recruits in town for a junior day were being ferried back to the football complex so coaches could make their hard sells to come to Tennessee. On the field, players recovered from a scrimmage and mingled with their parents and siblings on family day. The Tennessee students who had come to watch their team practice were dispersing to enjoy the remainder of a sunny afternoon. The speakers boomed a song that matched the mood, but that tune's title offered an inescapable reminder of what the Volunteers have worked for. It was Earth, Wind and Fire's "September."
The Vols face Virginia Tech at a NASCAR track in a town that straddles Tennessee and Virginia on Sept. 10. Two weeks later, Florida will visit and bring its 11-game series win streak in tow. A week after that, on the day the calendar turns, Tennessee will play at Georgia. By then, the Vols may already know if they've taken advantage of the window that has opened.
When we say window, we don't mean an opening on the side of a house. We mean it the way they mean it at NASA. The Vols have an opening in which they can blast back into college football's upper echelon. There is no dominant program in the SEC East at the moment, and Tennessee finally has the roster it needs after some painful rebuilding. But because this team is constructed around such a strong core of juniors and seniors, that window might close unless the Vols can ascend this season. Recruits bought hope, but soon they'll begin demanding results. This team can provide those results.
"We were talking about it as recruits, as freshmen," said junior tailback Jalen Hurd, who teamed with defensive end Derek Barnett as the crown jewels of the 2014 class that reinvigorated the program. "We're still talking about it. We're just talking about the opportunity we have and taking advantage of it."
Tennessee has made all sorts of headlines this offseason, and few of them have been good. The program is facing a Title IX lawsuit filed by women who claims to have been sexually assaulted by Tennessee athletes. Coach Butch Jones's handling of a November 2014 case involving former Vols A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams has drawn intense scrutiny. Just this week, The (Nashville, Tenn.)Tennessean published a story that suggests courtesy calls from Knoxville police chief David Rausch to Jones on the day after the incident may have violated state law. (Presumably, Rausch would be the one who violated it if he relayed information that could have compromised the investigation.) Jones has maintained he did nothing improper. Williams and Johnson were suspended the day after the calls in question and ultimately dismissed from the team. They were indicted in February 2015 and are currently awaiting trial on rape charges. Jones is also facing scrutiny for allegedly calling former player Drae Bowles a "traitor" for reporting the rape allegations.
The Title IX case will remain an issue for Jones and the leadership of Tennessee's athletic department, but it does not involve any of Tennessee's current players. That group is preparing for a football season. That season should be special. The Vols came within a few inches—the distance their final field goal attempt missed by in Gainesville—from winning the SEC East in 2015. The Vols led by one in the final minutes against eventual national champion Alabama before giving up a Derrick Henry touchdown with 2:24 to play. They have gone from afterthought when Jones arrived to darkhorse to division favorite. Now, they need to prove they can finish.
That, along with building depth, has been one of the goals of the spring practice that ends Saturday with the spring game in Neyland Stadium. "We learned, and we see what we did," Hurd said. "We need to work on our four-minute offense. We need to work on closing out games, work on our fourth quarters."
The losses that stung the most came against eventual Big 12 champ and playoff participant Oklahoma and against hated rival Florida. Against the Sooners, the Vols led 17–3 in the fourth quarter and wound up losing 31–24 in two overtimes. Two weeks later in Gainesville was even more painful and ultimately much more costly. When Hurd talks about working on the four-minute offense, he's essentially talking about when the Vols got the ball with 4:09 remaining and a six-point lead. In three plays, they gained zero yards and ran 50 seconds off the clock. Then they punted. Four plays later, the Gators faced fourth-and-14 at their own 37. Tennessee's defense allowed Will Grier to find a wide-open Antonio Calloway, who raced for a 63-yard touchdown. Tennessee still had a chance to hit a 50-yard field goal to win the game, but the Vols got backed up five yards for a substitution infraction that backed them up five yards. Still, Aaron Medley's 55-yarder only missed by inches.
That comedy of errors was the difference between going to Atlanta and another season without a title of any kind. But once the shock of the loss—and the subsequent loss to Arkansas—wore off, it became obvious the Vols had dramatically improved since the dark days of the Derek Dooley era. They had come so close, but maybe they had learned enough lessons to finally break through.
A look at the bodies at Tennessee's spring practice tells the story. Even though a host of starters are injured and won't be back until preseason camp, even the backups look like they belong on a good SEC team. That wasn't the case in Dooley's final year or Jones's first two. There aren't many competitions for starting jobs this spring. Tennessee returns a veteran at almost every position. Hurd and Alvin Kamara might be the SEC's best tailback tandem. Barnett and Corey Vereen should terrorize opposing quarterbacks. Josh Dobbs is an established, respected starter at quarterback, and if anything happens to him Quinten Dormady looks ready to lead the offense.
Jones has repeated a stat to all his constituents—recruits, fans and players—that points out just how close the Vols are to what they want. In their last 18 games, they are 13–5. Those five losses were decided by a total of 25 points. "We're looking for those 25 points," Jones told the students who assembled for that practice.
They hope to find them with Dobbs and the backs and a long receiving corps or they hope to take them away with a defense now led by former nemesis Bob Shoop. Shoop was James Franklin's defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt during the blackest days when the Commodores beat the Vols two years in a row. Shoop went with Franklin to Penn State, but opted to return to the SEC for a slight raise ($1 million to $1.15 million) and the knowledge that if he can help make Tennessee's late collapses disappear, he'll be in position to run his own program.
Everything seems to have aligned for Tennessee on the field, but the Vols still must actually win the games. Florida cornerback Jalen Tabor reminded them of that this week after ESPN's Football Power Index predicted Tennessee to be the SEC East's best team. In one since-deleted tweet, Tabor reminded his followers that some unknown "they" had picked the Vols each of the past three meetings with the Gators. "I feel sorry for they," Tabor wrote. The only way Tennessee can end the trash talk is by winning that game, which kicks off an eight-day stretch that could go a long way toward deciding the division.
The reason for the urgency is a potential talent drain that could cause a dip in 2017. Jones had to apologize in 2015 when NFL scouts came to Knoxville for pro day because the Vols had so few prospects to show off. That won't be an issue next year. Along with quality seniors such as Dobbs, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cam Sutton, it's possible Hurd, Barnett, Kamara, receiver Josh Malone and several others could leave eligibility on the table and enter the NFL.
That class of 2014 came to Tennessee with a mission to make the Vols relevant again. This season may be the best chance. "We've had our ups and downs," Hurd said, "and now it's time to have our ups."
The window is open. The Vols now must choose to fly through it.