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VOL. 132 | NO. 169 | Friday, August 25, 2017

By the End of This Season for Vols, 9-4 Might Not Look so Bad

By Don Wade

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Tennessee fans would have loved a nine-win season under Derek Dooley. They were giddy at preseason talk about a resurgent program and a widespread belief the Vols were the favorites to win the SEC East Division title last year.

But when Butch Jones and his team failed to deliver on the great expectations for 2016, finishing 9-4 for a second straight season and in a second-placed tie in the East, fans grumbled.

Jones arrived in Knoxville four years ago pledging to build the program “brick by brick.” After going 5-7 in 2013, UT has gone 7-6, 9-4, and 9-4 and won three consecutive bowl games.

Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Quinten Dormady (12) is flushed from the pocket during a game against the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles on Nov. 5, 2016, at Neyland Stadium. Tennessee defeated the Golden Eagles 55-0. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

“There’s a lot of positives,” said senior offensive lineman Jashon Robertson.

Just not enough to keep criticism of Jones at bay.

Some of that, of course, was the head coach’s own doing. His comments at season’s end that the value for his players was in being champions in life, if not of the SEC, riled the orange-clad masses. At SEC Media Days, he essentially doubled-down on this notion when he said he had told his players that not winning a title would provide “resolve” and “resiliency” and “serve you for many years down the road in life.”

Jones later added, “This is a results-oriented business and we fell short of our goals. But I don’t like to use the term ‘disappointment,’ because when you still look at it, it’s hard to win in this conference.”

For Tennessee, it likely will be more difficult to win in this conference than it was the previous two years.

The Vols Overachieve if …

Quinten Dormady settles in at quarterback sooner rather than later, the linebackers and secondary can carry a defense that has less experience up front, and the Vols can notch a huge road win – say Sept. 16 at Florida or, if really dreaming big, Oct. 21 at Alabama.

Quarterback Josh Dobbs, running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Josh Malone were main cogs in the offense and are now gone. Defensive end Derek Barnett and cornerback Cam Sutton were headliners on the defense and are now gone.

“Those guys are great, but they’re not on the team anymore,” said senior defensive lineman Kendal Vickers. “It gets tiresome.”

Meaning, time to move on.

“Not saying we didn’t have this mentality last year, but we’re very hungry this year,” Vickers said. “We know what we lost (NFL draft picks). Anytime you have guys that want to be great, you want to go to war with those guys. It’s a new year. We just want to get on with it.”

Perhaps the biggest question heading into the season is how the offense will get on without Dobbs at the controls. There’s even a new coordinator directing things, as tight ends coach Larry Scott was promoted by Jones after previous OC Mike DeBord left for the same position at Indiana.

The Vols Underachieve if …

They are again on the wrong side of turnover margin. They were -2 last season, which tied them for 78th nationally, but they had enough talent to overcome a certain amount of mistakes. Overall, the talent is down in the starting unit and if there’s a quarterback shuffle the schedule is tough enough that a bowl game is not certain.

Junior Quinten Dormady is expected to be the starter when UT opens vs. Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Sept. 4. There may be fewer read-option type plays with Dormady at QB, but Jones has insisted the offense will not undergo radical change.

With Kamara gone, John Kelly emerges as the lead running back after rushing for 612 yards last season and averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Junior receiver Jauan Jennings had 40 catches for 580 yards and seven touchdowns and will be the go-to-target. The Vols will also need to get more from tight end Ethan Wolf, who had 21 receptions in 2016. Robertson is one of three returning starters on the offensive front.

Virtually no one is picking the Vols to win the East this season and some have suggested that Jones starts the year on the proverbial hot seat.

“It’s a little disrespectful,” said Vickers. “When I got here, we were 5-7 and I was redshirted. Things were bad. For us to win three straight bowl games, us being 9-4 … we haven’t won every game and we go out to win every game, but he’s changed the program so much. He’s done everything he’s possibly been able to do to change the culture at Tennessee.”

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